What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

The inflammation in the bowel is the immune system’s response to a potential threat, such as an allergy, parasite, or infection of some kind. Although the immune system is designed to destroy harmful elements in the body, this overreaction of the intestinal tissues actually damages the gastrointestinal tract. The damage done by the body’s immune system results in the ferret developing a chronic state of gastrointestinal upset characterized by intermittent vomiting and diarrhea. Some ferrets may develop additional symptoms related to the underlying cause and others may simply experience gastrointestinal upset, which makes diagnosing this disease a challenge. Whether your ferret is showing signs of acute GI irritation or severe gastrointestinal disease, pet owners must consult a veterinary professional. The underlying cause of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) could be a life-threatening condition. 

Inflammatory bowel disease is a broad term used when referring to a collection of microscopic changes in the gastrointestinal tract causing variable signs and caused by a variety of sources. Inflammatory bowel disease is characterized by an inflamed, irritated bowel or intestinal system. 

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Symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Ferrets

The symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease vary from one ferret to another, based on the individual and the underlying cause of the condition. One classic symptom of IBD in ferrets is partially digested food passed through the pet’s digestive tract. When a ferret develops IBD, he/she can lose nearly 90% of intestinal absorption, therefore, only a small percent of food is actually broken down and absorbed by the body. That means, the ferret will pass a grainy stool of food particulates and lose a great deal of weight. Without nutritional support of food, the ferret’s hair coat will grow dull and thin, and may fall out in patches.  Listed below are the most common symptoms ferrets display when affected by inflammatory bowel disease. If you note any of the following symptoms, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian right away. 

  • Stool changes (different color, consistency or content) 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Increased stool frequency 
  • Weight loss
  • Dry, coarse hair coat
  • Lethargy 
  • Uninterested in food or treats
  • Change in food preference
  • Lack of appetite 
  • Sporadic soft stools 

Causes of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Ferrets

Inflammatory bowel disease in ferrets may result from multiple causes, including chronic viral infections, certain strains of bacteria, hypersensitivities, or food allergies. Chronic viral infections may cause certain cells within the walls of the intestines to inflame due to long-standing or repeating infection. Bacteria in the intestine is a healthy part of digestion, but bad bacteria that has entered the body could infect the tissues and cause the bowel to inflame. In other cases, the body’s immune system could mistake a healthy strain of bacteria for a potentially harmful substance and send a histamine response. In many cases, and easily treated forms of IBD, a ferret could have a food allergy that is causing the intestines to become irritated. Commercially sold ferret foods containing wheat, soy, milk, artificial ingredients, or dyes are common intestinal irritants to ferrets. Lastly, viral diseases such as the coronavirus has been suspected for spontaneous IBD in ferrets. 

Diagnosis of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Ferrets

Inflammatory bowel disease is sometimes difficult to diagnose as the symptoms associated with this condition mimic many ferret health abnormalities. The veterinarian will want to perform an analysis of the ferret’s blood, urine, and feces to rule out all other possible causes for the ferret’s irritated gastrointestinal system. Parasites, bacterial infections, viral infections, and a variety of other common ferret health problems will be differentiated using these tests. An ultrasound and/or radiograph of the ferret’s abdomen will likely be requested to identify foreign objects trapped in the intestine, tumors, or other abnormalities. Diagnostic imaging, like clinical exams, are designed for a differential diagnosis and the only true way to diagnose inflammatory bowel disease is with a biopsy of the intestinal tissue. The cells associated with intestinal inflammation will be collected for histopathology, pinpointing the veterinarian’s hypothesis of inflammatory bowel disease.  

Treatment of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Ferrets

As the symptoms and cause of IBD are variable, the treatment of this disease is also variable. The veterinarian may prescribe an immunosuppressant in the case of a hypersensitivity, or an antihistamine. Antibiotics will be administered for bacterial infections and anti-parasitic medications will be given to those with a known parasite infestation. For those suffering from a food allergy, the veterinarian will work with the pet owner to try a series of foods that may better suit the ferret. 

Recovery of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Ferrets

Inflammatory bowel disease is a treatable condition that ferrets can recover from if immediate treatment is received. As diarrhea and vomiting cause immediate dehydration, the chances of your ferret affected with IBD becoming dangerously dehydrated are high.