What are Enlargement of the Esophagus?

In the world of veterinary medicine, the enlargement of the esophagus in ferrets is termed megaesophagus and can be fatal. Megaesophagus can result in secondary aspiration pneumonia, the act of fluids entering the lungs. Aspiration pneumonia is a life-threatening condition and many ferrets die without the proper treatment. 

The enlargement of the esophagus in ferrets is the dilation of the esophagus due to a lack of muscular motility. The esophagus is a tubular, muscular organ that brings food and liquid down into the stomach for digestion. When this organ is enlarged, the sphincter muscles cannot properly carry the substances down the tube, causing a halt in food passage. The compacted food will then cause the esophagus to swell, resulting in an enlarged esophagus and the inability to properly consume nutrients. 

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Symptoms of Enlargement of the Esophagus in Ferrets

The esophagus is a tubular organ responsible for the passing of food and water to the digestive system, therefore, eating/drinking abilities will be compromised. The esophagus is also adjacent to the trachea responsible for the passage of oxygen to the lungs, therefore, an enlarged esophagus can interfere with the epiglottis. The epiglottis is a flap of elastic tissue that opens when the ferret breathes and closes when swallowing, preventing liquids from entering the lungs. It is for this reason, the ferret with an enlarged esophagus will cough and choke, sometimes leading to a life-threatening case of aspiration pneumonia. A full list of symptoms related to the enlargement of the esophagus in ferrets includes the following: 

  • Exaggerated swallowing efforts
  • Coughing 
  • Choking 
  • Regurgitation 
  • Vomiting 
  • Weight loss
  • Anorexia 
  • Dysphagia 
  • Lethargy 
  • Labored breathing 

Causes of Enlargement of the Esophagus in Ferrets

The enlargement of the esophagus in ferrets is a frequently fatal disorder that occurs for unknown reasons. The muscular anatomy of the ferret resembles the same anatomy as the dog and, therefore, it can be assumed that the same causes of canine megaesophagus are potential causes for this condition in ferrets. An esophagus can become enlarged due to a neurological or neuromuscular disease such as cancer or botulism. This condition can also be a result of an intoxication, inflammation, of the esophagus, but the most common cause of the enlargement of the esophagus in ferrets is idiopathic or unknown. 

Diagnosis of Enlargement of the Esophagus in Ferrets

Following a thorough review of your ferret’s medical history and performing a physical exam, the veterinarian will proceed to perform logical diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of the problem. The symptoms an enlarged esophagus causes mimic similar clinical signs of autoimmune myasthenia gravis, influenza, gastritis and a foreign body obstruction, so a differential diagnosis will be required. The veterinarian will likely request the following diagnostic tests: 

  • A CBC (Complete blood cell count): blood test used to evaluate the number of circulating platelets, red, and white blood cells. 
  • A biochemistry profile: a blood test that provides information of the amount of electrolytes and gastrointestinal enzymes the feline is making. This blood test also indicates the functionality of the ferret’s organs and overall internal health. 
  • Urinalysis: examination of the urine to screen for infection, metabolic conditions, and damage to the kidneys. 
  • Thoracic x-rays: ultrasonic imaging of the chest containing the heart, lungs and upper digestive tract. 
  • Abdominal x-rays: ultrasonic imaging of the abdominal cavity. 
  • Endoscopy: the use of a fiber-optic camera placed inside the esophagus, lower airways or trachea for evaluation purposes. 

Treatment of Enlargement of the Esophagus in Ferrets

The treatment goal or a ferret with an enlarged esophagus is to manage the pet’s condition, as there is no true way to treat this condition. The veterinarian may stabilize the patient by maintaining hydration with parenteral fluids, infused with a wide spectrum antibiotic if aspiration pneumonia is detected. The doctor may choose to place a pharyngogastric feeding tube to allow food to bypass the dysfunctional esophagus and allow an adequate supply of nutrients to reach the stomach. Veterinary professionals have found the use of an antacid to be beneficial to megaesophagus patients. Therefore, an H2 blocker such as ranitidine, famotidine, or cimetidine may be administered. In order to stimulate the peristalsis of the esophagus, the vet may infuse metoclopramide.  

Recovery of Enlargement of the Esophagus in Ferrets

Management of an enlarged esophagus in ferrets is a lifelong dedication from the pet owner. An antacid will likely need to be administered once daily, or every time the ferret eats. Your ferret will be required to eat four to six small meals a day and the food will be soft, or a liquid consistency to make it easier for the ferret to eat. Many ferrets with megaesophagus contract aspiration pneumonia, therefore, follow-up appointments with the veterinarian should be kept.