Ferrets in Medical Research: 
For the Greater Good of Humanity

'Ferrets used in medical research' is a recent article that appeared in the 'Amazing Ferrets' edition of Dook Dook Ferret Magazine which you get when you join the Ferret-World.com membership.

While some ferret owners are aware of the use of ferrets in medical research, it’s important that we know the good ferrets have done to benefit both humans and fellow ferrets in both medical and veterinary research. We must honour not just our companions, but the role ferrets have played as research subjects.

Ferrets in medical research is a fairly recent phenomenon; doctors and scientists have only been using them since WWII to help increase our understanding of human physiology. In the 1980s, however, researchers began to realize that there were many more physiologic similarities between ferrets and humans than there were between rodents and humans, and their use in biomedical research has grown significantly in recent years.

Why use ferrets in medical research?

There are many reasons for the use of ferrets in medical research. Ferrets are good subjects for human pathology research.

A good research subject needs to share physiological characteristics with humans, while also being easy to maintain and care for. Non-human primates make the best subjects from a physiological perspective, but they are difficult to maintain and care for. Pigs have the same issues: Housing many of them is difficult. Mice and rats are the easiest to care for, but are much more removed from humans from a physiological standpoint. Ferrets in medical research, on the other hand, share many important physiological features as humans, and are small enough that large numbers of them can be housed comfortably, with a bit of extra effort for the research staff.

Ferrets share many anatomical, metabolic, and physiologic features with humans. Ferrets in medical research are used in a wide variety of studies including cardiopulmonary, neurological, reproductive, and gastrointestinal research. Ferrets have also been used as a model for the demonstration of medical procedures such as pediatric tracheal intubation, as they are the correct size and have the right anatomical structure to simulate the airway of a premature infant. Giving doctors the ability to practice this delicate life-saving procedure on ferrets in medical research, has saved the lives of thousands of human babies.

'Since the 1930s people have observed that ferrets are naturally susceptible to many human viruses. They are one of the only “pet” species where owners need to be concerned about catching or transmitting respiratory illnesses and flu viruses.'

Since the 1930s people have observed that ferrets are naturally susceptible to many human viruses. They are one of the only “pet” species where owners need to be concerned about catching or transmitting respiratory illnesses and flu viruses. Ferrets have been known to catch and transmit viruses that cause rabies, influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and several other medically important viruses. They can catch and transmit these viruses naturally without researching having to adapt or alter the viruses, which they often need to do with mice and rats, which limits the quality of the results. Not only are they susceptible to these diseases, they often present with similar clinical signs as humans such as fever, lethargy, sneezing, coughing, and nasal discharge. In 2014, the genome of the ferret was sequenced and we learned why this is the case: They have similar viral entry receptors to humans, which makes us susceptible to many of the same viruses. They also transmit them in the same ways that we do, which makes them a good species for modeling disease transmission in humans.

In addition to our pathology, we share many similar physical characteristics as well, such as similar lung structure and respiratory function. This has made ferrets invaluable for researching diseases of the respiratory tract, including asthma and influenza. They have been crucial to the development of yearly human influenza vaccines. They also have a similar cerebrovascular system (the system in which blood flows in and around the brain), making them ideal test subjects for research into strokes and other blood/brain issues. Their oestrous cycle is like the human menstrual cycle, so they have become popular for reproductive research. The list goes on and on. Couple this with the fact that they can adapt well to laboratory life when housed properly, and they really are well suited to studying these issues.

How Are Ferrets In Medical Research Cared For?

For the most part, reputable research facilities take excellent care of their animals. In order to perform good research, their subjects need to be in excellent physical and mental shape. Having animals that are depressed and lethargic because they are doing poorly in captivity negatively affects the research. A good research facility understands this and provides for the needs of their research animals. Excellent nutrition, quality veterinary care, adequate housing, socialization, and enrichment are all essential to the well-being of the animals, and the well-being of the animals is essential to quality research results. In fact, a 1985 study on ferret husbandry and ferrets’ responses to being housed in a laboratory, “Laboratory Management of the Ferret for Biomedical Research” in Laboratory Animal Science, was used to develop a standard of best practices for housing ferrets for research. These standards are reviewed and updated every few years as our understanding of ferret biology and behavior improves.

Another unfortunate reality is that just like with pet owners, there is an occasional lab or research facility that doesn’t follow best practices or take good care of their subjects. These horrific situations tend to get significant negative news coverage, and for this reason the general public tends to have a very skewed impression of what goes on in research facilities. You wouldn’t ban ferret ownership entirely because of a handful or cruel or neglectful owners, would you? It’s important to remember that most reputable research programs have ethics committees or boards that put a lot of effort into trying to do their best for the animals, even when working in studies that they know may cause harm to animals. One of the primary goals of any good program is to minimize any potential harm and suffering that animals may endure, even if they can’t eliminate it entirely.  

'The debate about the ethics of using animals for scientific research rests on a single question: Is the information that we gain worth the risk, pain, and suffering of the animals involved?'

The debate about the ethics of using animals for scientific research rests on a single question: Is the information that we gain worth the risk, pain, and suffering of the animals involved?

There are many questions that need to be answered when deciding to use animals for research. The first is whether there are acceptable alternatives. In most cases, if there is an acceptable alternative, researchers will use the alternative. After all, why would researchers chose to deal with the added expense and variability of using animal test subjects, when a sterile tray of agar will do? Another question is whether they feel the information they are seeking is valuable enough to use the animals. Most people who dedicate their lives to medical research want to reduce pain and suffering in people, and do not wish to cause harm to animals, either.

There is also the degree of harm. Exposing a few dozen ferrets to a flu virus may make them ill for a few days, but they will usually be fine. Exposing a few dozen ferrets to a deadly disease that is likely to kill them is a whole different story, but often deemed necessary to help save human lives. In many cases of gruesome research studies, any animals that are deemed to be suffering are humanely euthanized when it is deemed that any suffering they might experience outweighs any information left to be gained.

A recent controversy over using ferrets in medical research, for testing in the development of a vaccine for the Ebola virus was one such case. Ebola is a highly contagious and tragic disease that causes severe pain and suffering, with up to 90% fatality rates. Finding a vaccine for this virus is of extreme importance to the entire world. But testing a vaccine involves exposing test subjects to the virus, and prior to that, it needs to be determined that the animal is susceptible to the virus in the first place. Unfortunately, this means taking perfectly healthy animals and exposing them to a deadly virus, with the desired outcome being that the animals do, in fact, become ill. In this case, 15 ferrets were exposed to 3 different strains of the Ebola virus (5 each) and were then monitored to see if they became ill. They all did. As the onset of symptoms began and researchers knew that these animals were likely all going to suffer terribly and then die, the decision was made to humanely euthanize them. It’s a heartbreaking story, especially for ferret lovers. But in the end, researchers learned that ferrets could be easily infected with an unaltered Ebola virus, making them excellent candidates to test vaccine efficacy. Those 15 ferrets in medical research have given their lives to prevent thousands of human deaths in the future.

In addition to those 15 noble creatures, there will probably be other losses as Ebola research continues. Vaccines trials may fail. Or they might only be 85% effective. And some will be doomed from the start by being given a placebo because without control numbers, we can’t really test whether a vaccine is working. But without ferrets in medical research, efforts to find an effective vaccine would be significantly harder, and finding another appropriate test subject could delay progress by years, if not decades.

A good thing to remember is that only a tiny fraction of animals used in research facilities are ferrets. Of a listing of the 12 most common animals used in research, ferrets didn’t even make the list. In fact, they are included in “all other animals” when counting them, as there are too few ferrets in medical research used to be of significance when plotted on a graph. Because they are more difficult to care for than commonly used mice and rats, they are only used in circumstances where their unique physiology and the benefits that they offer to researchers makes it worth the added effort that it takes to house and care for them.

So the next time you pull up your sleeve at the doctor’s office to get a flu shot or when you hear about the invention of the successful Ebola vaccine, take a moment to honour the animals that made it possible.

This is just one of the articles that appears in the 'Amazing Ferrets' edition of Dook Dook Ferret Magazine. For more articles like this and others become a Ferret-World Member. By becoming a Ferret-World.com Member you get the opportunity to further your knowledge on ferrets, plus get access to many informative resources that will help you become a better ferret carer and make your ferrets happier and healthier.