In Your Ferret
Ron Hines DVM PhD
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Veterinarians do not know why some ferrets develop this type of heart disease. We know that it was common in cats when they ate diets that did not have enough taurine. Manufacturers corrected that problem. We see less cardiomyopathy in ferrets than we used to - so perhaps taurine was also involved.
Heart disease in ferrets tends to sneak up on owners. It is only when the pet is an advanced stage of heart failure that signs become obvious. By then, treatment is difficult and a cure is impossible.
When portions of the ferret's heart muscle die, the heart can no longer pump blood through the pet's body efficiently. In response, the heart gets flabby and large. This is also called congestive heart failure. This causes blood in the pet's body pools in the tummy and lungs when its circulation becomes too sluggish. The signs you will see are a pot belly and a soft cough in your pet. It will tire easily and not be as active as it once was. This form of cardiomyopathy is called dilitative cardiomyopathy.
Occasionally the wall of the heart does not get thin and flabby. Instead, it increases in thickness. This form of heart disease is called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Although the heart appears quite different from the first type, the effects on the ferret are the same. .
Once the pet is brought to a veterinarian, signs of the disease are usually quite apparent. The pets tend to breath rapidly and shallow and their heart rate is very weak and very fast. But the most striking changes appear on x-rays. The pet's lungs will show that they are soaked in pooled fluid (pulmonary edema) and the diameter of the heart will be much larger than it should be - crowding out other body organs.
If you lift your ferrets lips, you will see that the gums are no longer a uniform pink. Instead, they will be bluish or grayish and color comes back only slowly when the gums are pinched. This is called slowed capillary refill time (CRT). Normal capillary refill time in your ferret is less than three seconds.
It is rare that further diagnostic tests are required. Dog heartworms occasionally infect ferrets causing similar signs. So that possibility may need to be ruled out. If you take your pet in for a yearly health checkup and your veterinarian uses an ultrasound or echo cardiograph machine, they may pick up the problem much earlier.
What Treatments Are Available For My Pet?
The most important think we can do to make your ferret feel better is to give medications that reduce the amount of fluid pooled in its lungs. The second most important thing is to give drugs that will help the pet's heart pump blood more efficiently. However, in all cases , this is a progressive disease that will require more medications as time goes on. A few ferrets manage to live up to two years after this disease is diagnosed but that is quite rare. The majority do not survive over 8 months.
Sometimes, it is sufficient to just remove the fluid that has accumulated in the pet's lungs. The most common drug for this purpose is furosemide (Lasix). It can be given up to three times a day. You will see changes in your ferret within an hour of giving him his medicine. It will cause your pet to urinate more and to drink more. Be sure water is always available.
The medications we use in your ferret are the same ones physicians use in people. The most popular one is enalapril (Vasotec,Enacard). The ferret's kidneys must be in good condition when receiving this medication and should be occasionally monitored with blood tests.
(benazepril HCl, Lotensin)
Calcium Channel Blockers:
The most commonly used one in ferrets is diltiazem (Cardizem).
The most commonly used on in ferrets is atenolol (Tenormin).
Salt Restricted Diet
Some owners and veterinarians suggest that these pets receive only limited salt. We don't have scientific data to back this up - but it might be helpful as it is in humans with heart conditions. You must not entirely eliminate salt from your pet's diet - but you can supplement its diet with low salt prescription cat foods or attempt to prepare such a diet at home.
Weakened and ill ferrets do best when they are housed alone. If you are keeping several ferrets, keep a special cage for this one. Keep the temperature in its area below 80F. Do not allow children to play with it and keep its play times to a minimum.
Many vets use this medication in the last stages of heart failure. I avoid using it because of the severe side effects I have seen in pets receiving it. But most of these pets are not ferrets - so if your veterinarian suggests giving the drug it may be worth a try. Animals receiving this drug do not survive very long.
This medication is a phosphodiesterase III inhibitor. Vetmedin works by increasing the amount of calcium available to the heart muscles and also lowers vascular resistance and blood pressure so the ferret's heart does not have to work as hard.