What is Heartworm Disease?

An infected ferret may begin to experience shortness of breath or difficulty breathing due to heartworms. He may also begin to cough excessively and accumulate fluid in his stomach. These symptoms, along with loss of appetite, increased heart rate, and pale or gray colored gums indicate that your ferret has heartworm disease.

Heartworm disease can easily be prevented by administering monthly medication to your ferret. However, if you do not administer this medication, your ferret is at risk of developing this deadly disease. If you spot the signs of heartworm disease, take your ferret to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Ferrets can suffer from a number of different parasitic infections, but heartworm disease is by far one of the most dangerous. Heartworms are parasites that are transferred from an infected animal to an uninfected animal by mosquitoes. After entering the ferret’s body, heartworms will live inside the ferret’s lungs, heart, and blood vessels.

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Symptoms of Heartworm Disease in Ferrets

Symptoms of heartworm disease may begin suddenly and quickly worsen, which is why it’s so important to take your ferret to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Some of the most common symptoms you may observe include:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fluid in the abdomen
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased heart rate
  • Pale or gray colored gums
  • Difficulty breathing

Causes of Heartworm Disease in Ferrets

Heartworm disease is caused by a parasite known as the heartworm. This parasite is transmitted between animals by mosquitoes. If a mosquito bites an animal that has heartworm disease, heartworms will enter the mosquito’s system and then transfer to the next animal that the mosquito bites. Heartworms reside in the heart and lungs of your ferret and can cause lung disease, heart failure, and internal organ damage. 

Diagnosis of Heartworm Disease in Ferrets

If you spot the symptoms of heartworm disease, it’s imperative that you take your ferret to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Describe the symptoms you have observed in great detail, and let your vet know when they first began as well. 

There are two tests that can be used to diagnose heartworm disease: the antigen test and the antibody test. The antigen test can detect the presence of adult heartworms in animals, however, it may not be as effective when used to diagnose ferrets as it is for larger animals. This is because ferrets will not have as many heartworms in their system, so the test may not be able to detect the small amount present in your ferret. The antibody test is the preferred test of the two, however, even this test is not 100% accurate.

Because the tests are not always accurate, the vet may also perform X-rays and echocardiograms to confirm the heartworm disease diagnosis.

Treatment of Heartworm Disease in Ferrets

Heartworm disease can be fatal, so treatment will need to begin right away so the vet can attempt to save your ferret. The vet will need to decide whether he wants to surgically remove the heartworms or administer medication to kill the worms. Both treatments carry risks, so it’s important to learn about each option before making a decision.

If the medication to kill heartworms is administered, the vet may also administer a corticosteroid, prednisone, to prevent blood clots. Even though the medication is effective in killing heartworms, the dead heartworms often block major blood vessels in your ferret’s body, which is a fatal complication of this treatment.

Vets can also try a medication that kills heartworms more slowly, which will reduce the chance that the dead worms cause blockages. But, if your ferret’s condition is quickly deteriorating, you may not have time to try this method.

Surgery is considered a last resort for heartworm disease treatment. In fact, there has only been one known case where surgery to remove heartworms in ferrets has been effective. 

If your ferret is having difficulty breathing, the vet will need to supply him with oxygen during treatment to prevent further complications. He will also need to monitor his heart rate closely throughout treatment.

Recovery of Heartworm Disease in Ferrets

Unfortunately, heartworm disease is often fatal in ferrets because of the lack of safe treatment options. But, if your ferret does make it through treatment, you will need to keep him indoors to prevent exposure to mosquitoes that carry the disease.

You will also need to take your ferret in for follow-up visits after treatment. The vet will perform an antigen or antibody test during this visit to see if there are any signs of heartworms still in your ferret’s system.

Heartworm disease can be prevented. Talk to your vet about which heartworm prevention medicine is best for your ferret. Most medications will need to be administered on a monthly basis to remain effective. Remember, preventing heartworms is much easier than treating heartworm disease.