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Ferret Owners Beware – a Fatal Disease Common in Unmated Females

Female Domestic Ferrets that are not allowed to breed often contract a life-threatening disease known as Estrus-Associated Aplastic Anemia.  Spaying your Ferret before she enters her first estrus cycle (the period during which she can become pregnant, also known as “heat”) is the best defense against this and other reproductive disorders.

A Unique Breeding Strategy

Ferrets and other members of the family Mustelidae (weasels, mink, otters and related species) have evolved a unique reproductive strategy known as induced ovulation.  Unlike most mammals, female Ferrets do not ovulate (release eggs so that they may be fertilized) until the act of mating has occurred. 

Another unusual twist to the breeding biology of Domestic Ferrets is the fact that unmated females will remain in their estrus cycle until they mate, or are spayed or chemically induced to ovulate.  This phenomenon is not well studied in wild Ferret relatives, but has serious consequences for pet Ferrets (and, of course, for those who care for them).

Aplastic Anemia: Causes and Treatments

Remaining in estrus for unnaturally long periods, as would be the case for unmated pets, causes the female to be exposed to continually high levels of circulating estrogen.  This in turn suppresses bone marrow production, and leads to a typically fatal bout of Aplastic Anemia.  A swollen vulva and pale gums are the most easily discernible signs of the disease.

Aplastic Anemia is, as mentioned, best prevented by spaying at the appropriate time, but injections of Human Chorionic Gonadotrophin have also proven successful.  While mating your female may seem to be an ideal option, Ferret breeding is far from a simple prospect.  Inbreeding depression and Staph/E. coli infections, along with other complications, are common (please write in for further information).

Adrenal Gland Disorders

Domestic Ferrets are also prone to Adrenal Gland disorders, which may or may not be related to the female’s reproductive cycle.  Hair loss and a swollen belly are common indications that something is amiss with the Adrenal Glands.

Surgical removal of one or both Adrenals is possible, and several medications hold promise.  Recent studies have indicated that regular treatment with Lupron (Leuprolide acetate) may both treat and even prevent some of the most common Adrenal Gland problems (please see article below).


Further Reading

Lupron Therapy for Ferrets:  written by Doctor Kevin Wright, a recognized leader in the field of exotic animal medicine.  Please see the numerous related articles on the website as well.

The History of Ferret Domestication

Feral Ferrets: Domestics Gone Wild

Pathology of the Domestic Ferret: reproductive and other disorders.


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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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