What is Helicobacter mustelae Gastrointestinal Disease?

The mechanisms caused by this bacterium stimulated a marked lymphoplasmacytic inflammatory response, resulting in glandular epithelium loss in the pylorus and increased pH levels of the stomach. An infection of this bacteria results in gastric ulcerations, bleeding in the stomach, and enlarged lymph nodes around the gastric organ. A ferret with this condition will experience a great deal of gastric pain and will appear overall very ill. Ferrets with a weakened immune system and under the age of four years are commonly infected, but any ferret could be affected by this disease. Veterinarians have developed numerous treatment options for Helicobacter mustelae infections and most ferrets make a full recovery with a few weeks to a month. 

Gastrointestinal disease from Helicobacter mustelae in ferrets is a form of gastric illness caused by a specific bacterium. This bacteria is commonly found in the ferret species, shed through the feces of infected mammals and contracted through ingestion. Helicobacter mustelae has the ability to cause two forms of gastric disease: chronic atrophic gastritis and peptic ulcer disease. 

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Symptoms of Helicobacter mustelae Gastrointestinal Disease in Ferrets

The symptoms of Helicobacter mustelae infection are related to the pain and discomfort of gastric ulcerations. As the stomach’s pH levels rise, the ferret can experience heartburn noted by pawing at the face or polydipsia. The pet may be reluctant to eat, engage in activities, and interact with the ferret owner. Clinical signs associated with gastrointestinal disease from Helicobacter mustelae in ferrets are listed below: 

  • Alopecia (hair loss) 
  • Pale mucous membranes 
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Melena (tar-colored stools; an indication of bleeding in the stomach, as the stool gets its color from digested blood)
  • Diarrhea 
  • Dehydration 
  • Weakness 
  • Anorexia 

Causes of Helicobacter mustelae Gastrointestinal Disease in Ferrets

The Helicobacter mustelae bacterium was first identified in the 1990s and several studies today show that this bacteria is present in almost every ferret living today. H. mustelae is transmitted through the fecal to oral route, shed through the feces of an infected ferret and consumed by another. As the bacterium is so common to the ferret population, the majority of this species produces antibodies to fight off this bacterial infection. However, ferrets with weak immune systems, like infants, are easily and most commonly infected by the mother. 

Diagnosis of Helicobacter mustelae Gastrointestinal Disease in Ferrets

Helicobacter mustelae gastrointestinal disease can be diagnosed in ferrets through a surgical biopsy of the pyloric region of the stomach. The ulcerations within the gastric organ may be seen upon endoscopy or gross necropsy, but most veterinarians find these forms of diagnostic testing unrewarding. As an immune response to the Helicobacter mustelae infection, the mesenteric lymph nodes often become enlarged due to the profound inflammatory response of the pyloric stomach. Enlarged lymph nodes may be seen upon gastric examination and, if a blood analysis was performed, the white blood cell counts would be high, indicating a type of infection. Your veterinarian will run a series of diagnostic test to rule out other common ferret gastrointestinal infection, comparing notes with the pet’s medical history. 

Treatment of Helicobacter mustelae Gastrointestinal Disease in Ferrets

There are several treatment options your veterinarian can choose from in order to treat Helicobacter mustelae related disease. The primary treatment of this form of disease is similar to the treatment used in human medicine, which is a combination of Pepto-Bismol (in tablet form), metronidazole (Flagyl), and amoxicillin. Veterinarians usually prescribe this combination of medication to be given for four to six weeks, once to twice daily. The common problem ferret owners face with this primary form of treatment is the taste of Pepto-Bismol is unbearable to ferrets and most will not willingly take the medication. It is for this reason that veterinarians have tried a new approach that is very effective for ferrets. This protocol for treating the condition is a combination of amoxicillin and clarithromycin (Biaxin). Using this secondary form of treatment, ferrets only require two weeks of treatment and require dosing once or twice daily. 

Recovery of Helicobacter mustelae Gastrointestinal Disease in Ferrets

Following treatment, ferrets with acquired gastrointestinal disease from Helicobacter mustelae make a full and positive recovery. To avoid reinfection, disinfect the area in which the ferret occupied, paying special attention to the litter box area. Helicobacter mustelaeis shed through a ferret’s feces, so continuously clean the litter pan during and for a period of time following treatment. If more than one ferret occupies the household, isolate the healthy ferret(s) or treat all pets for this gastrointestinal disease.