What is Aspiration Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the respiratory system (mostly confined to the lungs) typically caused by a virus or bacteria that are often found to develop as a consequence of a weakened immune system and as such poses a significant risk to the affected animal. When caused by a foreign object, liquid, or other material, it is most commonly referred to as 'aspiration' pneumonia. The condition is somewhat rarely found in ferrets, as the majority of ill animals will never develop the symptoms, although there remains a slight element of risk. Many animals aside from ferrets are vulnerable to pneumonia, and all of them can find their symptoms quickly becoming life-threatening in nature.

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Symptoms of Aspiration Pneumonia in Ferrets

The signs of aspiration pneumonia are almost identical to those of bacterial pneumonia, though they will have a less obvious origin. For this reason, it is imperative to seek veterinary assistance as soon as a combination of the following symptoms is observed.

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss 
  • Decreased activity
  • Weakness 
  • Lethagy
  • Discharge from mouth and nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing 
  • Dehydration
  • Chest Pain
  • Change in behavior (withdrawn, defensive, possibly violent)
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Fever 
  • Difficulty breathing 

Causes of Aspiration Pneumonia in Ferrets

The main cause of this type of condition is the inhalation of liquid or material that is regurgitated or vomited. Difficulties swallowing due to muscular conditions can also cause food and water to enter the lungs, as can an obstruction of the throat or complications from force-feeding, if required for another medical condition. 

Diagnosis of Aspiration Pneumonia in Ferrets

When the ferret is brought to see the vet, they will typically first be subjected to a thorough physical examination. This will allow the vet to rule out any other potential causes for their illness whilst giving them an opportunity to assess their symptoms for themselves. X-rays can also be used in order to gain a better understanding of what is going on inside the lung, alongside an endoscopy to locate the material responsible for the condition. Samples of the ferret's urine and mucus will help the vet determine exactly which bacteria may be at work.

Treatment of Aspiration Pneumonia in Ferrets

Aspiration pneumonia will usually cause the vet to decide on one of two options. If the condition is not deemed to be life-threatening or is being managed by the ferret's immune system, the vet may opt to keep the animal under observation until it recovers. If the pneumonia is serious, however, the vet will often prescribe a course of antibiotics. If the inhaled matter has not already been expelled from or broken down by the body, the vet will almost always opt to remove it from the lung. This is most commonly done by placing the ferret under anesthesia and using an endoscope to locate and grab the material in question. In many cases, this will be combined with fluid therapy to make sure that the ferret does not become dehydrated.

Recovery of Aspiration Pneumonia in Ferrets

After starting a course of antibiotics, most owners will be able to expect their ferret to be back to normal within the space of a couple of weeks. It is important that the full course of antibiotics is administered in order to prevent setbacks. The ferret may need its activity restricted for a week or so in order to conserve its energy, as well as having a nutritious diet in order to regain its strength and any lost weight. The vet will typically want to schedule a follow-up appointment in order to confirm that the pneumonia has resolved, there are no further complications arising, and to possibly treat any underlying conditions that may have caused the pneumonia in the first place.