Common Respiratory Issues in Ferrets

Ferrets are susceptible to acquiring a variety of different upper respiratory issues/infections. I will be covering some general/common upper respiratory issues ferrets may encounter.

Sneezing in ferrets is relatively common, as their nose is most often to the ground, as they sniff everything. Therefore it may be dust, scented/dusty litter (if they use a litter box), or some type of allergen that is causing them to sneeze. If it is accompanied by lethargy and a decreased appetite, then it is more likely that it is some type of cold or upper respiratory infection.

Respiratory diseases are often localized to either the upper or lower respiratory tract.

The upper respiratory system includes: the nose, nasal passages, sinuses, larynx, and trachea. Sneezing, ocular and nasal discharge, and open-mouth breathing are all signs of an upper respiratory ailment.

Diseases of the lower respiratory tract affect the primary bronchi and the rest of the lung tissues. Signs include: labored breathing, coughing, wheezing, and respiratory crackles.

A healthy ferret should have a cold, wet nose and a resting respiratory rate around 35 breaths per minute.

Bronchitis can occasionally be diagnosed in ferrets. Viruses, bacteria, allergens, and inhaled irritants are all common causes of bronchitis. Smoke, scented litters, and wood shavings with aromatic oils should be avoided. Blankets, hammocks, etc. should be washed using a fragrance free detergent. Bedding should be washed frequently to prevent accumulation of urine, feces, dust, and other debris, and cages should be cleaned and thoroughly rinsed on a regular basis. Cages should be properly ventilated to help prevent buildup of toxic odors (such as ammonia from urine), and air filters can help remove dust and other possible irritants from the air. Owners of ferrets that sporadically sneeze, wheeze, cough, or have watery discharge from the eyes or nose, should examine the environment for any potential irritants and if any are found, they should be removed.


If no source(s) of irritation are found, the ferret should be seen by a veterinarian.

Ferrets can suffer from sinusitis, a condition which results in the sinus passages becoming inflamed and possibly infected. Signs of sinusitis can include: a decreased appetite, nasal discharge, sneezing, noisy breathing, and sometimes open-mouthed breathing. Allergies and an infection at the root of an upper canine tooth can both cause sinusitis in ferrets, and while it is not overly common, fungal infections can also cause sinusitis in ferrets.

Colds and Flu

Although there is no evidence indicating that ferrets can be infected by the human Rhino virus (“common cold”), a broad range of viruses can cause the human “cold”. People will often believe they have a cold when they actually have a mild case of the flu or a bacterial sinus infection. Therefore, although technically your ferret cannot catch your cold, if you have the symptoms of a cold or the flu, you should assume your ferret is able to contract your illness. A ferret with a flu or cold will be sneezing, and upon closer inspection, there may be a slight nasal discharge, like a wet mustache near the nostrils.

Human Influenza

Human influenza virus can affect ferrets, and results in mostly upper respiratory symptoms, such as sneezing and conjunctivitis, with a watery discharge from the eyes and nose. Other symptoms may include coughing, trouble breathing, fever (which often lasts about 48 hours), anorexia and lethargy. Both influenza or cold viruses usually cause a less severe disease in ferrets than in people. However, secondary bacterial infections may arise in stressed animals.  

Signs of influenza are usually mild in older ferrets, but some strains of the virus can cause more serious disease and result in pneumonia. Ferrets with underlying diseases are usually more severely affected and young ferrets will often develop a much more serious upper respiratory illness than adult ferrets and could die from mucus obstructing their lower airway.

Influenza is usually diagnosed based on a ferret’s symptoms and history of exposure.
Treatment of influenza usually consists of supportive care, but severely cases may require hospitalization. Supplemental feedings and/or fluids may be needed for ferrets that don’t eat or drink adequately on their own. Antibiotics may also be prescribed to prevent secondary bacterial infections.

Pneumonia is rarely diagnosed in ferrets, but it can be serious if a ferret does suffer from the condition. Ferrets that are immunosuppressed are more susceptible to pneumonia. Several types of bacteria can cause pneumonia in ferrets, and secondary bacterial infections can be life-threatening. Ferrets can also acquire a type of pneumonia called aspiration pneumonia from inhaling food, medications, or other substances, and this condition is often secondary to megaesophagus.

Signs of pneumonia include: lethargy, difficult breathing, nasal discharge, fever, and sometimes coughing. Occasionally, ferrets that have contracted pneumonia will die suddenly without showing previous signs of illness.

X-rays are helpful in determining if a ferret has pneumonia, and blood tests can show if some kind of infection is also present. Ferrets with pneumonia require supportive care and usually require hospitalization with antibiotics and supplemental fluids.

Treatment/Care for ferrets with an upper respiratory illness

Most ferrets with an upper respiratory infection, like most people, will show improvement within a couple of days. If not, the ferret should be taken to a veterinarian, who may prescribe antibiotics. They usually need treatment for about 5 to 7 days.

Ferrets with upper respiratory infections cannot breathe well through their noses and will often eat loss or stop eating all together. This is because they are unable to smell the food and it is also difficult to swallow with blocked nostrils. The ferret’s nose must first be cleaned so that they can breathe.

*Tips to encourage eating*

Add water to their favorite pellets, microwave for 10-15 seconds to soften the food, stir well, and give it to the ferret warm. Heating makes the odor stronger and the softer texture is often accepted by sick ferrets. Mixing with chicken broth instead of water also increases palatability.



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