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Diarrhea in Ferrets

By: Dr. Barb Oglesbee

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Diagnosis In-depth

A thorough history is extremely important in the diagnosis of diarrhea. Be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • When did the problem began?
  • Is the diarrhea intermittent?
  • Are all of the stools abnormal?
  • Is there an increase or decrease in the amount and frequency of stools?
  • Does he strain to defecate?
  • Has the character of the diarrhea changed? For example, did it begin as a semi-formed stool, and now is completely liquid?
  • Is there fresh blood or mucous in the feces?
  • Has the diet changed?
  • Does he tend to eat table foods or get into the garbage?
  • Is he still eating a normal amount of food?
  • What are his chewing habits?
  • Does he have access to metal objects or plants?
  • Does he chew apart toys?
  • Are any other symptoms present, such as lethargy or vomiting?
  • Has he been exposed to other ferrets?

    Your veterinarian will recommend specific diagnostic tests depending on the severity and duration of the diarrhea and if other symptoms are present. Ferrets that have other symptoms or have had chronic diarrhea (diarrhea lasting for days to weeks) or recurrent diarrhea may require extensive diagnostic testing. Any combination of the following may be recommended:
  • A thorough physical examination

  • Sampling the feces for bacterial culture and cytology to look at cell types for evidence of infection or inflammation

  • Sampling of the feces to look for intestinal parasites

  • A complete blood count (CBC). The number of circulating white blood cells may be helpful in distinguishing between infectious and non-infectious causes of diarrhea. The number of red blood cells may be diminished if bleeding in the intestinal tract is present or other concurrent problems exist.

  • Serum biochemistry panel to look for evidence of metabolic problems, such as diseases of the liver, kidney or pancreas

  • Radiography (X-Rays) to look for evidence of intestinal disease, tumors, size and density of the liver, kidneys or other organs

  • Contrast radiographs (such as barium studies), to look for tumors or foreign bodies, ulcerations or thickening of the lining of the intestinal tract. This test will also determine how quickly ingested material is moved through the intestinal tract.

  • Abdominal ultrasound to visualize the intestinal tract for evidence of intestinal wall thickening, gastrointestinal masses and foreign bodies. This is also useful in identifying tumors. A small sample may be obtained by using the ultrasound to guide a needle into any mass found in the abdomen. A specialist usually performs this test.

  • Endoscopy for viewing the intestinal tract directly with a flexible endoscope to collect samples for biopsy or culture. A specialist usually performs this test.

  • Exploratory laparotomy. Often, surgery must be performed to obtain segments of the intestinal tract for biopsy in order to determine the cause of diarrhea.

    Therapy In-depth

    Your veterinarian may recommend one or more of the diagnostic tests described above. In the meantime, treatment of the symptoms might be needed, especially if the problem is severe. The following treatments may be applicable to some, but not all, ferrets with diarrhea. These treatments may reduce the severity of symptoms, or provide relief for your ferret. However, nonspecific therapy is not a substitute for definite treatment of the underlying disease responsible for your ferret's condition.

    Ferrets with moderate-to-severe diarrhea and other symptoms such as lethargy and anorexia usually require hospitalization and 24-hour care.

  • Fluid therapy. Many ferrets with diarrhea become dehydrated and require fluids. Fluids may be given by an intravenous catheter or subcutaneously (under the skin). The route of administration will depend on how severe the level of dehydration is.

  • Dietary change. Ferrets that are still willing to eat will often benefit from a diet that is easy to digest.
  • Forced-feeding. Ferrets that refuse food may require forced-feeding of an easily digestible, high-protein food. Your veterinarian may pass a tube into the ferret's stomach to deliver food.

  • Antibiotics or antiparasitic medications may be needed to treat or prevent an overgrowth of bacteria or parasites.

  • Intestinal protectants such as sucralfate (Carafate®), cimetidine (Tagamet®) or pepto bismol.

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