What are Lawsonia intracellularis?

Lawsonia intracellularis is a bacterium that specializes in infecting the lower bowel of a variety of animals, including ferrets. It produces a variety of symptoms, which range from relatively inconsequential to potentially serious. Although most ferrets will be able to shrug off the effects of the bacterium after their immune system begins to fight back, weaker individuals may be worse affected.

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Symptoms of Lawsonia intracellularis in Ferrets

The symptoms produced by Lawsonia intracellularis can be alarmingly apparent. Although this aids their early detection, it is imperative that owners who notice the condition seek immediate veterinary assistance for their pet.

Diarrhea 

As Lawsonia intracellularis starts to multiply in the ferret’s lower intestine, the animal will start displaying indicators of digestive discomfort. These include behaviors such as withdrawing to a secluded part of the ferret’s living area to avoid contact with other animals, refusing to eat food that is offered and becoming unwilling for its owners to touch its stomach. Eventually, this will morph into actual diarrhea, with the ferret losing all control over its bowel movements. It should be noted that diarrhea removes a large amount of fluids from the animal’s body in a short space of time, heightening the risk of dehydration. Lower bowel diarrhea can be especially liquid-based, so this risk is even more heightened than usual. To combat this, the owners should make as much drinking water available as possible for the ferret to replenish its fluid levels. Additionally, it is common for the feces to contain noticeable amounts of blood, which will alter its color to green or black.

Abdominal Pain 

The presence of the bacterium within the gut will also cause significant physical discomfort for the ferret. Most often, its response to this pain will be a heightened level of aggression and a desire to isolate itself away from the interference of its owners.

Weakness

If the condition persists, owners may also notice their ferret showing signs of weakness and exhaustion as they move around the home, as well as a pronounced lack of coordination. This is mainly due to the weight loss that will typically accompany an extended period of decreased appetite. 

Causes of Lawsonia intracellularis in Ferrets

Lawsonia intracellularis infections are generally caused by the consumption of decaying organic matter, or direct contact with an already infected animal. Ferrets will most often encounter the bacterium in the wild whilst they are hunting and eating prey animals, whose digestive systems can be home to a number of dangerous pathogens. The mechanism by which the bacterium causes the symptoms mentioned earlier is quite simple. As it is intracellular, the bacteria enters into and causes direct damage to cells, causing the large amount of disruption to the digestive system and the pain and distention that characterizes the condition. 

Diagnosis of Lawsonia intracellularis in Ferrets

In order to diagnose Lawsonia intracellularis, the vet will normally conduct a physical examination in order to check the ferret’s vitals and rule out the presence of other conditions in the body. The examination also gives an opportunity for the vet to assess the symptoms for themselves. Next, they will commonly take a blood sample and a feces sample for laboratory testing, as this will provide the fastest way to determine exactly what pathogen is at work in the digestive system. The vet will also have a battery of questions for the ferret’s owner regarding the animal’s medical history and the events leading up to the infection. This information can be of great help in the diagnostic process and can also help identify the source of the infection, making it important to have at least some of the information to hand when attending the appointment.

Treatment of Lawsonia intracellularis in Ferrets

In most cases involving sustained bouts of diarrhea, there is a very real danger of dehydration developing due to the amount of liquid that can be lost from the ferret’s body in such a short space of time. In order to remedy this situation, the vet will often choose to start ‘fluid therapy’, which involves intravenously administering liquids directly into the animal’s bloodstream. This will both ward off dehydration and increase the ferret’s energy levels. In most cases, the vet will stop treatment here and give the ferret’s immune system a chance to deal with the threat. If this is not viable, however, then they will commonly start the animal on a course of antibiotics in order to stamp out the infection. 

Recovery of Lawsonia intracellularis in Ferrets

The majority of ferrets will take roughly two to three weeks to recover from the infection. In most cases, the vet will send the owner home with the appropriate medication, making them responsible for aftercare. It is important to conserve the ferret’s energy for the duration of the recovery process, meaning that their activity will have to be restricted. Their diet should also be kept as bland as possible, so as to give their stomach and intestines a break from hard-to-digest, rich foods. In some cases, the vet may wish to schedule a follow-up appointment to check on the ferret’s progress and judge if further treatment is necessary or not.