Ferrets & Rabies
Rabies is very rare in ferrets. First, unlike cats and dogs, they do not usually romp outdoors and, therefore, have little opportunity for exposure to wildlife – the primary source of rabies. Second, due to their size, should they tangle with another animal, it would be highly unlikely that they would survive the encounter with either a healthy or rabid animal.
Ferrets do not “carry” rabies. You cannot catch rabies from a ferret unless the animal has been exposed AND has contracted the disease which is a two-step process. Exposure is not infection. It is a potential for infection. So if you are nipped by your ferret and you know it has not been exposed to any wild or potentially rabid animal, then you should not be concerned about contracting rabies. You should be concerned about teaching your ferret better manners!
That being said, that does not mean that a ferret can not contract rabies. They can and have. Therefore, if your ferret escapes outside and after finding it you notice it has a bite wound; and, if you live in an area known to have rabid wildlife, the recommended method of handling the situation to protect both yourself AND your ferret is to limit your potential exposure. That means avoiding any opportunity to come in contact with your pet’s saliva (yes, that includes “kissing.”)
First: Immediately wash out the wound. Flush it out with lots of water. Then bring your ferret – yes, this IS an emergency – to either your own or an emergency veterinary clinic for treatment of the wound AND to receive a bolster rabies shot. This is the recommended protocol and it is a wise one.
If your ferret has not “exposed” you or another human or animal (usually through a bite, though any exposure to saliva is technically exposure) that is probably the last of it from a health or legal standpoint. However, we recommend that you personally place the ferret in self-imposed quarantine in your home. That means away from other people and animals. Yes, you can handle your pet! But, please, while rabies is exceptionally rare, it is NOT something to completely ignore. One week in a secure environment in a spare room will not harm your pet and is not any worse than a week’s stay at the vet. They will not remember or hold it against you! And you will be sure that your ferret is totally healthy. If you house your ferrets in a cage and do not have a second cage, you can always use your pet taxi. It’s not as roomy, but it is secure.
If your ferret has “exposed” someone and depending on the laws or regulations of your state, you may have to pay to have your ferret quarantined in a secure environment, like a vet’s office or animal control facility. You can certainly ask to be allowed to visit your pet in that unlikely event! You may be urged to have your pet tested even if it is NOT required by your local laws. Check ahead of time about your rights before you decide. There is no accepted non-fatal test currently accepted.
Although an acceptable quarantine period has been established to the satisfaction of the National Association of Public Health Veterinarians, regulations and their enforcement vary considerably throughout the country and even within a particular state or municipality.
In Connecticut in over 10 years there has only been one case of a ferret with a confirmed case of rabies. The landmark ferret rabies shed study determined that ferrets sicken and die before they have the opportunity to become infectious.
As for how we deal with foundlings in the shelter. Hundreds of animals have passed through our doors and over 150 have been outdoor “foundlings.” Foundlings are quarantined separately from the other animals for a number of days. They are carefully examined and observed. We avoid handling them as well. If they have not shown any symptoms of illness, they are then integrated into the shelter group.
If the ferret should show any sign of illness, we would secure the advice of our trusted shelter veterinarian. So far, the only “injured” ferret that has arrived at the shelter, was suffering from a severe tick infestation. And, ticks do not transmit rabies!