Common Gastrointestinal Diseases in Ferrets
Ferrets have short gastrointestinal (GI) tracts, and it only takes 3 to 4 hours for food that was eaten to be eliminated as feces. There are many causes of GI disease in ferrets and symptoms can range from diarrhea, vomiting, lethargy, weight loss, and reduced appetite to grinding of the teeth (bruxism). Read on to learn about common GI diseases in ferrets, how they’re diagnosed, and what you can do to get your furry friend feeling better!
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Dental Disease in Ferrets
Ferrets have 34 adult teeth. Many ferrets over 2 years of age have some form of dental disease. To help prevent dental issues, you can brush your ferret’s teeth once daily with a toothpaste made for dogs and cats, such as CET toothpaste. You can also use dental chews for your ferret, such as N-bone chew treats.
Ferrets can break their teeth by chewing on cage bars. To help deter this, be sure your ferret has plenty of time out of the enclosure and good enrichment activities in the enclosure to keep them occupied. Hiding food and treats around the enclosure is a good way to keep your ferrets busy.
Annual dental cleanings with your vet will also help keep your ferret’s mouth and teeth healthy. This does require general anesthesia.
Ferrets can also develop cancer in the oral cavity. Oftentimes, the cancer is squamous cell carcinoma and will involve the bone of the jaw.
Gastritis in Ferrets
Gastritis means inflammation of the stomach.
The most common infectious cause of gastritis in ferrets is an infection with a bacteria called Helicobacter mustelae. This bacteria can cause stomach ulcers and inflammation in some ferrets, but not all. Stress seems to cause clinical symptoms to develop. Stressors can be changing diets, moving to pet stores, moving into a new home, introducing a new pet, etc. Symptoms of gastritis include vomiting, diarrhea (often black or green), reduced appetite, and drooling.
Diarrhea in Ferrets
Diarrhea in ferrets can lead to severe dehydration in a matter of hours. So, if your ferret has diarrhea, be sure they are drinking well. If your ferret is having diarrhea and is lethargic or not drinking, they need to go see the vet immediately.
Common causes of diarrhea include:
1. Inappropriate diet or treats
2. Intestinal parasites: Giardia or coccidia
3. Rotavirus: More common in very young ferrets, 2 to 6 weeks of age, and can be fatal. In adults, it can cause green diarrhea with or without mucous.
4. Epizootic Catarrhal Enteritis (ECE): A ferret coronavirus that tends to affect adult ferrets the most after being exposed to an infected, young, asymptomatic ferret. The adults will begin to feel lethargic, have a reduced appetite, and often develop diarrhea that can last for weeks to months. Initially, the diarrhea looks green but can turn grainy like wet birdseed in chronic cases. Supportive care, antibiotics, steroids, and an easily digestible diet are common components of treatment.
5. Ferret Systemic Coronavirus: This disease is typically fatal and causes symptoms similar to FIP in cats, such as weight loss, masses in the abdomen, diarrhea, anemia, and possible neurologic symptoms.
6. Human Influenza: The human Flu can infect ferrets and cause diarrhea and upper respiratory symptoms.
7. Human COVID-19: Yup, SARS-COVID-19 can infect ferrets and cause upper respiratory signs and diarrhea.
8. Canine Distemper virus: Causes diarrhea, discharge from the eyes and nose, and possible orange-tinted changes to the skin. This is typically fatal in unvaccinated ferrets.
9. Bacterial infections, including some that can infect people such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, and possibly Mycoplasma.
10. Proliferative Bowel Disease: An infection with a bacteria called Lawsonia intracellularis. This is most commonly seen in young ferrets around 10-16 weeks of age but can affect adults also. The bacterial infection causes thickening of the large intestines resulting in mucoid, green diarrhea and they may prolapse the rectum due to straining. Treatment with appropriate antibiotics leads to a quick recovery.
11. Eosinophilic Gastroenteritis: This is an inflammatory condition of the stomach and small intestines. Ferrets will often have chronic diarrhea with or without mucous in the stool. The exact cause has not yet been identified in ferrets. In people, dogs, and cats, this type of inflammation is often due to a food allergy, but this has not been proven in ferrets.
Foreign Body Ingestion
Ferrets love to get into everything they aren’t supposed to and will ingest most things that fit into their mouths. Ferrets often present with foreign material stuck in the stomach or intestines, and the offending material can be foam, pieces of a toy, erasers, hairballs, earplugs, or even tumors in older ferrets.
Clinical symptoms of GI foreign bodies typically include lethargy, reduced appetite, black or green diarrhea, reduced volume of feces, and they may or may not be vomiting or drooling.
Your vet will perform a complete physical exam and may be able to feel an abnormal mass or object in the intestinal tract. Foreign objects in the stomach can be harder to feel as the rib cage protects most of this region.
Radiographs (x-rays) will likely be recommended to see if a foreign body can be identified. Sometimes a special series of radiographs is needed, called a barium series. This is when your ferret is given oral barium to coat the GI tract and help locate foreign material that may not be seen with plain radiographs.
Since ferrets have narrow intestines, surgery is typically needed to remove the foreign object.
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