Ferrets have a tendency to ingest objects – which we refer to as ‘foreign objects’ or ‘foreign bodies’ – and develop an impaction of their stomach and intestines (known as the ‘gastrointestinal system’). In addition, similar to cats, they can develop hair balls in their stomachs. In this article we explain how these conditions are recognised and treated.
What is a ‘foreign object’?
Foreign objects are also called foreign bodies. Everything that is NOT part of the normal diet of a ferret can be a foreign object/body if eaten and not expelled/digested; this may include a piece of carpet, a small plastic toy, an olive pit, a piece of cork, etc. Ferrets that are free-roaming in the house without supervision are more likely to ingest foreign bodies. In addition, these ferrets can also ingest substances that are toxic when absorbed, such as chocolate, ibuprofen or recreational drugs.
What are the signs that my ferret may have ingested a foreign object?
Symptoms shown by ferrets with gastrointestinal foreign objects are variable and include:
- Loss of appetite
- Blood-stained faeces (from dark red to black)
Nausea is more common than vomiting, but these clinical signs do not appear in every case. If there is a complete obstruction, then clinical signs will be more severe and no faeces will be produced.
Gastrointestinal foreign objects are emergencies, and complete gastrointestinal obstruction is a major emergency that may require immediate surgery.
Foreign bodies that do not completely obstruct the outflow of the stomach/intestines can produce gastritis (inflammation of the stomach) and abnormal faeces.
How will my vet know if my ferret has ingested a foreign object?
Your vet may be able to detect the foreign object by palpating your ferret’s abdomen, and pain or discomfort can be shown when the foreign object is in the intestine. It is not uncommon to find more than one foreign body at the same time.
X-rays are generally necessary to diagnose the problem. In some cases, the foreign object can easily be seen on a straightforward x-ray. Contrast x-rays (ie giving the ferret a meal containing a substance such as barium or iodine and then x-raying them) can be performed to assess the presence and consequences of foreign objects.
X-rays are important to investigate foreign objects. In this case, loops of intestine are enlarged with gas due to obstruction with two olive pits
How are they treated?
In some cases, when clinical signs are mild and the ferret continues eating and defecating, your vet may decide to use medical treatment, using lubricants (such as cat laxatives) and fluid therapy. However, these cases will need to be closely monitored, as the intestine can get impacted at any time and then it becomes an emergency.
Most cases are treated using surgery to remove the foreign object(s). A sick ferret should be stabilised appropriately before undergoing a surgical procedure with anaesthesia, and so your vet will check blood results, and give painkillers and fluid therapy.
Foreign objects carry a guarded prognosis, but early diagnosis and surgery may significantly improve the outcome of these cases.
What are hair balls?
Hair balls in the stomach are also known by their most technical name ‘trichobezoars’. For a hair ball to occur, the ferret has to swallow its own hair, but it is unknown why this problem occurs in some animals and not in others.
What are the signs that my ferret may have a hair ball?
The signs of a hair ball in a ferret include:
- Blood in faeces (rare)
- Vomiting (rare)
How are hair balls diagnosed?
Your vet may be able to feel the hair ball in your ferret’s stomach although this can sometimes be difficult. X-rays (including ‘contrast’ x-rays where either barium or air is passed into the stomach) will help in the diagnosis by outlining the hair ball better.
How are hair balls treated?
Hair balls are very rarely vomited in ferrets, and therefore surgery is the treatment of choice. Treatment with cat laxatives does rarely resolve the problem, and it can make it worse if the hair ball enters the intestine and produces an intestinal obstruction. Stomach surgery has a better prognosis than intestinal surgery, and intestinal impaction needs immediate veterinary care and surgery.
If medical treatment is decided upon, the ferret should be closely monitored by your vet to assess how effective the treatment has been, as it is common for the hair ball to move within the stomach (improving clinical signs) or enter the intestine (which needs more frequent monitoring to make sure it does not produce an impaction).
Multiple hair balls are common, such as this case of two hair balls in the stomach
Some ferrets treated medically with cat laxatives improve initially, but they never recover the weight lost and usually show worsening of symptoms and require surgery. Some cases have more than one hair ball in the stomach. Ferrets, particularly those with a predisposition to develop hair balls and those older than 3-4 years old, may have preventative treatment with cat laxatives.
The prognosis for ferrets with hair balls is good if detected on time and solved surgically. However, if the hair ball enters the intestine, then it becomes an intestinal foreign body and the prognosis is guarded.