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What is Dilated Cardiomyopathy?

Unfortunately, there is no known cause for dilated cardiomyopathy in ferrets, however, research has suggested there is a link between amino acid deficiency and this condition in cats. Symptoms can include coughing, rapid breathing, excessive sleepiness, and a fluid build-up in the chest and abdomen. By the time you spot symptoms, the condition has already progressed and caused severe damage to the heart.

Take your ferret to a veterinarian as soon as possible after you see signs of dilated cardiomyopathy. Your ferret will need immediate treatment to control this condition.

Dilated cardiomyopathy is a heart disease that is very common in ferrets that are at least two years of age. In fact, it is the most commonly reported type of heart disease in ferrets. This disease occurs when the muscle cells in the heart begin to die and the heart is no longer strong enough to pump blood efficiently. It is also characterized by a thinning of the heart walls.

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Symptoms of Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Ferrets

Ferrets under the age of two usually do not develop dilated cardiomyopathy. If your ferret has this condition, you may begin to notice some of these common symptoms:

  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Coughing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Fluid build-up in the chest and abdomen

Unfortunately, symptoms usually do not appear until there is already a considerable amount of damage to the heart, which makes treatment more difficult.

Causes of Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Ferrets

The cause of dilated cardiomyopathy in ferrets is unknown. It has been suggested that dilated cardiomyopathy can be caused by an amino acid deficiency in cats, however, research has not been able to find this link in ferrets. It’s possible the condition could be genetic, but there has not been any research to support this either. 

Diagnosis of Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Ferrets

If you spot any of the signs of dilated cardiomyopathy, take your ferret to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Talk to the vet about the symptoms you have observed and when they began. This condition can be difficult to diagnose, so it’s important to give your vet as much information as possible. 

The vet will begin with a physical examination that includes listening to the ferret’s heart with a stethoscope. During this test, the vet should be able to identify abnormal sounds. When the vet listens to your ferret’s breathing, he may be able to hear signs of fluid building up in the lungs. Based on this information, the vet may recommend taking X-rays or performing an echocardiogram. The X-rays will help the vet identify if there is any fluid building up in the chest cavity or abdomen. The echocardiogram measures the shape, size and motion of the heart and its valves, so it plays an important role in the diagnosis of dilated cardiomyopathy. You may need to visit a specialist to have this test, as many veterinarians do not have the equipment to do it in their offices.

Treatment of Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Ferrets

This is a serious condition, so your ferret’s treatment will need to begin immediately following the diagnosis of dilated cardiomyopathy. Treatment will be focused on achieving two goals: increasing your ferret’s blood flow and decreasing the fluid build-up. 

To decrease the accumulation of fluid, the vet will prescribe a diuretic designed to reduce water retention. Lasix is one of the most common diuretics prescribed to ferrets in this situation. Medication can also be prescribed to increase the ferret’s blood flow. Digoxin, which improves the heart’s ability to contract and thus increases blood flow, is one of the most common choices. Another medication that may be prescribed is enalapril, which dilates the ferret’s blood vessels, thus making it easier for the blood to flow throughout the body. However, some ferrets do not react well to enalapril, so vets may be hesitant about prescribing it before trying other medications first.

Recovery of Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Ferrets

Recovery rates for dilated cardiomyopathy are unclear. To ensure your ferret has the best chance of recovering, it’s important to follow the vet’s instructions closely. Administer all medications as advised by the vet, and be sure not to miss any doses. 

The vet will most likely ask that you change your ferret’s diet as well. Ferrets with fluid accumulation caused by dilated cardiomyopathy will need to reduce their sodium intake so they don’t retain as much water. If your ferret is overweight, the vet may recommend following a diet designed to help your ferret lose weight and improve his overall health. Talk to your vet about what kind of food you should be feeding your ferret moving forward.

It’s important to keep your ferret calm and comfortable following a dilated cardiomyopathy diagnosis. Stress can make this condition worse, so make sure your ferret is getting plenty of rest and not exhausting himself with too much activity.