One of the more common problems in adult ferrets is having chronically loose stools and/or diarrhea. Many different problems can cause loose stools and diarrhea in pet ferrets. Some cases are from an infectious agent, such as a Helicobacter infection; some are from parasitic diseases, such as coccidia or Giardia; and some are from non-infectious problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease or from cancer, such as lymphoma. That said, inflammatory bowel disease may be the most common cause of chronically abnormal stools in ferrets.
What is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)? IBD is chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This inflammation of the stomach and intestinal tract reduces digestion of food and absorption of the nutrients from the food. The remaining undigested food pulls water into the intestinal tract and causes the loose stools and diarrhea. The inflammed intestinal tract also makes it easier for some bacteria to overgrow. This bacterial overgrowth can add to the inflammation and loose stool problem.
What causes the inflammation in the GI tract? The inflammation is a result of an abnormal response of the ferret’s own immune system. Things that can stimulate the immune system to overreact include food allergies, a previous viral infection with the enteric coronavirus (ECE), bacterial infection with Helicobacter or bacterial overgrowth of the normal bacteria in the gut, and possibly genetic factors. The inflammatory response leads to a much thicker and damaged GI tract.
How will you know if your ferret has IBD? A ferret with IBD typically has loose stools and/or diarrhea. This may be subtle in the beginning, but eventually the ferret has loose stools or diarrhea on a frequent basis. The maldigestion and malabsorption of the food eventually leads to weight loss. Over time more signs may develop, such as lack of appetite, lethargy and loss of muscle mass. Many diseases can also cause these somewhat vague GI signs, so diagnostic testing is needed to diagnose IBD.
A fecal test is done to check for coccidia and Giardia. Blood work will usually show some elevation in lipase, globulin and ALT. Albumin may be decreased if protein is being lost in the feces. Ultrasound of the abdomen often shows a thicker intestinal tract and some enlarged abdominal lymph nodes. All of this is suggestive of IBD, but lymphoma in the GI tract can cause similar signs. Thus biopsies of the stomach and intestinal tract are needed to definitively diagnose IBD. The biopsy samples should be sent out to a veterinary pathologist who is familiar with looking at ferret GI samples.
How do you treat IBD? There is no cure for IBD, so treatment is aimed at decreasing the inflammation in the GI tract and controlling the diarrhea. In some IBD cases, changing the diet to a hypoallergenic hydrolyzed protein source diet (Hill’s feline z/d), or to a single novel protein source diet such as duck, rabbit or venison (Hill’s feline d/d), or to a multiple novel protein source diet such as turkey, venison lamb and fish (Totally Ferret turkey, venison, lamb formula) will control the food allergy problem and control the IBD.
IBD cases that are not food-allergy related are more difficult to control. For these cases, immune suppression is needed to control the inflammation. Prednisolone or prednisone can be used. Some cases will also require azathioprine (Imuran) to further suppress the immune system and control the GI inflammation. Antibiotics such as amoxicillin and enrofloxacin are useful in the beginning of the treatment to control the bacterial overgrowth in the intestines. Antidiarrheals such as kaolin-pectin and loperamide can also be useful in initially firming up the feces. Cobalamin (vitamin B12) supplementation can also help treat the chronic diarrhea.
Most cases of IBD can be treated and the abnormal stools controlled for a long time, but treatment is usually needed for the rest of the ferret’s life.