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An enlarged liver (known as 'hepatomegaly') is a somewhat uncommon occurrence in ferrets, but is nonetheless quite dangerous if allowed to continue untreated. This is because of the vital function that the liver performs in filtering potentially lethal substances out of the body; if the function of the organ is impaired, then it can have dire consequences for the health of the ferret. Fortunately, however, if the problem is caught promptly most vets will be able to easily diagnose the issue.
Fortunately, enlargement of a ferret's liver produces some quite visible symptoms, giving owners plenty of opportunity to seek medical advice for their pets.
As the liver (or part of it) increases in size, it can place an uncomfortable amount of pressure on both the organ itself and the surrounding tissues. This makes it quite sensitive to the touch and can make the ferret in question quite unwilling to be physically interacted with. It may even cause the animal's behavior to change drastically, making it irritable and even potentially aggressive if it is not left to its own devices. Furthermore, owners may detect a noticeable amount of swelling beneath the ferret's ribcage as the liver pushes against the skin.
Although this can sometimes be an underlying cause of an enlarged liver, bacterial infection can also set in as a secondary consequence of the condition. This is due to the large amount of fluid that may be being retained within the liver, which, coupled with the organ's impaired ability to filter out foreign contaminants, provides a fertile breeding ground for bacteria. An infection will typically result in a heightened level of discomfort for the ferret, along with a noticeable change in appearance (such as weight loss) as time goes on and a worsening of other symptoms.
Liver problems will often result in an animal throwing up. This is an involuntary reaction by the body designed to clear any potential contaminants out of the digestive system. In the early stages of the liver enlargement, this will often simply present itself as nausea, with the ferret appearing somewhat withdrawn and refusing to eat meals. As time goes on, however, this will develop into full-blown vomiting as the ferret voids the contents of their digestive system. It is important for owners to keep in mind that animals as small as ferrets can easily become dehydrated by throwing up. This is because such a large amount of liquid leaves the body in a small amount of time. To counteract this, plenty of drinking water should be made available to the ferret.
An enlarged liver often causes the affected animal to lose a large amount of their energy and become quite sedentary. This is one of the clearest signs that there is something seriously wrong with the animal, as the ferret (usually a very energetic and curious creature) will abruptly cease normal activity and confine itself to one small part of its living space.
Liver damage will often provoke the release into the bloodstream of substances that are usually filtered away by the liver. Jaundice is one of the most apparent indicators that this is taking place, as the ferret's skin will quickly change from grey to a strong shade of yellow. This is due to the release of a chemical known as 'bilirubin' from the liver. The animal's eyes will also change color, giving the owner a clear sign that something is wrong.
The enlargement of a ferret's liver can take place for several reasons, but most cases are linked to either heart problems, cancer, or an infection of the digestive system. Heart problems can often cause the body to retain fluids in areas with lots of capillaries (such as the liver) because the circulation of blood becomes much weaker as the heart muscle becomes less and less efficient. This fluid retention produces localized swelling, resulting in the aforementioned symptoms. Cancer can cause localized enlargement of the liver as a tumor develops.
The vet will typically perform a physical examination of the ferret as soon as they are delivered to the clinic. This exam will allow the vet to verify the animal's symptoms and check for clues that the owner could have missed. In order to get a better view of the enlarged liver and narrow down the cause of the swelling, imaging scans using ultrasound can be utilized by the vet. If the cause of the swelling is a solid mass, however, a biopsy may be required in order to ascertain whether or not cancer is present.
In order to treat the enlargement of the liver, the vet will primarily look to address the underlying cause. If heart problems are responsible, then the ferret may require drugs for the rest of its life in order to prevent the symptoms from reoccurring and allow the excess fluid to drain from the liver. A solid lump in the liver such as a tumor or a cyst could require surgical intervention to relieve the symptoms, as well as further treatment such as radiotherapy to prevent the cancer from spreading.
Once the swelling has been relieved and the liver has returned to its normal size, most ferrets can expect to be back to normal within a week. It will be necessary, however, to restrict their exercise periods in order to conserve their energy. If profuse vomiting occurred, owners should, for the first few days after treatment, consider feeding them a bland diet that can be easily digested.
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