Ferrets make delightful pets and genetic research has shown that they have been domesticated for at least two and a half thousand years. They were used for hunting in those days and they do have their darker side, but they are intelligent and affectionate and as they live for around eight years can really bond with an owner. They are related to the polecat and the commonest ferret markings are actually called ‘polecat’. They are still so near to polecats in their genetics that they can still interbreed and in some areas feral polecat/ferret hybrids have become a problem, as they can be quite vicious.
Do ferrets smell?
Ferrets can be a bit whiffy, and this is mainly caused by the scent glands at the rear end, one each side of the anus. These are used by the animal to scent mark their territory and although in a domestic setting this is no longer necessary, it is a behavioural imperative for the ferret and so they will continue to do it. In the USA it is common for ferrets to have the scent glands removed when they are young – ‘descenting’ is the common name for the procedure – but this is rare in the UK and is usually only performed if the ferret has repeated problems with the anal glands becoming impacted. Ferret owners do not usually bother too much about the smell and in fact ferrets do not really smell more than any other animal if kept clean. Everyone has been into a house which smells ‘doggy’ but no one suggests shaving a dog to stop it being smelly. About the only pet animal with no smell is the goldfish – and even then you have to change the water!
How do I know if my ferret’s scent glands are impacted?
It is very likely that the ferret will not be in the slightest bit bothered by impacted anal glands, especially in the first few days. What happens is that the opening of the gland becomes blocked and the natural secretions can’t get out, so the gland swells up. You will notice this as two swellings (usually both glands block together) on either side of the rectal opening. They will feel firm to the touch and the ferret will soon let you know if they are tender when you press them. If you don’t notice them at this stage, the animal may start rubbing its back end on the floor, scooting along to try and alleviate the irritation. The glands will need attention at this point, because if they rupture, they might do so back into the rectal wall and this will almost certainly cause an intestinal fistula which may prove difficult to treat.
Treatment of impacted anal glands
Treatment if caught early is relatively easy. The vet will hopefully be able to express the glands and this will give immediate relief. If you can’t get to the vet straight away, a warm compress held against the glands may help by softening whatever is blocking them, helping them to express naturally. This of course is dependent on a high level of co-operation from the ferret, which at this point may be problematic. On no account squeeze the glands yourself. This could easily cause the gland to rupture and this will be extremely painful for the ferret and could cause all kinds of health problems for it down the line.
What to do if it keeps on happening
There is no preventative procedure for stopping this happening over and over again if your ferret is prone. If the glands keep on impacting, the best answer is to have them removed. The ferret will not suffer from this operation, but it is best to make sure that your vet is familiar with doing it before making the decision. Although the actual impaction is not something which bothers the ferret much, the constant visits to the vet to have them dealt with, not to mention the cost, is something which both pet and owner can probably well do without, so surgery is a sensible course to follow.
Your ferret will definitely let you know if the gland has ruptured as it will be in a lot of pain. The wound track will be very open to attack by bacteria and may take a long time to heal, so antibiotics are essential and the dressing of the wound will be extremely difficult if not impossible, so it is vital to make sure that the ferret gets treatment before this stage is reached. Even if only one gland ruptures most vets will recommend the removal of the other, as a ferret with a tendency to impaction is probably better off without the gland at all. As with any animal kept in captivity, getting to know your ferret and familiarising it with being handled regularly will enable you to examine it regularly for any signs of ill health or lack of general condition. By getting to know what is ‘normal’ for your pet, any serious illnesses can usually be avoided.