What are Respiratory Infections?

If a ferret has contracted an infection in the upper respiratory tract, common symptoms can include sneezing, nasal and ocular discharged, along with open mouth breathing. A ferret suffering from lower respiratory infection will display symptoms such as respiratory crackles, wheezing, coughing and labored breathing.

Ferrets are very susceptible to acquiring a variety of respiratory infections that can be localized in the upper or lower respiratory tract. The upper respiratory tract of the ferret includes the nose, nasal passages, sinuses, larynx and trachea. The lower respiratory tract is limited to the bronchi and the lungs. 

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Symptoms of Respiratory Infections in Ferrets

Respiratory infections in ferrets usually mimic symptoms similar to the human cold such as: 

  • Sneezing
  • Coughing 
  • Nasal discharge

Additional symptoms of a respiratory infection in ferrets include:

  • Ocular discharge
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Respiratory crackles
  • Wheezing 
  • Labored breathing

The symptoms a ferret displays may include all or just a few of the listed symptoms.

Causes of Respiratory Infections in Ferrets

A respiratory infections in ferrets can be caused by direct or indirect exposure to an infected ferret, cat, dog or human. Common diseases of the respiratory system seen in ferrets include the following:

Human Influenza

Human influenza is caused by a virus, including the seasonal type A, the H1N1 influenza and the avian influenza. Ferrets contract this virus from their pet owners and is more serious in young, or older ferrets. A ferret with this type of respiratory infection will display clinical signs of decreased appetite, nasal discharge, eye discharge, lethargy, coughing, sneezing and fever. Treatment of ferret influenza includes supportive care, fluid therapy, antibiotics and anti-influenza medication. 

Canine Distemper

Canine distemper is a highly contagious virus that can be transferred from an infected dog. A ferret with canine distemper will display clinical signs including; fever, anorexia, nasal discharge, skin rashes and neurological problems. Ferret distemper is fatal and only a vaccination can prevent this life-threatening virus. 

Aleutian Disease

Aleutian disease is a parvovirus that causes direct damage to the lungs in ferret kits and a chronic cough in adult ferrets. Ferrets with Aleutian disease do not respond to antibiotics or cough suppressants, and there is no vaccine available to prevent this condition. 

Coronavirus

Coronavirus is a viral disease that typically affects the gastrointestinal tract of a ferret, but can easily spread to other organs through the blood. As a result, the infection causes a form of pneumonia that is fatal, especially to young ferrets. Treating this infection usually involves fluid therapy, antibiotics, and an immune suppressant. 

Bacterial Infections

Bacterial infections are caused by bacteria strains including Bordetella, Pseudomonas, Klebsiella, E. coli and Streptococcus. Bacterial respiratory infections cause rhinitis, sinusitis, and pneumonia. 

Fungal Infections

Fungal infections are common in outdoor ferrets that are exposed to soil and fungal spores. 

Aspiration Pneumonia 

Aspiration pneumonia is caused by liquids or foods entering the lungs. This form of respiratory infection is common in ill patients that are force fed or those with megaesophagus. Aspiration pneumonia is usually treated with supportive care, fluid therapy and antibiotics. 

Diagnosis of Respiratory Infections in Ferrets

Following a thorough review of your ferret’s medical history and performing a physical exam, the veterinarian will proceed to perform logical diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of the problem. The veterinarian will likely request the following diagnostic tests: 

  • A CBC (complete blood cell count): A blood test used to evaluate the number of circulating platelets, red and white blood cells. 
  • A biochemistry profile: A blood test that provides information on the amount of electrolytes and gastrointestinal enzymes the ferret is making. This blood test also indicates the functionality of the pet’s organs and overall internal health. 
  • Urinalysis: An examination of the urine to screen for infection, metabolic conditions and damage to the kidneys. 
  • Thoracic x-rays: Imaging of the chest containing the heart, lungs and upper digestive tract. 
  • Abdominal x-rays: Imaging of the abdominal cavity. 
  • Endoscopy: The use of a fiber-optic camera placed inside the esophagus, lower airways, or trachea for evaluation purposes. 

Treatment of Respiratory Infections in Ferrets

Treatment of respiratory infections in ferrets is primarily therapeutic. Antibiotics, nutritional support, and oxygen therapy are often used to relieve the discomfort of the condition. 

Recovery of Respiratory Infections in Ferrets

Ferrets with minor upper respiratory infections usually clear up within a few days if the pet is otherwise healthy. A ferret may need a longer recovery period if the infection is located in the lower respiratory system or is chronically ill.