Canine distemper is an airborne virus that is extremely contagious.
It belongs to the Morbillivirus class of viruses, and is a relative of the measles virus, which affects humans, the Rinderpest virus that affects cattle, and the Phocine virus that causes seal distemper.
The disease affects dogs, and certain species of wildlife, such as foxes. Ferrets are extremely susceptible to the canine distemper virus.
It is possible that inanimate objects, such as shoes or clothes, can be a source of moving the virus from one place to another.
It can be transmitted from your clothing, shoes, or from your skin for at least 8 hours after exposure. In other words, you can bring CDV home if you are in contact with infected material in places such as the woods, a pet store or a pet shelter and your ferret can become infected just by inhaling the virus from your skin or clothing!
It is always good practice to quarantine any new ferret in the household or shelter for at least two weeks to watch for signs of CDV or other ailments/disease conditions.
If you have rehomed from a Ferret Rescue, check if they have been vaccinated for CD already. All ferrets rehomed from Little Paws Ferret Rescue are vaccinated unless they have a medical reason for not doing so.
Signs of CDV in the ferret may vary, but classically it starts with a mild conjunctivitis and green to yellow discharge from one or both eyes. They may get lethargic and a high fever of 40 degrees Celsius or greater develops within a few days.
The most prominent development, and often the first clinical sign, is a reddening and thickening of the skin of the chin, lips and sometimes anal and inner upper thigh areas. This progresses into thick crusting. In addition, the footpads become extremely thickened and hard. This rash may become infected, itchy and turn an orange tint.
Other signs that can be seen include crusting around the anus, anorexia, blinking and squinting of the eyes, and a clear liquid discharge from the nose, diarrhoea, severe depression or neurological signs, such as excessive salivation, muscle twitching (especially the muscles on the top of the head) and seizures.
Many ferrets will start coughing and show signs of pneumonia. Some ferrets will die from the respiratory problems.
The younger the ferret is when it contracts the disease, the more quickly it will develop central nervous system signs. Some baby ferrets do not develop any skin lesions at all, but develop a sudden loss of appetite, high fever, seizures and death.
Vet reports of outbreaks
Rescue reports of outbreaks
Heartbreaking owners post about losing her ferrets to CD
Precautions to take include not mixing your ferrets with other groups of ferrets, refrain from walking ferrets in public areas that dogs and other ferrets have access to, avoid contact with strange and/or unwell ferrets belonging to another person. This is not exhaustive but hopefully will help you to decide whether or not to do something/go somewhere with your ferret(s).
Distemper is the only disease ferrets can usefully be vaccinated against in the UK (apart from rabies for travelling abroad).
There is no distemper vaccine licensed for use in ferrets in the UK but it is possible to use vaccines licensed for use in dogs under the current UK rules for the use of medicines.
The use of unlicensed vaccines means that they have not been fully safety tested in ferrets.
If a vet uses an unlicensed product they have to obtain informed consent from the owner of the animal. Some vets ask for this consent to be in writing.
One company (MSD Animal Health) who make Nobivac vaccines say that they have reasonable safety data for using Nobivac DHP or DHPPi in ferrets. The vaccine should be mixed with Nobivac sterile diluent or sterile water. They recommend one dose per ferret, although vets have in the past divided doses for economy. I am not aware of any data to show how well this works. There are several other distemper vaccines in the UK but I do not know what safety data is available and I have heard it suggested that some may be less safe.
Please also remember that dogs can catch distemper from ferrets and that vaccination is never quite 100% reliable in any person or animal