Ferret Friendly Facts and Advice by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

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A Flea-Free Ferret!

 
 
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Summer's Biggest Problem: Fleas on Your Ferret!

Erika Matulich

Itch, itch, ITCH! Morgan leaped awake from his sleep sack and violently scratched. Uh-oh, better check for fleas. Although the "jump and itch" is common ferret behavior, during the summer it's a good idea to look for fleas. I blew on Morgan's fur on his neck and belly, and sure enough, a black spot was cruising along. I immobilized the flea with a drop of liquid soap and smashed it. But now it was time for the real work to begin. One flea will have other ferret-feeding friends!

How to find the fleas
When the weather gets warm and humid, ferrets get fleas. This often happens when other house pets carry fleas in from outside. Flea eggs can remain dormant for up to two years waiting for victims, so if you moved or bought used furniture, a flea attack may surprise you. Check your ferret by running a flea comb through her fur, or blow on her fur to see the skin. Fleas are reddish brown to black and about the size of a pencil tip. Dark specks in the fur that look like dirt are flea droppings. Look for fleas and their residue between your ferret's shoulder blades and on her stomach.

Some ferrets are more allergic to fleas than others and may develop bald patches or inflamed, scabby skin in addition to itching. Ferrets scratch for a number of reasons (some serious and some not), so don't assume your ferret has fleas until you've seen one on him.

Getting rid of the fleas
To rid a ferret of fleas, first bathe him with flea shampoo. Check the shampoo label: It must be suitable for kittens. The active flea-killing ingredient should be pyrethrins. Don't use anything containing organophosphates, carbamates or petroleum distillates. They may be harmful to ferrets. Use a flea comb to remove fleas from the ferret's face, and keep soap away from eyes and nose. Avoid most pet sprays and all dips; they are toxic and could harm your ferret. Flea powders cause lung problems in ferrets. A new product designed specifically for ferrets is the flea towelette. These wipes are easy to use, kill existing fleas and repel future fleas for another two weeks.

Treating the house
Next, treat the ferret's environment. Launder all bedding in hot water. Treat floors with flea spray or powder, then vacuum (don't let your ferrets touch floors until it is safe to do so). Don't put carpet flea powders directly on your ferret. You can use cut-up flea collars in your vacuum cleaner bag to kill flea eggs inside. Flea collars, however, should never be used on a ferret. They contain dichlorvos, which causes severe skin irritation and can lead to serious health problems. On the nonchemical side, many natural flea repellents contain cedar oils, which are also toxic to ferrets. Check ingredients carefully.

For a serious infestation, ask your veterinarian for flea bombs containing methoprene (a flea growth regulator). This wide-area bomb needs two applications: one to kill adults and larvae and another two weeks later to get any fleas that have hatched since the first spray. You must remove your ferret from the house when bombing.

Flea prevention for ferrets
Several new flea eradication products provide long-term relief for ferrets, although none has been tested specifically for ferret use. Frontline spray (manufactured by Merial) is the product most often recommended for ferrets by veterinarians, because of its low toxicity level. The Frontline products kill all fleas and ticks within a few hours of application. One dose lasts a month or more. The product isn't affected by sunlight or shampooing. If your ferret has allergies or is sensitive to chemicals, you may want to avoid Frontline because it can't be washed off. Many ferrets (like mine) hate being sprayed, so after battling with my fur-kids, I switched to Frontline TopSpot, a product you apply in drops to the pet's neck. One dose of Frontline TopSpot for cats is good for two ferrets. Put the half dose (12 drops or 0.25 ml) between your ferret's shoulder blades. The drops are more concentrated than the spray, so using them could increase reaction risks, but I have had no problems with any of my ferrets.

Advantage (by Bayer) has a similar "drop on the neck" product. The product is somewhat more toxic than Frontline and does not kill ticks. Don't apply these drops if your ferret has a cut: The alcohol base stings. Other products, such as BioSpot and Defend, are more toxic and are not considered safe for ferrets. Further studies are necessary on these products before they can be labeled for ferret use. The main advantage of "drop on the neck" products is that they kill fleas before they bite your ferret and they last at least a month. In fact, any flea that hops on a treated ferret becomes paralyzed and falls off, so my mother borrows my ferrets to sweep around her patio and kill fleas.

Two other alternatives are Program (which contains lufenuron) and Sentinel, monthly oral tablets that put flea-killing chemicals in your ferret's bloodstream. Use the cat dosage per pound for your ferret, and feed with a meal. When the flea ingests the ferret's blood, it lays sterile eggs. The disadvantage is that fleas must bite your ferret first, and it takes several months to break the breeding cycle. The long-term toxic effects of lufenuron in the ferret's bloodstream have not been studied. Program and Sentinel can be used at the same time as Advantage or Frontline.

Why the flea fuss?
Aside from skin infection and allergies, flea bites cause ferrets to lose sleep, stop eating and become irritable. Also, it doesn't take many flea bites to cause anemia from lack of blood. Fleas can also transmit diseases, and if a flea is accidentally ingested, tapeworms (intestinal parasites) can be a serious problem. Flea infestations can be challenging to solve, but patience and continuous treatments will eliminate these parasites.