Why is My Ferret Shaking and Weak? 4 Explanations & 3 Common Illnesses that Cause Your Pet to Shiver
By Jazmin "Sunny" Murphy
It’s scary to see your fur-baby helplessly shivering in its hammock. But what can you do?
The first, most crucial step in determining why your ferret might be shaking is assessing its surrounding environment. The problem could be something as simple as the temperature or as severe as insulinoma.
These possible explanations and common ferret illnesses will help you narrow down the cause of your ferret’s shaking and treat it with a vet’s help.
4 reasons why your ferret might be shaking or shivering
Ferrets display a broad range of behaviors that can confuse their human companions from time to time. For instance, ferrets often tremble and shiver for mundane reasons, such as itchy ears or in response to a cold breeze.
Yet, the explanation isn’t always so simple. In some cases, a shaky ferret may indicate health problems, such as mites, or behavioral issues like unprovoked aggression. The examples below should help you determine why your ferret is behaving this way.
1. Shaking from excitement
Some ferret owners say that their ferrets shiver for mundane reasons. Shivering is “super common” for excited ferrets.
In fact, some will even shiver throughout an entire meal because of how tasty it is! Many owners who feed their animals raw food see this behavior often.
2. Shaking itchy ears
Many people report seeing their ferrets shake their heads when scratching around their ears. This may not indicate something as serious as fleas; however, it could be a sign that your ferret may be dealing with dry skin or irritation. Otherwise, it’s simply taking care of an itch.
Besides fleas, another common reason why ferrets may shake and scratch their heads is an ear mite infection. In these cases, the problem may not be restricted to the ears alone.
Ferret owners report having seen their pets scratching vigorously all over, as well as biting to relieve itches on their bums.
3. Shivering from the cold
Sometimes, the only thing “wrong” with your ferret is the temperature in the room. Your little weasel may simply be a little chilly, so its body is vibrating rapidly to warm up.
This is why it’s best to provide warm blankets and bedding in its cage; otherwise, you’ll see your ferret shivering after waking every day. The body’s metabolic rate slows during rest, so it takes a while to warm up after waking up and eating.
However, some owners warn that if the shaking lasts for more than five minutes, call up the vet, as it may indicate pain.
4. Shaking from aggression
A few ferret owners have found out the hard way that shaking can be a sign of aggression. Your ferret’s body may tremble unusually just before it pounces, swats, or bites at you.
There could be many reasons why your ferret behaves this way and a wide variety of triggers. In these cases, the best thing you can do is consult a veterinarian to get to the root of behavioral issues and train your ferret to avoid lashing out.
Many ferret owners say that there are apparent differences between shivering from pain versus excitement. The former is naturally more alarming, as it typically looks like the ferret merely laying on the ground while “waves” of pain wash over its body.
In cases where the issue is much more than mere excitement or itchiness, you’ll need to be familiar with the possible illnesses that may be causing the tremors.
3 common ferret illnesses that may cause your pet to shiver
In some cases, a ferret’s shaking could indicate a severe health problem. Many ferret owners often cite incidents of their animals screaming as their bodies quake, seemingly in great pain.
Hopefully, this never happens to you and your fur-baby. However, it’s best to arm yourself with knowledge in preparation for the possibility. That way, you’ll be aware of what’s going on with your fur-baby from the get-go, enabling you to take swift action to protect its health.
The two most common illnesses that cause ferrets to shake uncontrollably include those discussed below.
Also known as islet cell cancer, this is one of the most well-known illnesses affecting domestic ferrets. Mark E. Burgess, D.V.M., reflects the experience of many ferret owners: Seeing the animal become lethargic and suffer from seizures.
Generally, insulinoma is characterized by the growth of insulin-secreting tumors on the pancreas’s beta islet cells. (These cells are of central importance to this condition, as they’re responsible for the synthesis and secretion of insulin.)
Another sign that’s often attributed to insulinoma in ferrets is hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. This is usually indicated by the following symptoms:
- Ptyalism (producing too much saliva)
- Pawing at the mouth
One of the most interesting things about this disease is its varying prevalence, which changes based on geographic region.
For instance, it’s pretty widespread in the United States, where many are fed commercial kibble diets. However, insulinoma rates are reportedly lower in areas where people typically raise their ferrets on diets of whole mice and other natural prey items.
Still, Burgess writes, “At this time there are no good studies that prove how much impact diet has on ferret blood glucose or insulinoma development.”
Yet, anecdotal evidence currently suggests that high-protein, low-carb diets can be “helpful” for ferrets suffering from this condition.
Burgess recalled a past case where a ferret patient diagnosed with insulinoma gradually improved over a few months when its human switched over to a diet of Purina D-M feline kibbles. The progress may have been due to reduced insulin output from parts of the pancreas thanks to lower dietary carbs.
Burgess suggests that, along with professional veterinary care, the best way to protect your ferret from developing insulinomas is to ensure its diet meets these criteria (if you’re feeding kibble):
- High-protein content (more than 50 percent)
- Low carbohydrate levels
- Includes 1 or 2 meat sources
- No simple-sugar sources (e.g., fruit, beets, etc.)
- Moderate levels of a single grain
You don’t necessarily have to feed your ferret commercial kibble. However, Burgess and numerous ferret owners insist that it’s the easiest, low-risk alternative for avoiding illnesses like insulinoma and bacterial or parasitic infections.
Ear mite infection
Thankfully, this is one of the least consequential and easy-to-control conditions that may be causing your ferret to shiver and shake.
Many ferret owners report seeing their pets shaking their heads, seemingly without reason. The reason behind the scratching may not always be immediately apparent – in fact, your ferret might not even scratch its ears every time.
Two of the most significant telltale signs that’ll clue you into whether your ferret is behaving normally or not are the manner of the scratching behavior and if your ferret sits still while it’s shaking its head.
Admittedly, the latter sounds a bit silly, but many ferret owners have reported seeing their ferrets dart across the room or running out of their beds to scratch. This seemingly erratic behavior helped raise the red flag, signaling that there were deeper health issues.
Additionally, pay attention to where your ferret is itching. If it’s frantically scratching its ears, neck, back, and/or bottom, you might have a case of ear mites on your hands.
Experts say that you might also notice a “thick reddish brown, almost black material that has built up in the ear canal.”
The affected area might also be surrounded by patches of hair loss and scabs or open wounds from all the scratching. It may not be until later in the infestation that you notice the head shaking, as many ferrets don’t show any signs or symptoms at all in the early stages.
Now, you won’t be able to confirm that it’s ear mites until you visit the vet and get an evaluation. With professional guidance, rest assured that this condition is easy to take care of.
Of course, the best way to handle this is with a prescribed medication. This typically comes in the form of a liquid that you drop into the ear or a liquid or gel ointment for topical application. Ferret owners also suggest simpler, natural remedies to help soothe skin irritation, such as an oat bath soak, and salmon oil to help combat dry skin.
Making an oat bath soak for your ferret
An oat bath is an easy, low-cost way to maintain your ferret’s skin health, especially when it comes to ear mite infections. Plus, you don’t need much to prepare the soak – heck, you might even have a few of the ingredients at home already!
To make an oat bath for your ferret, you’ll need:
- ⅓ to ½ cup of plain oatmeal (quick oats or rolled oats, it doesn’t matter)
- Warm water, as much as you need to fill the tub used to soak your ferret
- Note: Avoid hot water! This can increase inflammation and worsen your ferret’s skin health.
- (Optional) 2 tablespoons of olive oil or avocado oil
- (Optional) 1 cup of whole or high-fat milk
- Food processor, blender, or coffee bean grinder
Once you have everything you need, all you need to do is grind the oats to create a fine powder. Test the texture in a glass of water by scooping up a tablespoon of powder and stirring. If it readily absorbs the water, then you’ve nailed the consistency.
You’re ready to soak your ferret!
Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP)
Ferrets are closely related to cats (closer than they are to dogs!), so it’s no surprise that they share many biological traits. For instance, their evolutionary ties are one of the main reasons so many people can safely feed their ferrets cat food.
Yet, the similarities aren’t always so good. In some cases, the link between cats and ferrets means they share disease vulnerabilities as well. One of the most concerning sicknesses affecting ferrets and cats is feline infectious peritonitis, or FIP.
FIP is caused by a feline coronavirus. Although most people know this term from the ongoing pandemic, driven by COVID-19 (an acronym for coronavirus disease 2019), many different types of coronaviruses affect various species.
In general, these diseases affect the upper respiratory tract, causing “mild to moderate” infections. Sometimes, these conditions only cause minimal discomfort, amounting to a mere common cold in humans, for example. However, sometimes they’re quite severe, leading to issues like FIP.
Since scientists have not studied ferrets as thoroughly as other pets, there aren’t too many recorded cases of FIP in these animals. Yet, one case report from Japan provides a look at what this illness looks like for ferret owners everywhere.
Scientists studied the case of a young male ferret that had shed a lot of weight after being shipped from abroad at nine months old.
After its journey, the weight loss progressed into decreased motor activity, and the ferret could hardly support its own weight, leading it to lean or rest its weight on nearby objects, known as “recumbency.” Sadly, the ferret was euthanized shortly after at 14 months old.
The necropsy showed a “quail egg-sized mass” in the mesentery, a term referring to the membrane that attaches to several organs, including the stomach and small intestine.
This particular case report didn’t mention shaking or shivering, yet another report noted “central nervous system signs,” along with numerous other symptoms like vomiting and difficulty breathing.
Generally, many ferret owners have reported their weasels to suffer from shaking and screaming fits. After a vet visit, these symptoms are often associated with a condition similar to FIP.
Though research is sparse, other case reports are partially consistent with these reports, as anemia, a symptom associated with shivering, is common in recorded FIP cases.
Still, even if it looks like all the evidence is pointing to FIP, that may not be the case. Sometimes, a trembling ferret isn’t triggered by a severe disease but stress and anxiety. In these cases, you’ll need to know how to calm your weasel down to calm the shaking.
Ferret shaking from anxiety? Here’s how to calm it down
One of the most common – and thankfully, simple – reasons why your ferret might be shaking is anxiety. Weasels are notorious for having separation anxiety, so you may need to come up with a way to keep it calm while you’re sleeping or away.
The key to developing an effective calming routine for your ferret is determining the root of its anxiety. That way, you can remove the trigger and create a peaceful environment where your ferret can rest and play without getting too worked up.
Some ferret owners suggest a creative approach for keeping your fur-baby’s anxiety in check. Much like the “thunder jacket” for dogs, you can design a coat that’ll help keep your weasel snug and calm.
You don’t need much for this project aside from an old sock that’ll fit your ferret tightly (but not too tight) and a pair of scissors. Cut two little holes for your ferret’s arms to fit through comfortably and one at the end of the sock for its neck. It’s as easy as that!
These sock-sweaters help reduce anxiety because they gently squeeze on specific pressure points in your ferret’s body. They’re meant to act as a swaddle would for a human baby, by producing a calming effect via gentle pressure.
Such simple remedies don’t work for all weasels. Sometimes, separation anxiety can get pretty bad. Once it’s beyond your experience level to manage, it’s best to enlist a veterinarian’s help.
Anti-anxiety supplements for ferrets to stop the shaking
Clinics like Wedgewood Pharmacy mainly suggest melatonin when you need a pharmaceutical anti-anxiety treatment in the form of either a melatonin chew treat or an oral suspension.
Your ferret’s feeding preferences will determine which is best for you, as they’re both equally effective.
Be careful not to contribute to your ferret’s anxiety by forcing it to take the medication. Instead, it’s best to present melatonin in treat form as a reward or a part of enrichment, or mixed into food as part of its daily feeding routine.
(Keep in mind that oral suspensions are available with higher concentrations of melatonin. Exercise caution if you choose this product type over solid chew treats.)
Some of the most trusted melatonin treats for pets include:
- NaturVet Quiet Moments Calming Aid: These melatonin soft chews are specially designed to promote rest and relaxation for cats. It contains a unique blend of thiamine and L-Tryptophan, compounds known for their ability to reduce stress and tension. Rest assured that it’s safe to eat, as it’s wheat-free and compliant with the National Animal Supplement Council and Current Good Manufacturing Practices standards.
- Vet Classics Stress Away Anxiety Aid: With this supplement, you can maintain your ferret’s physical and mental health. This soft chew features a “wholesome blend” of melatonin, ginger, thiamine, and L-Tryptophan to promote relaxation and reduce tension.
- Note: This anti-anxiety soft chew is designed for dogs and cats, so it’s a safe calming treat for your ferret. Generally, you want to avoid giving dog treats to ferrets, but cat-safe food is typically suitable for ferrets, too.
- VetriScience Laboratories Calming Formula: This vet-approved formula is said to use “the natural power of colostrum, L-Theatine and L-Thiamine” to ease your pet’s anxiety. Ferrets are sure to love the tasty chicken liver flavor, and it’s fast-acting, so you can calm your weasel in no time at all.
Remember to consult a veterinarian before incorporating any of these supplements into your care routine. Although these anti-anxiety solutions may seem infallible, your vet may be able to help guide you to an even better alternative.
Stop your ferret from shaking with natural, effective solutions
There are several reasons why your ferret is shaking and weak. It could be anything from the temperature in the house to excitement, or even aggression.
Since there are so many possible explanations, you’ll need to get to know your ferret better and consult a veterinarian to home in on the right solution. For instance, your weasel may need medical treatment if the issue’s something like separation anxiety or aggression.
In these cases, melatonin supplements and snug DIY “thunder jackets” can do the trick for your fur-baby. Otherwise, provide a calm, clean, enriched home environment for your ferret to minimize mental or physical illness worries.