Vaccine Reactions in Ferrets

Ferrets are usually given a vaccine against canine distemper. Canine combination vaccines should never be used, nor should vaccines be given that are from ferret cell lines or low-passage canine cell origin, which may cause vaccine-induced disease.

The most common type is a localized lump at the injection site. This is usually a sterile abscess caused by white blood cells congregating at the injection site due to the foreign substance (vaccine and carrier) being identified by the immune system of the pet. Even the highest quality vaccines, being administered correctly, and stored properly can cause a vaccine reaction. It most often happens in dogs with an overactive immune system (those with allergies, other autoimmune problems such as pemphigus, etc.) Usually, there is no infection involved and simply hot-packing the area (with a wet washcloth as warm as you would like on your own skin) 5 minutes 4 times per day (up to 5 min. every hour) will usually help resolve the problem.

The much more serious (and thankfully much more rare) reaction is anaphylaxis, or allergic shock. This is a total systemic reaction. When this happens, the blood is shunted away from peripheral capillaries, and the circulatory and respiratory systems shut down. Anaphylaxis can be caused by antibiotics such as penicillin, tetracyclines, chloramphenicol, erythromycin, vancomycin, antitoxins, insulin, oxytocin, vaccines, some of the "caines" like lidocaine, benzocaine, procaine, antihistamines, salicylates, tranquilizers, iodinated contrast media, vitamins, heparin, stinging insects, food and allergens.

After a vaccine, anaphylaxis usually occurs within 20 minutes, so usually, an owner would still be in the vet clinic with their pet when it occurs. If you've never seen it, you can't believe how horrible it is!! It may start as restlessness, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, collapse, progressing to coma and death (if not treated). Usually, the pet will start shaking within 10 or 15 minutes after the vaccine, and it may vomit or have diarrhea on the exam table, and the gums will quickly become very pale and the pet will collapse. It will quickly become unresponsive. It is truly frightening.

I have only personally dealt with 3 or 4 cases in all my years of practice, in dogs and one with a ferret. The canine distemper vaccination may result in vaccine reaction in ferrets. For this reason, all vaccinated ferrets should be monitored for about thirty minutes after vaccination. Adverse reactions in ferrets may include vomiting, diarrhea, reddening of the skin and high fever. Anaphylaxis in ferrets may also result in shaking, seizures, collapse progressing to coma and death. It is recommended that ferrets be vaccinated at different times (separate office visits) to minimize the risk of vaccine reaction.

Treatment should include epinephrine given intravenously, (which can be very difficult since the veins are usually all collapsed), oxygen, IV lactated ringers, IV rapid-acting steroid (like hydrocortisone or prednisolone) and an antihistamine (Benadryl) IV. Usually, if the patient responds within 5 or 10 minutes, there is a good chance that it will recover. For severe reactions, epinephrine may be administered via the trachea if access to a vein is not possible.

While the chance of this happening is rather low, this is one reason why I recommend that a vet perform vaccines, because if anaphylaxis occurs, he or she should be prepared to perform emergency treatment, which may save the life of the pet (since this all occurs so quickly, there is no time to transport a pet to a vet for life-saving treatment). There is no way to predict which animal may have anaphylaxis, and a pet that has received vaccines previously, may suddenly develop a severe reaction to a vaccine.

Another potential (but extremely rare) reaction to a vaccine is angioneurotic edema (urticaria). With this form, there is usually severe swelling of the soft tissues of the head, especially around the eyes, mouth and ears. A discharge from the eyes may occur, and the pet may frequently rub the mouth and eyes on the ground or with its paws. The pet may drool excessively, as well. This reaction usually develops within 20 minutes after contact with the inciting allergen. While it is very alarming to see, it is rarely life-threatening, unless it causes restriction of the airway and throat. This type of reaction may occur after blood transfusion, from food allergies, ingestion of spoiled protein material, plasma transfusion, insect bites and contact with certain chemicals.

The swelling of the tissue of the head is rapid and alarming. The result is pitting edema, meaning that if you press a finger into the skin, it will leave an impression for a short period of time. It may be hard to see the eyes from the swelling of the lids, and this may result in the pet having limited vision until the problem resolves.

Treatment includes injectable steroids, antihistamine, IV fluids, oxygen and epinephrine (only if the condition is causing breathing problems). Washing the pet to remove any irritating substances is a good idea. Laxatives and enemas may be necessary in the case of food allergy.

While the risk of vaccine reaction is low, it is still very real. However, this does not mean that a pet should forgo necessary vaccinations. In cases where a ferret has previously had a reaction to a vaccination, the veterinarian and owner must decide together whether or not vaccines should be boostered. It might be safer to use a different vaccine (brand) than the one that has caused a reaction the past. However, this might mean using a vaccine not approved or developed for ferrets. Each case must be decided individually, weighing the benefits vs. the risks.

Copyright 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

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