Diarrhea may be defined as an increase in frequency, liquid content and volume of the feces. When feces are normally formed, the amount of fluid in the feces is controlled by intestinal absorption or secretion. Diarrhea occurs when the intestinal tract fails to absorb sufficient liquid or increases the amount of liquid secreted into the feces, or both. Diarrhea is one of the most common manifestations of intestinal tract disease in ferrets.
If your ferret occasionally has a few stools with a liquid or loosely formed consistency and has no other symptoms, it may be normal. If, however, the diarrhea is persistent, lasting more than a day, recurrent (returns frequently) or other symptoms occur, medical attention is needed. Continued diarrhea can cause a loss of fluid and electrolytes, leading to dehydration.
What to Watch For
The veterinarian will recommend specific diagnostic tests depending on the severity or duration of the diarrhea. Chronic diarrhea (diarrhea lasting for several days to weeks) or diarrhea along with other symptoms usually requires extensive diagnostic testing. A complete history is extremely helpful in reaching a diagnosis. Be prepared to tell your veterinarian when the diarrhea began, if the feces have changed or varied in consistency or color, the type of diet your ferret is on, and of any potential exposure to other ferrets.
Recommended tests may include:
Treatment for diarrhea may include any combination of:
Home Care and Prevention
If only one or two of the stools appear diarrheic and the ferret is young (under two years of age) and has no other symptoms, withhold food for 12 hours. Offer a bland diet consisting of chicken baby food. Be sure plenty of fresh water is available, and that the ferret is drinking. Alternatively, offer Pedialyte or Gatorade to replace electrolytes lost in the diarrhea.
If stools do not return to normal within 24 hours, if diarrhea worsens or any other symptoms develop, contact your veterinarian.
Give all medication as directed, for as long as directed, even after the symptoms appear to be gone. Watch for a change in the stools, and report any changes to your veterinarian. If improvement is not seen, report this to your veterinarian.
If the diarrhea is worsening, or the ferret develops other symptoms, alert your veterinarian immediately.
Diarrhea occurs when the intestinal tract is unable to absorb fluid or when cells lining the intestines secrete excessive amounts of fluid. Many factors can alter the intestinal tract's ability to absorb or secrete fluids properly. For example, if food is not properly digested, it tends to pull fluid into the intestinal lumen. Or if the lining of the intestinal tract is irritated by a toxin, infection or irritation, cellular changes cause an increase in secretion of fluid into the intestinal lumen.
Peristaltic waves, which are rhythmic contractions of the intestinal tract that serve to push digested food forward, occur at regular controlled intervals in normal ferrets. In some ferrets with diarrhea, these waves lack coordination, so that food moves through the intestinal tract too quickly. This results in an increase in frequency of defecation, and an increase in the liquid content since fluid does not have a chance to be absorbed.
Ferrets may normally have an occasional stool that is not well formed. This can occur due to excitement, stress or sudden changes in the diet. For example, diarrhea may occur if the ferret is fed excessive numbers of treats or table foods, or if he eats spoiled food from the garbage. If due to a diet change, the diarrhea should resolve after all new food is digested, and should not last more than 12 hours after new food has been removed from the diet. If the diarrhea persists, or if the ferret develops any other symptoms such as vomiting, lethargy, excess drooling, pawing at the mouth or decrease in appetite, you should seek veterinary attention immediately.
The appearance of the stool often varies depending on the area of the intestinal tract that is damaged. For example, ferrets with a disorder of the large bowel (colon) will usually have diarrhea that is characterized by frequent, painful defecations in which only a small amount of stool is produced. Stool is liquid or has a formed but soft consistency, and may contain fresh blood or mucus. Rectal prolapse may be a sequela to chronic large bowel diarrhea.
Ferrets with diarrhea due to small intestinal disorders often produce a large volume of feces with each defecation. Stools often have a liquid consistency. If the small intestine is damaged and can no longer absorb nutrients properly, stools often have a grainy, or "bird seed" appearance. Ferrets with small intestinal diarrhea often lose weight despite having a good appetite.
There are many causes of diarrhea in ferrets. The cause may be very simple, such as a dietary change, or may be due to a number of complex disease processes. There are many contagious diseases that cause diarrhea, so it is important to inform your veterinarian of any potential contact – direct or indirect – with other ferrets.
A thorough history is extremely important in the diagnosis of diarrhea. Be prepared to answer the following questions:
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:
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.