Ferrets dehydrate when they do not have enough fluids in their bodies. Dehydration is a common problem in abandoned ferrets or ferrets dumped at an animal shelter. Ferrets can quickly die from dehydration. Fortunately, this is a treatable condition if caught in time.
Anyone considering adopting or purchasing a ferret needs to be familiar with the signs of dehydration so treatment can begin immediately.
There are many causes for dehydration in ferrets but the main causes are fluid loss due to heat stroke, vomiting and/or diarrhea. Even a few bouts of vomiting can cause the ferret to lose so much fluids that it needs veterinary intervention to prevent dying. Illnesses that can cause vomiting bouts include epizootic catarrhal enteritis, inflammatory bowel disease, swallowing a foreign object like a toy, ulcers in the gastrointestinal tract and cancer.
Ferrets can also lose fluids if they are not fed regularly or fed a very poor diet. Ferrets have a much faster metabolism than more familiar pets like dogs or cats. Ferrets have different dietary needs than dogs, but many people feed ferrets dog food and then wonder why they die. Ferrets can die of malnutrition even if their stomachs are full of dog food.
Checking for dehydration in ferrets is the same for most other mammals, including people. Healthy ferret skin snaps right back to the body when pulled and let go. Dehydrated skin stays pulled out or “tents” before it slowly falls back into place. A good place to check is the scruff of the neck.
Another way to check is by running a finger along the ferret’s gums. They should feel wet and slippery. If they are dry and sticky, begin treating for dehydration. Dehydration often makes a ferret drowsy or disoriented, so a ferret that would normally react to a finger in its mouth may seem to completely ignore a finger when dehydrated.
Dehydrated ferrets also urinate far less frequently than usual, but this sign may not be as apparent as dry gums, tenting skin and disorientation.
Just offering a dehydrated ferret some water is not enough to save its life. Usually, a ferret cannot physically drink enough water in order to rehydrate. But many dehydrated ferrets are too disoriented to drink. Take the ferret to the vet for IV injections of fluids and electrolytes.
Ferrets can be force-fed a mixture of half room temperature water and half Pedialyte (electrolyte replacement drink for sick babies.) Never use cold water because this can make the ferret vomit. Ferrets fed this drink still need to go to a vet.