Canine distemper is a common viral infection which is virtually 100% fatal in ferrets, although it can be prevented with appropriate vaccination. It can be transmitted directly from exposure to affected dogs or ferrets, or by airborne particles in an enclosed environment. The disease is highly infectious, and outbreaks in households must be carefully managed to prevent high mortality rates.

The symptoms of this disease are quite distinct in the terminal stages, but initially they resemble an upper respiratory disease like influenza. After exposure to the virus, no signs are evident during the incubation period of 5 to 7 days. Then loss of appetite, lethargy and a thick discharge from the eyes and nose develops. Swelling of the membranes around the eyes (conjunctivitis) is another characteristic symptom. The eyelids may crust shut. Fever is common in ferrets with distemper. As the disease progresses, red skin rashes consistently develop on the chin, muzzle and in the inguinal area. The footpads may become thick and dry. Ultimately the virus can infect the nervous system leading to convulsions, coma and death.

Diagnosis of canine distemper in live ferrets can be made by special tests such as fluorescent antibody techniques on blood smears and conjunctival scrapings. Diagnosis can be made on autopsy of affected individuals because viral elements called inclusion bodies are found on microscopic examination of many different tissues.

For all practical purposes, this disease is incurable. Once a diagnosis of canine distemper has been made, and other less serious diseases such as influenza have been ruled out, euthanasia is recommended. There are vaccination protocols that effectively prevent this disease. At the present time, the only USDA approved vaccine for distemper in ferrets is FerVac-D by United Vaccine. This vaccine has been proven effective if administered properly, and at yearly intervals.

If you have any questions or comments about the information above, feel free to send a message to Dr. Suzanne Lee, D.V.M. at

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