What is Hypersplenism?

Ferret hypersplenism can cause splenomegaly, which simply means that the spleen has grown in size due to illness or other health issues found somewhere else in the body. The spleen in a large filter, removing impurities such as infection, parasites, and damaged red cells from the blood. This specialized filter contains a large blood supply, storing and, in this species, manufacturing the body’s blood cells. If the organ becomes affected by hypersplenism, the way the spleen functions will be compromised, meaning less blood will be filtrated and produced.

Hypersplenism in ferrets is a rare condition characterized by the excessive destruction of circulating blood cells within the spleen. The presence of cytopenia (a reduced level of blood cells) in combination with active, normal bone marrow would suggest hypersplenism. However, this is only true if there is no other cause of cytopenia, such as neoplasm or infection. 

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Symptoms of Hypersplenism in Ferrets

If the removal of red or white blood cells by the spleen has caused the ferret’s spleen to enlarge, it may cause swelling in the abdomen, along with lethargy and a poor appetite. The pet may bite or vocalize when touched, as the swollen spleen can be painful and uncomfortable when handled. Most symptoms a ferret with this condition displays are related to thrombocytopenia, leukopenia, and anemia. Each of these related clinical ailments involves a very low level of circulating blood cells, causing symptoms including: 

  • Abdominal distension 
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Pale mucous membranes 
  • Petechia (small, red spots on the skin)
  • Lethargy 
  • Depression 
  • Anorexia (decrease in appetite) 
  • Weakness 

Causes of Hypersplenism in Ferrets

Hypersplenism has no predisposition to one breed, age or gender of ferret. Veterinary experts are still baffled as to the underlying cause of removal of red or white blood cells by the spleen, therefore, this condition is documented to be caused by idiopathic conditions. 

Diagnosis of Hypersplenism in Ferrets

Following a thorough review of your ferret’s medical history and performing a physical exam, the veterinarian will proceed to perform a number of diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of the problem. 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 on the level of electrolytes and gastrointestinal enzymes the ferret is producing. This blood test also indicates the functionality of the pet’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: 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. 

If hypersplenism has caused the spleen to enlarge, a diagnosis can be made through a physical examination, blood work, a urine examination, x-rays, and ultrasounds. Since the spleen is a filtration organ of the blood, a complete blood cell count may show signs of anemia and leukocytosis (high white blood cell count). A chemistry profile may also be taken, showing elevated signs of the liver enzyme bilirubin to diagnose the spleen has become compromised. If your ferret has been urinating blood or a dark colored substance, it is important to inform the veterinarian so he can perform a urinalysis. 

Ultrasounds and abdominal radiographs have proven to be most useful in the diagnosis of an enlarged spleen in ferrets. Through an x-ray, the veterinarian can visualize the abnormally large spleen and an ultrasound can help to assess which additional problems are present as the ferret moves. 

Treatment of Hypersplenism in Ferrets

The most common treatment recommended for hypersplenism is a splenectomy. A splenectomy is the complete removal of the organ known as the spleen. After removing this essential organ, the veterinarian may administer supportive care to make up for the missing filtration organ. 

Recovery of Hypersplenism in Ferrets

If your ferret has undergone surgery, your pet will need a couple of days to recover and be monitored in the hospital. Once he/she is allowed to return home, it may take an additional two weeks or more for your ferret to fully recover.