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An enlarged heart (also referred to as 'cardiomegaly') is a condition that consists of a gradual weakening of the heart muscle. It usually presents itself in older animals or ones that have suffered some kind of direct injury to the heart itself. In ferrets, cardiomegaly is often congenital, meaning that it can be very hard to narrow down exactly which animals have the condition and remove them from the breeding population. An enlarged heart is usually regarded as a sign of impending critical heart failure and its symptoms can often be lethal.
Most symptoms of cardiomegaly are quite noticeable, as they have a clear impact on the ferret's daily life. Once the symptoms are detected however, it is imperative that owners seek immediate veterinary assistance, as heart problems of any kind can rapidly become life-threatening if left untreated.
One of the most noticeable signs of an enlarged heart is the animal starting to cough profusely. Unlike with a common cold or viral infection, this will not be accompanied by any visible inflammation or production of mucous in the nasal passages. Instead, the cough is purely focused on clearing away fluid that has built up in the lungs. This liquid appears as the condition worsens due to the fact that the heart becomes unable to efficiently circulate blood around the body, resulting in a 'traffic jam' effect in the blood vessels leading into the organ. This in turn causes fluids to seep into the surrounding tissues before collecting in the lungs, causing the cough reflex to kick in as a means of clearing it away.
Once a ferret's heart has become enlarged, owners could also notice their pet starting to act in a very tired and unenergetic manner. This is most often characterized by the ferret staying in one area of their enclosure for hours at a time and sometimes even ignoring offers of food. They will also ignore most attempts to interact or play, instead trying to rest. If they do undergo a period of strenuous physical activity, it will usually be short-lived and result in a noticeable level of exhaustion.
As a consequence of an enlarged heart, owners will also hear their ferret starting to breathe heavily as time goes by. Although this is partly a result of fluid from the tissues around the heart seeping into the lungs and making it difficult for the animal to breathe, it is mostly due to the ferret's increased need for oxygen. This is because as the heart becomes less and less able to properly circulate oxygenated blood, the ferret begins to breathe deeper and heavier than before in an effort to correct the problem. This will commonly manifest as a wheezing noise during and after exercise.
An enlarged heart can additionally cause the affected animal's heart rate to fall out of its proper rhythm. This is because as the heart becomes bigger, the muscles within it become weaker and unable to properly function in concert with one another. This can cause heart valves to open at the wrong time or chambers to contract and expand in the wrong order (resulting in further difficulties as the trapped blood puts more direct pressure on the heart). The end result of this is that the heart will lapse out of its normal rhythm. Left untreated, this can lead to an even larger degree of weakness in the heart muscle and cause congestive heart failure as uncirculated blood puts so much pressure on the heart that it prevents it from beating. Owners can easily check their ferret's pulse by placing their fingers flat against its torso.
As the heart becomes unable to properly circulate blood around the body, the ferret will experience fluid building up in tissues that are particularly hard for the circulatory system to service. This water retention is referred to as 'edema' and results in uncomfortable and sometimes quite noticeable levels of swelling. Although edema can usually be most easily noticed in the extremities, in ferrets the swelling can be most evident in the abdominal region. When checking for edema, owners should be careful how they handle the ferret, as direct contact with the swelling can cause a large degree of discomfort or pain and provoke a violent response.
There are two main causes for enlarged hearts in ferrets, namely genetics and physical damage to the heart muscle. In its congenital form, cardiomegaly is virtually impossible to predict or detect until it has already entered its early stages. If there is a more direct cause, however, then it can be easier for owners to predict and watch out for the condition. Commonly, anything that produces a prolonged arrhythmia or extended period of blood pressure problems can eventually result in a weakening of the heart muscle and the organ becoming enlarged.
When the ferret is presented to the clinic, the vet will typically perform a full physical examination of the animal in order to both verify its symptoms and check for anything that may have gone unnoticed that could explain its condition. Furthermore, the examination will present a good opportunity for the vet to check the ferret's vitals and heart rate. Next, an imaging scan of the heart can be done using an ultrasound machine, which will provide the vet with a far more detailed view of exactly what is going on inside the animal's body. The vet will typically have some questions for the owner regarding both the progression of the symptoms, as well as the ferret's medical history, as this can yield some important clues as to the cause of the enlargement.
Depending on the exact underlying cause of the heart enlargement, different drugs may be required in order to solve the problem. Beta-blockers, for instance, would be required in order to treat high blood pressure, whilst anti-arrhythmic drugs will help the heart beat at a normal tempo. If edema has occurred, then manual draining using a syringe may be required to relieve some of the pressure before the fluid is reabsorbed by the body. In some cases, the vet will prescribe a diuretic drug to help the ferret quickly lose excess water via urination.
Unfortunately, once a ferret's heart has become enlarged, there is no permanent cure. It is simply a matter of managing the condition via the use of drugs in order to prevent it from producing more serious symptoms (i.e. cardiac arrest). However, once the vet has administered the correct drugs to the animal, there will be a noticeable improvement in their condition within the space of a few days. Periodic follow-up appointments may be necessary, however, as the vet will want to make sure that the ferret is continuing to respond well to treatment and is not experiencing any further symptoms or complications.
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