Q: My “ferret specialist” vet explained that ECE was due to a naturally occurring bacteria, normally kept in check, getting out of balance and growing exponentially, due to the stress of a newcomer. He said nothing about contagion. The newcomer never got it. Is that true?
A: Epizootic catarrhal enteritis (ECE) has caused problems in the pet ferret population for almost two decades. This disease has been investigated by a number of ferret experts. For many years, the cause of ECE was speculated to be bacteria, a virus or even an intestinal parasite. Over the last decade, it has become clear that the cause is likely a coronavirus.
It is thought that a ferret may become sick with signs of ECE once it is exposed to a ferret that has the coronavirus and is shedding the organism into the environment.
So, if ECE is caused by a virus, why do we use antibiotics to treat it? It is because, and this might be what your doctor was trying to say, an overgrowth of some bacterial species occurs in the intestinal tract when a ferret is sick with ECE. The bacteria may not be causing any problems until the ferret becomes sick with the virus that causes ECE.
The typical case occurs when a new ferret is brought into a household that has older ferrets. Both the older ferrets and the new ferret appear healthy; no signs of diarrhea are initially seen. But we think that the new ferret is spreading the virus that causes ECE even though the new ferret appears healthy. Within one or two weeks, the older ferret(s) become sick and shows signs of ECE, which can be diarrhea, lethargy and vomiting. The new ferret was a carrier of the ECE virus but was not sick due to the virus. So, the latest thinking is that this is a contagion that in this case is a virus.