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Gastrointestinal Foreign Bodies in Ferrets

By: Dr. Heidi Hoefer

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Gastrointestinal foreign body is a term that refers to any material, other than food, that is eaten by your ferret and results in serious digestive problems. Foreign bodies can become lodged in the gastrointestinal tract creating an obstruction in the stomach or intestines. This results in loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Foreign bodies often require surgery.

Foreign bodies are often made of rubber and can include pieces chewed from a sneaker or pencil eraser, rubber or vinyl "squeak" toy or the foam backing to carpeting or upholstered furniture. Some ferrets develop large hairballs, or furballs, in the stomach from grooming, and these can also act as barriers to digestion. Any household object chewed on by your ferret can become a foreign body problem.

All ferrets are susceptible to developing foreign body problems, but this is most commonly seen in young ferrets less than two years of age. These youngsters are naturally curious; they like to dig and chew and burrow and are more likely to chew on the wrong thing. Hairballs can also form at any age but, because it takes some time for the fur to accumulate in the stomach, this is more likely to be a problem in ferrets over three years of age.

Although some smaller foreign bodies can pass through the gut without getting stuck, the larger pieces can result in serious gastrointestinal complications.

What to Watch For

  • Sudden loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Abnormal bowel movements (wrong color, consistency or amount)
  • Teeth-grinding, which is a sign of pain or nausea in the ferret

    Diagnosis

    In addition to a thorough medical history and physical examination, your veterinarian may recommend the following diagnostic procedures and tests:

  • Abdominal radiographs (X-rays). Sometimes the addition of a dye material like barium is recommended to further delineate the contents of the gastrointestinal tract.

  • Blood tests. These assess the general health of the sick ferret and as part of a pre-surgery work-up. This usually includes a complete blood count (CBC), and a plasma chemistry profile.

    Treatment

    Sick ferrets must first be stabilized by administration of fluids, electrolytes, and supportive care prior to a surgical procedure. Then the majority of foreign bodies have to be removed through a surgical incision. This requires general anesthesia and usually two to three days of hospitalization. Smaller, non-obstructing foreign bodies can sometimes be passed through using intestinal lubricants given by mouth.
    Home Care

    Ferrets that have undergone surgical treatment are usually sent home two to three days after the surgery. Cage rest is necessary until the incision heals, which takes about five to seven days. This means no bathing, no exercise, and no climbing in multilevel cages or pet hammocks.

    In multi-ferret households, surgical patients need to be caged separately from the others until the incision is healed. This is to decrease "rough-housing" and prevent licking at the surgery site by the other ferrets.

    You will need to examine the surgical incision daily and report any excessive redness or licking at the site. Most ferrets leave the incision alone. Skin sutures (stitches) are usually removed in 10-14 days. Some surgeons place absorbable sutures under the skin which are not visible and do not have to be removed.

    Most ferrets are eating and acting normally within a week.

    Prevention

    All homes must be "ferret-proofed." Remove all objects that might become chew-toys for the ferret such as, inappropriate toys, shoes, wires, and household items.

    Monitor the ferret's bowel movements periodically, and then daily if the ferret is suspected of eating something foreign. Pieces of objects can sometimes be identified within the stool.

    Use a hairball laxative preparation two to three times weekly and daily during peak shedding periods, or if your ferret has itchy skin. The cat preparations work well for ferrets; use 1/4 of the recommended cat dose.

    Any vomiting is significant, even if it only happens once or twice. Call your veterinarian to discuss the situation.

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