BEAUTY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP

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Your ferret's skin is its largest organ -- learn how to keep it healthy.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Volume 1, Number 5
September / October 1998
 
Note:
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Disclaimer:
You should not rely on the veterinary advice or information provided on this site for diagnosis or treatment of any specific situation. Always consult your own veterinarian for specific advice concerning the medical condition or treatment of your own pet or animal.

Your Ferretís Skin
The skin is the largest organ of the ferretís body. The skinís most important function is to protect internal organs from injury and infection invasion. The skin is also a sensory organ that is sensitive to touch, temperature, pain, pressure, and itching. Ferret skin also plays a role in keeping body temperature constant.
 
Skin Structure
As with most mammals, the ferretís skin is made up of several layers. The thin, outer layer is called the epidermis. The outermost part of the epidermis is made up of dead skin cells, which form a tough, protective coating. These dead cells wear away and are constantly replaced by new ones from the inner part of the epidermis. The epidermis is thicker on males than on females, and gets thinner as ferrets get older.
 
The second layer of the skin is the dermis, which is a thicker inner layer. The dermis is made up of connective tissue that also contains hair follicles, blood vessels, lymph vessels, and nerves. The dermis also contains sebaceous glands that product an oily substance called sebum. Ferrets have very active sebaceous glands, which are a major determinant of body odor.
 
Thick-Skinned Ferrets
Ferret skin is amazingly thick. When ferrets play and roughhouse with each other, they can nip and feel little discomfort, but if they nip you with the same pressure, it can hurt! Your ferret may not understand that human skin needs a more tender touch. If your ferret nips you too hard, gently scruff him and firmly say "NO!" Do not punish your ferret for biting you by hitting or nose-thumping. In most cases, you would be punishing your ferret for trying to play with you or get your attention. The goal is to just let your ferret know that your skin is more tender than his.
Your ferretís thick skin can also make it more difficult for your veterinarian to give vaccinations. Sometimes vets think "small animal, small needle" but the smaller needles may break off in the ferretís thick skin before penetration. The ideal needle size seems to be 18 gauge. The skin of ferrets is thickest around the neck and shoulders, so many vets prefer to give ferrets shots in the hip.
 
Skin and Body Temperature
In many mammals, the dermis layer of the skin contains sweat glands that produce perspiration and allow rapid cooling of the body. However, ferrets do not have sweat glands in their skin, and quickly succumb to heat prostration, according to Susan A. Brown, DVM. When a ferret gets hot, the blood vessels in the dermis expand in an effort to dissipate the heat. If the ferret is cold, the blood vessels constrict to try to conserve body heat. Ferret skin is better adapted to adjust to cold situations than hot situations.
 
When ferrets sleep, the blood vessels in the dermis may constrict to conserve energy. The ferret may seem slightly cooler than normal. When ferrets wake up, they often "shiver." They are not shivering necessarily because they are cold or scared, but because this is the skinís way of getting blood flow back to the dermis for ferret waking mode.
 
Normal Skin
A healthy ferret should have healthy skin with a smooth appearance and no flakes or scales. Skin color is most often pinkish. Ferrets with lighter fur have more pink skin, and darker ferrets may have greyish skin. Blow gently on your ferretís fur to check out the color and condition of the skin.
 
Dehydration
The epidermis of a ferretís skin has an effective water-holding capacity, which helps keep the skin elastic. The epidermis water also maintains the body balance of fluid and electrolytes. If the water content of the skin drops below a certain level, the skin can develop small cracks. These cracks allow infections to enter the body.
 
Dehydration, or lack of water in the body, can be a serious health risk to your ferret. You can check for dehydration by "tenting" your ferretís skin. This means lightly pinching some skin and pulling upward to form a small tent. When you let go, the skin should return to the body almost immediately. If it takes longer than 2 seconds for the tent to collapse, the ferret is dehydrated. Administer Pedialyte or some form of fluid electrolyte. In cases of severe dehydration, a veterinarian may have to administer fluid. To prevent dehydration, make sure your ferret does not get overheated, and always provide a constant supply of clean, fresh water. Do not add supplements to ferretís water, as this may reduce water intake.
 
My Ferret is Blue! (or Purple! or Yellow! or Orange!)
A ferretís skin is not always pinkish-grey. One common shock to ferret owners is when the skin appears to be blue or purple. In most cases, this is not bruising; in ferrets with darker fur, it is often a sign of new hair growth. During coat changes in spring and fall, the skin may appear blue immediately before the new coat emerges. Blue or purple skin is most apparent in ferrets who have lost their hair due to disease or surgery. Donít worry, new fur will appear in a few days!
During the breeding season, whole males (and sometimes females) increase production of sebum. This sebum may turn the skin yellowish or orange as the oils discolor the undercoat. Orange or reddish-brown patches or scaling on a neutered ferret is also usually due to dried sebaceous secretions, and can be removed easily with bathing. However, if these discolorations return quickly (within a week or two), you might want to further investigate why your neutered ferret is overproducing sebum. One common cause is the presence of an adrenal tumor. Adrenal tumors often cause a hormonal change that can result in sebum overproduction.
 
Balding Ferrets
Ferrets commonly have thinning hair during fall and spring coat changes. At this time, you may see more skin through the fur. However, if your ferret has bald spots that donít seem related to seasonal coat changes, you should suspect adrenal problems. In particular, balding at the base of the tail, on the rump, or on the tail means a high probability of adrenal tumors. Ferrets with adrenal tumors may also bald on their necks or tops of their heads. This balding should not be treated with topical medications or vitamin supplements. The source of the problem is most likely to be an adrenal tumor. Your ferret can be ultrasounded to find the tumor, or a blood test can be conducted (the University of Tennessee adrenal panel). Surgery is the best option.
 
Dry Skin
If your ferretís skin has flakes or white powder on it, the skin is too dry. The two most frequent causes of dry skin are poor nutrition and bathing too often. A ferret on a nutritious diet should be eating enough fats to keep the skin in good condition. Skin and coat condition can also be aided by fatty-acid supplements such as Linatone or Ferretone. Do not overfeed your ferret any sort of fatty-acid or vitamin supplements. These supplements are often extremely high in Vitamin A content, and overdoses of Vitamin A can lead to toxic conditions that make skin disorders even worse (itching, flaking, and scaliness). Keep your fatty acid supplements to a few drops, and carefully watch your vitamin supplements such that they do not exceed 500 IU of Vitamin A per day.
 
Bathing is also a prime culprit for dry skin. Ferrets, like cats, do not require routine bathing. According to Susan A. Brown, DVM, frequent bathing strips the skin of essential oils and produces severe itching. Dr. Brown recommends bathing with a mild cat or ferret shampoo no more frequently than once a month, and only if the owner feels the bath is absolutely necessary. I bathe my ferrets twice each year, or when necessary (such as after a nice romp through the fireplace ashes or after digging up a houseplant). Donít bathe ferrets with human shampoos (especially dandruff shampoos). Kitten or ferret shampoos have the appropriate ph-balance for ferret fur; other shampoos can cause skin disorders. Show ferrets or breeding ferrets may need to be bathed more frequently than every few months, but keep in mind that the more frequent the bathing, the worse odor can get. Each time the soap strips the skin of its oils, the ferretís skin responds by overproducing sebum to compensate for dryness. Sebum is what causes body odor in ferrets. It seems odd, but the less you bathe ferrets, the better they smell! Remember to also check your environmentĖdry air can also cause dry skin.
 
Itchy Skin
Your ferret may have itchy skin even if the skin is not dry. Itchy skin can come from parasites, nutritional disorders, allergic reactions, or diseases. Ferrets often leap awake from a deep sleep and scratch wildly. It is normal for ferrets to scratch themselves, particularly after waking up or during spring and fall shedding periods. However, constant scratching that persists for more than 48 hours may indicate other problems.
 
Skin Parasites
Fleas are a common culprit, especially if you have other pets or allow your ferret to go outside. If there are reddish-brown or black specks on the skin, your ferret may have fleas. Wash your ferret with a kitten-safe flea shampoo and eliminate fleas from the environment. Flea sprays and powders may irritate ferret skin and cause respiratory problems. A better solution is a monthly drop between the shoulders (Frontline is most safe for ferrets). Remember that flea repellents can cause skin irritation in some cases, so check your ferret carefully. Never use a flea collar on your ferret, as they have toxic effects on the skin of ferrets.
 
Mosquito bites can also cause itching, and are especially dangerous because they can give your ferrets heartworm and other diseases. Avoid exposing your ferrets to mosquitos, and administer heartworm preventive if there is a possibility your ferret could be bitten. Do not spray your ferret with mosquito repellent; ferret skin will absorb the poisons and transmit them throughout the body.
 
Ticks are another skin parasite. Although the bites do not always itch, they can be painful and get infected. Grasp a tick with tweezers as close to the mouth parts as possible and pull gently. Make sure the mouth parts are not left in the ferret skin. Disinfect the ferretís skin with soap and water or alcohol after tick removal. Never dip a ferret!
 
Nutritional Disorders and Skin Problems
Nutritional disorders can also cause itchy skin. Lack of fats and fatty acids in the diet, as mentioned previously, are the primary culprit. Lack of proteins from meat sources can also be a problem, as can overdoses of Vitamin A. Some ferrets have chicken allergies that can cause skin swelling and itchiness. Look for turkey, lamb, beef, or fish-based ferret foods that have no other poultry products in them if your ferret has these problems.
 
Skin Allergies
Many ferrets have sensitive skin, and ferrets can suffer allergic reactions that cause itchy skin, hives, rashes, or other skin reactions. Common allergens are in litter, shampoo, laundry detergent, carpet freshener, floor cleaners, and household chemicals. If a ferret comes into contact with an allergen, the ferret may get hives or red blotches on the stomach. Litter material is often a culprit. Make sure you donít use wood shavings, and use litters that do not have added perfumes. Ferret shampoos should be gentle and designed for small animals. Added perfumes to shampoos can cause itchy skin. The laundry detergent you use to wash your ferretís bedding should also be dye and fragrance free. Ferrets also may come into contact with various household cleaners and chemicals by walking on freshly cleaned surfaces. This contact may also produce itchy skin or rashes, or severe irritation on the skin of the feet.
 
Diseases Causing Skin Problems
Diseases can also cause itching skin. A ferret with severely itchy skin for no apparent reason is likely to have adrenal problems. Itchy skin is often the first sign of adrenal disease, even before more obvious signs are apparent (hair loss or swollen vulva). If you have eliminated obvious causes of itching such as nutrition, parasites, or allergies, and your ferret continues to scratch all the time, you may wish to have your ferret ultrasounded to check for adrenal tumors.
 
Tail Blackheads
Another common ferret skin ailment is blackheads, usually appearing on the tail. Again, this is due to an overproduction of sebum in the body. Usually these blackheads can be cleared up by shampooing with anti-seborrheic shampoos (usually available from your veterinarian). These special shampoos may contain benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, and are most effective when left on the skin for several minutes before rinsing. This can be quite challenging for a ferret! I usually scrub these shampoos into the tail with a toothbrush, and then distract the ferret with Linatone while the medications go to work. Tail blackheads do not seem to be as common an indicator for adrenal disease as orange spots and itchiness are.
 
Skin Tumors
Ferrets seem prone to skin tumors. The most common type is the mast-cell tumor. These tumors appear as hairless warts ranging in size from pinhead to a half-inch. They can be either nodules or flat, and usually are skin-colored. These warts may ulcerate (bleed, scab over, and heal) repeatedly. The ulceration may occur because the ferret scratches the growth. Mast-cell tumors may occur in singles or in clusters. According to Connie Orcutt, DVM, most mast-cell tumors are benign. However, because they have a tendency to spread, and because there is a chance they might not be benign, do not adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Electrocautery or surgical removal is advised, with surgery having a better success rate. The surgery is minor and the ferret may require only a stitch or two.
 
Sebaceous gland tumors are the second most common type of skin tumor in ferrets. These tumors are usually dark pink, spongy growths and can grow quickly. These tumors are more common on older or female ferrets. Because these tumors can become cancerous, surgical removal is the most effective solution. Another common skin tumor is a hemangioma, which appears as a small blood blister. Several of these blisters can be clustered together, or a blister may appear by itself. Do not attempt to "pop" these blisters. If the blood blister does not go away after several weeks, have it surgically removed.
 
The most serious type of skin tumor is the squamous cell carcinoma. Fortunately, these tumors are seen less often in pet ferrets. These tumors are firm and thickened, and are frequently ulcerated (open or bleeding). Surgically remove these masses whenever possible. Squamous cell carcinomas are malignant and can spread to other parts of the body, including internal organs.
 
Ringworm
Ferrets are highly susceptible to ringworm. This fungal skin infection can be transmitted to an from humans and other pets. Ringworm is marked by ring-shaped, reddened, scaly, or blistery patches. Anti-fungal ointments must be prescribed by a veterinarian, and may require applications for a month or two.
 
Testing for Skin Diseases
Most skin disorders can be diagnosed from their physical characteristics. However, veterinarians may prefer to perform a skin biopsy, which is the removal of a small sample of skin tissue for microscopic analysis. A biopsy can aid in the diagnosis of a skin problem, and most importantly, can be used to more definitively identify or exclude cancers.
 
First Aid for Skin
Minor animal bites or scratches can be cleaned with hydrogen peroxide. You can then apply antibiotic ointment, such as Neosporin. Ferrets do not tolerate bandaging, and they may also lick off any ointment. More severe animal bites or deep puncture wounds that penetrate the full skin thickness should be cleaned with hydrogen peroxide, but no ointment should be applied. Stop any serious bleeding by using direct pressure and a styptic pencil or powder. Seek veterinary attention for deep puncture wounds or serious bleeding. If your ferretís skin gets burned, rinse with cool water, apply a cold compress, and follow with a light application of antibiotic ointment or aloe vera gel. Whether the skin has been scratched, cut, punctured, or burned, infection prevention is always the goal when the skin has been compromised. If you donít see noticeable improvement in one day or if the condition worsens, seek medical attention for your ferret.
 
Conclusion
Your ferretís skin is an important organ that should be checked frequently. The skin is a good indicator of overall health, and any skin problems you see should be taken care of immediately.