What are Diabetes?

Diabetes in ferrets is a complex disease that is characterized by the inability to produce or use insulin. The hormone insulin is released by the pancreas and is responsible for regulating blood glucose. If insulin is absent from the body or the body is not reacting to insulin, the glucose that the ferret is putting into the body by eating is not used for energy. To make up for the lack of energy the body needs to function, the ferret’s body targets its protein and fat reserves. As a result, the ferret will quickly lose weight as more and more of the fat storage is being used. Eventually the protein and fat storage will run out, resulting in a terminal condition that must be addressed by a veterinary professional. 

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Symptoms of Diabetes in Ferrets

The symptoms associated with diabetes in ferrets are the body’s response to evaluated concentrations of blood glucose and the body’s inability to use the available glucose as a source of energy. A ferret may respond by showing an overall body weakness paired with weight loss, polyphagia, polyuria and polydipsia. A diabetic ferret will have a decreased ability to fight bacterial and fungal infections, making them more susceptible to chronic or recurrent infections. Ferrets often develop hepatomegaly, or fatty liver disease, as a result of lipid accumulation caused by the weight loss effects of diabetes. To summarize, ferrets suffering from diabetes mellitus will display the following clinical signs: 

  • Increased drinking (polydipsia) 
  • Increased urination (polyuria) 
  • Increased appetite (polyphagia) 
  • Lack of appetite (anorexia) 
  • Weight loss 

Types

Diabetes is divided into two groups: Type 1 and Type 2.

  • Type 1 Diabetes: a total lack of insulin caused by a destruction of beta-cells. 
  • Type 2 Diabetes: the insulin-producing cells are present, but the cells resist the absorption of insulin. 

Causes of Diabetes in Ferrets

Ferret diabetes cases have greatly increased, as the domesticated life we provide for our pets mimic the human lifestyle. Ferrets that are fed a high carbohydrate diet, are obese, and live a sedentary lifestyle are at a very high risk for developing diabetes. Veterinarians also find ferrets that suffer from chronic renal insufficiency, hyperthyroidism, and have been prescribed corticosteroid drugs over a long period of time are prone to developing diabetes. We also tend to see ferrets of older age, over eight years, and neutered males present pancreatic insufficiencies at a higher rate than other ferrets. 

Diagnosis of Diabetes in Ferrets

The diagnosis of diabetes in ferrets is based on the pet’s presenting clinical signs paired with the presence of glucose in the urine and in the blood. However, initial diagnostic tests that reveal glycosuria (glucose in urine) and/or hyperglycemia (glucose in blood) are not clear signs that a ferret has diabetes mellitus. In fact, your veterinarian may ask for blood draws on your ferret over a week’s time to properly diagnose the ferret with diabetes. The reason behind this is because stress also causes the ferret’s blood and urine to show a presence of glucose. As a ferret becomes frightened (a common occurrence at vet visits) the body reacts by releasing glucose energy into the bloodstream, which would allow the ferret enough energy to run away from the frightening situation. Therefore, the vet may choose to perform a urinalysis and blood tests for a few days to make a positive diagnosis. He or she may also choose to perform a fructosamine blood test, as this test in not altered by a ferret’s stress level and can indicate the average blood glucose levels over a week’s time. 

Treatment of Diabetes in Ferrets

The goal of treating diabetes in ferrets is to replace the lost insulin levels in the body. Your veterinarian will likely recommend a diet change, including ferret foods high in protein and low in carbohydrates. As ferrets diagnosed with diabetes are often overweight, the doctor may also work with you to develop a weight loss plan for your ferret. Aside from a veterinary recommended diet plan, your ferret will need to be placed on a lifelong therapeutic treatment to address the loss of insulin. Treatment options your veterinarian may suggest include: 

  • Insulin injection: an insulin injection is the most common treatment for ferret diabetes, administered twice daily. 
  • Oral glycemic agent: an oral tablet that is given daily to promote insulin secretions from the pancreatic organ. 

Recovery of Diabetes in Ferrets

The majority of ferrets can experience a long and happy life after being diagnosed with diabetes, but it depends on the pet owner. You will be required to monitor your ferret’s blood glucose levels every day, just like a person with diabetes would do. Periodic checkups are necessary, especially in the beginning stages of treatment, to ensure you are calculating glucose levels accurately. The veterinarian may also alter your ferret’s treatment plan over time, so following the doctor’s directions exactly is important.