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In general, diarrhea is the result of
- decreased absorption of what was eaten
- increased secretion of fluid by the intestines
- a combination of the previous two
Inflammation and/or infection in the intestines are somewhat common problems in ferrets. They also are not very tolerant of fiber and carbohydrates; for example, ferrets that eat regular dry dog or cat food are likely to develop diarrhea.
Veterinarians often categorize ferrets that have diarrhea as having mild, moderate, or severe problems.
- mild: diarrhea, but no other signs
- moderate: diarrhea and mild additional signs, for example, slightly decreased appetite
- severe: diarrhea along with serious additional signs, including vomiting and complete loss of appetite
Causes of diarrhea in ferrets, with some examples:
- Dietary: diet changes, inappropriate diet (dry dog or cat food, raw diet), dietary indiscretion (eating undigestible items or spoiled food)
- Parasites: coccidia, giardia, cryptosporidium
- Bacterial infection: Helicobacter, Clostridium, Camplylobacter, Salmonella
- Viral infection: coronavirus (epizootic catarrhal enteritis)
- Inflammation: variations include lymphoplasmacytic or eosinophilic enteritis and proliferative bowel disease; inflammation may be associated with infection
- Obstruction: foreign objects, bowel tumors, intussusception
- Metabolic and/or organ system disease: liver disease, pancreatic disease
- Drugs: vaccines, other medications
- Toxins: plants, spoiled food
The list of potential causes of ferret diarrhea is long and varied; establishing a specific diagnosis is challenging and, within practical limits, might be impossible.
Still within practical limits, however, veterinarians are often able to use the patient's history, physical exam, and a few basic tests to narrow the list of possible causes down to a point where our treatment choices are likely to be effective.
For mild cases of diarrrhea a stool test is usually the only laboratory test veterinarians will perform. Moderate cases often require cbc, general blood profile, and imaging (x-ray, ultrasound exam). If the veterinarian is trying to make a specific diagnosis for a ferret with severe diarrhea then bacterial cultures and surgically obtained biopsies of the digestive tract are needed, along with the previously mentioned tests.
Trial therapy is also an important diagnostic tool for mild, moderate or severe cases.
Veterinarians tailor treatment for the individual patient. Ferrets with mild or moderate diarrhea may be treated with:
- diet change
- antiparasitic medication
- antisecretory medications (Pepcid, omeprazole)
Ferrets with severe diarrhea may require hospitalization for injectable fluid therapy and medications.
The prognosis varies with the cause of the ferret's diarrhea. In general, ferrets with mild or moderate diarrhea will make a complete recovery. For a small but significant number of these patients, however, the problem persists for an extended time.
Ferrets with severe diarrhea almost always require long-term care. A small but significant percentage of these patients will pass away or be euthanized due to complications of their problem.
Yarmouth Veterinary Center
2014, updated 2015
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