What is Difficulty Swallowing?

There are a number of different causes of dysphagia that range in severity. Some of the minor causes may include acid reflux or inflammation in the oral cavity.  Some of the more serious causes include cancerous masses that block the airway or respiratory diseases. There’s no way for you to tell what’s causing your ferret’s dysphagia, so it’s important to take him to a vet as soon as possible so the vet can identify the underlying condition and quickly begin to treat it.

Swallowing is a simple act that helps ferrets consume food they need to stay alive. But, some ferrets can develop dysphagia, which is a condition characterized by difficulty swallowing. When a ferret has dysphagia, he has trouble moving food from his mouth into the esophagus. He may begin to gag, choke, or cough when he tries to eat. After repeated attempts to swallow, your ferret may also regurgitate pieces of food.

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Symptoms of Difficulty Swallowing in Ferrets

If your ferret is having difficulty swallowing, this may indicate he is suffering from dysphagia. In fact, any difficulty with chewing, swallowing, or moving the food around in his mouth could be a sign of this condition. Other symptoms include:

  • Gagging
  • Choking
  • Vomiting food that is partially swallowed or whole
  • Coughing

Causes of Difficulty Swallowing in Ferrets

There are a number of reasons why your ferret may be suffering from dysphagia. Some of the most common causes of this condition are:

  • Neuromuscular or structural issues in the ferret’s oral cavity or throat that make the act of swallowing difficult or impossible
  • Untreated dental issues
  • Central nervous issues
  • Inflammation of the oral cavity or throat
  • Acid reflux
  • Cysts
  • Respiratory diseases that affect the throat

Diagnosis of Difficulty Swallowing in Ferrets

If your ferret is having trouble swallowing food, take him to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Describe the symptoms in as much detail as possible so the vet understands exactly what is happening. For example, don’t just say your ferret is having trouble swallowing. If your ferret is vomiting partially swallowed food, choking on the food, or coughing while trying to swallow, mention this to the vet.

The vet will begin by performing a complete blood count, blood chemistry profile, and urinalysis to get a better idea of your ferret’s overall health. These tests may show that your ferret is suffering from some sort of disease or infection, which will help the vet determine how to move forward with the diagnosis.

Next, the vet will perform a physical exam of the oral cavity and take X-rays or ultrasounds of the throat and chest. This will help the vet identify any abnormal inflammation or structural damage that could be causing the dysphagia. If any masses are discovered, the vet may need to biopsy them to test for cancer.

Finally, the vet may perform a fluoroscopic barium swallow. During this test, the vet will administer food filled with barium to the ferret and then observe him swallowing it using a special X-ray machine. This test helps the vet identify what is happening when the ferret attempts to swallow. 

Treatment of Difficulty Swallowing in Ferrets

The treatment your ferret receives will vary depending on the cause of the dysphagia. For example, if inflammation is the problem, the vet may need to administer anti-inflammatory medication. If the difficulty is caused by a respiratory illness such as pneumonia, this can also be treated with medication. Acid reflux can sometimes cause dysphagia, but luckily this condition can also be treated with medication and dietary changes.

If a cyst is blocking your ferret’s airways, the vet may need to perform surgery to remove the mass and free the airway. It’s possible the cyst could be cancerous, in which case your ferret will need to undergo either radiation treatment, chemotherapy, or both in addition to the surgery. Surgery may also be needed if there is a structural issue in the oral cavity or throat causing the dysphagia. 

Recovery of Difficulty Swallowing in Ferrets

Whether your ferret recovers from this condition will depend on the underlying cause of the symptoms. If your ferret had a non-cancerous cyst or inflammation, his chances of recovering are high. However, if your ferret had a cancerous cyst, his chances are much lower.

Talk to your vet about whether you need to modify your ferret’s diet to help him recover from this condition. The vet may suggest that you hold your ferret in a certain position while he eats to make swallowing easier. He may also suggest that you hand feed him small bites of food so you can control how much he tries to swallow at once. Or, the vet may ask that you keep your ferret on a liquid diet in the days following treatment.