Gastrointestinal Disease in Ferrets
Ferrets with appetite loss and diarrhea can become weak, dehydrated and lose a significant amount of body weight in a short period of time. Stools can vary in character and may be “seedy” (soft with a granular appearance), liquid or mucousy. The color may range from brownish yellow to green to black and tarry. Black and tarry stools usually indicate upper intestinal tract bleeding, many times as the result of stomach ulcers that ferrets are prone to. Ferrets with these signs may also have abdominal pain and be hunched up and/or grind their teeth.
The leading causes include:
- A stomach hairball or ingested foreign body (typically a rubber object)
- Helicobacter mustelidae – a bacterial infection resulting in stomach inflammation
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease – aka IBD
- Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis – caused by a Corona virus
- Lymphoma – a cancer of the lymph nodes, spleen and other organs, including the intestines
How does the veterinarian distinguish between the above disease syndromes and make a diagnosis? First we start with a history of your pet’s condition and perform a thorough physical exam. If your ferret has recently been exposed to other ferrets, or you have brought a new ferret into the household and now he has diarrhea, possibly green and mucousy– we think of ECE as it is casued by a contagious virus. If the stools are dark and tarry and your ferret is grinding its teeth as a result of abdominal pain– we think of a gastrointestinal foreign body or hairball. If your ferret has had off and on diarrhea (”seedy” or brown and mucousy) with weight loss over several weeks to months then Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) comes to mind. Ferrets with Helicobacter infection can show all of the above signs with stools of varying color and consistency; from green to black to brown with some blood. Finally ferrets with lymphoma will show weakness, weight loss and possibly enlargement of lymph nodes, spleen or other abdominal organs.
To make a more precise diagnosis and to differentiate between these diseases we may recommend a number of diagnostic tests including a fecal parasite analysis, CBC (Complete Blood Count), blood chemistry profile, and/or radiographs (X-rays). If enlarged lymph nodes or spleen are found, a fine needle aspirate to analyze cells for disease will be recommended. These tests will help narrow the list of potential causes or give us the exact answer. Sometimes surgery is needed to take biopsy samples of stomach, intestines, lymph nodes, liver or spleen. These biopsy samples are sent to the pathologist for diagnosis.
Treatment of the above maladies varies with cause. In many cases affected ferrets are dehydrated and nutritionally depleted so treatment starts with fluid therapy and nutritional support. Specific therapy for ECE involves: fluids to combat dehydration, antibiotics to prevent infection and medicines to control diarrhea. For hairballs and foreign bodies: surgical removal of the offending body will be the first step, along with supportive care to fight dehydration and malnutrition. IBD is treated with dietary management and immunosuppressive drugs such as azothioprine or prednisolone. Helicobacter is treated with a combination of antibiotic (Amoxicillin), Antacid (Pepcid), and diarrhea medicine (Metronidazole). Lymphoma requires chemotherapy and the prognosis varies with progression of the disease when diagnosed, the age of the ferret at diagnosis and other factors.
Certainly the prognosis of the ferret with chronic diarrhea, weight loss, dehydration and weakness varies with the condition of the ferret at time of diagnosis, any concurrent diseases, and which of the above diagnoses is made. In many cases, with appropriate treatment as well as fluid and nutritional support, these sick ferrets can go on to recover and lead healthy, full lives.