One of the more common health issues ferrets are prone to is developing tumours (lesions) on the adrenal gland. The first sign is generally hair loss.
Although these lesions are themselves not generally life threatening and tumour metastasis is rare, it is important for ferret owners to understand that the alopecia (hair loss) associated with adrenal tumours is not merely cosmetic. The health changes seen in ferrets with adrenal disease are cumulative and progressive. Ferrets with adrenal lesions do not just lose their hair — they also lose muscle mass, have little energy and a poor quality of life
Ferrets with adrenal lesions — including areas of hyperplasia as well as both benign and malignant neoplasms of the adrenal cortex — will typically all show the same clinical signs. In the majority of cases these are so characteristic no further diagnostic tests are required.
Adrenal lesions may be seen in animals ranging from one to seven years of age, with the average being around 3.5 years.
Hair loss, or alopecia, is by far the most common clinical sign. It usually begins at the tail, progressing forward over the trunk, flanks, and abdomen until hair is only present on the neck, head, and paws.
In speyed females the vulva will often become swollen and a watery mucus discharge from the vulva may also be seen.
Other clinical signs may include increased scratching, excessive drinking and urination, anemia and weight loss. In advanced cases difficulty in using the hind legs may be observed.
The only treatment for adrenal disease in ferrets is the surgical removal of the affected adrenal gland. In most cases one gland, usually the left, is found to be noticeably larger than the other and is removed. Removal of one adrenal gland is generally successful in treating the condition. In most cases, if disease is confined to that gland, the hair will grow back and the swollen vulva will diminish to its previous size.
In animals with bilateral disease, i.e., where both adrenal glands are affected, removal of one gland and part of another can be done, but carries a more significant risk of post-operative complications. Bilateral adrenal disease is seen in only about 8% of affected ferrets.
Removal of the left adrenal is fairly easy and has a low risk of complication. The right adrenal gland, because it is located near several large blood vessels, is more difficult to remove. Fortunately, the left adrenal gland accounts for about 64% of all lesions.
The surgery is not especially complex and the prognosis is reasonably good for most patients undergoing the surgery.