Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is the most commonly reported cardiac disease in ferrets. It is characterized by the progressive loss of cardiac contractility, resulting in a dilated or enlarged heart. With this type of disease, the walls of the heart become thin and weak and unable to efficiently pump blood out into the general circulation. Affected ferrets may show no symptoms at all or they may become weak and collapse.
The cause of this condition in ferrets is unknown. In cats, a taurine (an amino acid) deficiency can lead to dilated cardiomyopathy but this does not seem to be the case in ferrets.
This is a disease usually occurs in older ferrets over four years of age. Both males and females are susceptible. The risk of developing heart disease increases with age.
Ferrets with cardiomyopathy usually do not show symptoms at first, but in time can become quite sick from heart failure. Ferrets with heart failure are weak, have trouble breathing, and difficulty walking. Coughing is uncommon in ferrets with heart disease.
What To Watch For
The most important initial diagnostic test is a good physical examination with auscultation (stethoscope listening) of the heart. Ferrets with DCM usually have murmurs (abnormal heart sounds) and sometimes have arrhythmias or dropped beats. The lungs may sound wet from fluid build-up (edema or effusion). In addition, your veterinarian may recommend the following:
The drugs used most often in the treatment of DCM are Lasix®, Lanoxin®, and Enacard®. These are described below:
Home Care and Prevention
Optimal treatment requires a combination of home and professional veterinary care. Administer all medications as prescribed by your veterinarian. There are potential side effects of heart drugs and any change in your ferret's behavior should be reported. Watch for weakness, difficulty walking, and increased respiratory effort or rate.
It is important to maintain a healthy diet for your ferret and avoid too many table scraps or treats, especially those high in salt or sugar.
Because we really don't know what leads to heart disease in ferrets, it would be difficult to try to prevent this problem. However, because diet plays a role in the development of heart disease in some other species, it would be wise to use only a high quality ferret food from the start.