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Congestive heart failure is the inability of the heart to pump blood around the body. This is typically due to weakness of the heart muscle, which causes a certain amount of deoxygenated blood to 'back up' instead of being circulated properly around the body. This leads to additional pressure being put on the heart to clear the blockage, leading to a larger backlog of uncirculated blood. It is this 'congestion' of blood in the circulatory system that lends this form of heart failure its name. If left untreated, this condition can prove fatal to all animals, including ferrets.
The symptoms of congestive heart failure can be quite hard to notice at first glance, which is part of what makes the condition so deadly for many animals. For this reason, as soon as the below symptoms are recognized, the animal should get immediate veterinary attention.
One of the hallmarks of congestive heart failure is the retention of fluid, either in the extremities or within the chest cavity itself. This is because as the heart is unable to sufficiently provide circulation, blood and other fluids that would otherwise be moved out of an area of the body tend to stay put. This retention of fluid can result in noticeable swelling in the surrounding tissues and may cause a degree of pain or immobility. It may also cause the impairment of the function of any affected organs, or put direct pressure on the heart itself, worsening the condition.
Owners may notice their ferret start to act in a somewhat 'depressed' manner, becoming quite sedentary in their habits and slow in their movements. They will also show a degree of intolerance for prolonged exercise, preferring instead to confine themselves to strictly necessary movement, which may result in a slight weight gain. This will typically be accompanied by a shortness of breath, causing the ferret to audibly gasp or wheeze during or after strenuous activity.
Congestive heart failure can be extremely uncomfortable for the animal concerned, producing pain both in the heart itself and in other parts of the body due to fluid retention. If liquid collects in the abdomen, this can be especially true as it could put pressure on the digestive system. In any case, if the ferret is undergoing such discomfort, they may become unwilling to be touched by their owner, reacting aggressively to physical contact in an attempt to prevent further discomfort.
The ferret may also start coughing as the condition progresses. The reason for this is that congestive heart failure typically causes a fluid buildup in the lungs which is referred to as a 'pulmonary edema'. Needless to say, this significantly impacts on the ferret's ability to breathe properly and as such they will start coughing in an attempt to clear the fluid out of the lungs.
In ferrets, heartworms are often found to be the root of the problem. However, there are several main causes of congestive heart failure. The first of these is genetics, as many animals suffer from hereditary conditions that are either localized to their bloodline or to their specific breed. There is little that can be done to mitigate the risk of this kind of heart disease. The second cause is damage to the heart due to external factors, which can include things like allergic reactions to medicines or the ingestion of poisonous substances. Third is the presence of conditions such as kidney disease, which can have a knock-on effect on the wellbeing of the other internal organs.
After arriving at the veterinary clinic, the ferret will be subjected to a thorough physical examination in order to better assess the symptoms and determine the animal's level of health. The vet will also use a simple stethoscope in order to take a preliminary reading of the heart's function. They will next use a series of imaging scans in order to ascertain the severity of the condition and decide on an appropriate course of treatment.
The main form of treatment for congestive heart failure is to use drugs to regulate the ferret's heartbeat. These drugs are known as 'beta-blockers' and function by blocking the ability of adrenaline to involuntarily increase the ferret's heart rate, thereby reducing the risk of heart failure. A vasodilator drug may also be required in order to dilate the animal's blood vessels in order to prevent fluid retention and make it easier for the heart to circulate blood around the body. Additionally, if an edema has proven especially troublesome, the vet may opt to drain it (typically via the use of a syringe). In the case of heartworm infestation, the vet will usually opt to kill parasites using a toxic compound.
Following treatment, owners may notice their ferret becoming more willing to partake in exercise and appearing more energetic. Note that though these results are good, it does not indicate that the condition has been 'cured', merely that it is being properly managed via the use of drugs. The vet will often want to schedule a couple of short follow-up appointments in order to gauge the ferret's progress and make sure they are adapting well to life under the new drug regimen. If the problem is congenital, they might also recommend having the ferret sterilized in order to prevent it from passing on the problem to future generations. It is worth bearing in mind that whilst animals that suffered from heartworm can return to normal, they will require several weeks of rest in order to recover from the treatment and to eliminate the dead worms.
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