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Low blood sugar (commonly referred to as hypoglycemia) is a relatively common problem for many animals which are underfed, which most often results in a feeling of tiredness and fatigue. However, the condition is not always tied to the diet and can sometimes be tied to a more grave underlying health problem. There are a variety of symptoms that a ferret affected by low blood sugar can exhibit, ranging from the benign to the debilitating and potentially life-threatening.
Whilst most cases of low blood sugar are not serious and are simply remedied with a good meal and hydration, repeated cases could be a sign that something is wrong and warrants urgent attention from a veterinarian.
When the ferret’s blood sugar begins to dip, owners may notice it beginning to behave in an uncharacteristically depressed manner. This comprises ignoring attempts to interact, lying in one place for extended periods instead of engaging in its usual frenetic bursts of activity, and even trying to hide from observation so as not to be disturbed. In this state, even activities that would usually interest the ferret will be mostly ignored.
When the drop in blood sugar is caused by liver problems, the animal will begin to feel unwell and may begin to refuse to eat. This feeling of nausea can also be accompanied by hypersalivation that may give the ferret a drooling appearance. Furthermore, vomiting may occur after a while, as the body tries to empty the digestive tract in order to lessen the burden being placed on the liver. Note that vomiting is a major contributor to dehydration (especially in animals as small as ferrets) and that additional fluids should be made readily available for drinking.
Loss of Coordination
One of the indicators that the ferret’s hypoglycemia is approaching dangerous levels of advancement is when the animal’s mannerisms begin to seem obviously uncoordinated. This includes a somewhat staggered manner of walking, difficulty manipulating objects and generally seeming unaware of its surroundings. This loss of coordination can even result in partial paralysis of the lower back and neck, giving the animal a somewhat twisted look.
The most serious consequence of consistently low blood sugar is the onset of seizures. These typically manifest as a series of uncontrolled muscle spasms followed by a period of disorientation and can even include vocalizations from the ferret. At their worst, these seizures can lead to further complications such as unconsciousness and even death.
There are three main causes of chronic low blood pressure in ferrets: malnutrition, liver disease, and pancreatic problems. Malnutrition stems from a lack of food that can be converted into useful products for the body, one of which is blood sugar. Without the necessary nourishment, the body’s blood sugar levels will drop and drop until serious symptoms start to manifest. Liver disease, meanwhile, causes the body to be unable to properly process the nutrients that are extracted from digested food, resulting in a poor conversion rate of food into blood sugar and effectively producing the same effect as malnutrition. Pancreatic problems tend to stem from either direct damage to the organ or surrounding tissues, or a tumor growing within the pancreas itself (known as ‘insulinoma’). The pancreas’ job is to regulate the amount of sugar in the blood by producing the substance insulin, which neutralizes sugars. This prevents the sugar from thickening the blood and causing circulatory issues that result in nerve and tissue damage (as seen in diabetes, where no insulin is produced at all). Insulinoma, however, results in a large amount of insulin being produced at all times, effectively neutralizing the vast majority of the sugar in the body and leaving none to be converted into energy. It is by this mechanism that the above symptoms are produced, as the ferret becomes increasingly more fatigued and unable to properly control their body.
When the ferret is presented to the clinic, the veterinarian will start the appointment by performing a physical exam, giving them the opportunity to assess the overall health of the animal. It is at this stage that malnutrition is usually diagnosed. Next, they will usually take samples of blood and urine in order to try and identify if there is a problem with the liver or the pancreas. Although a damaged liver will typically be releasing detectable substances into the bloodstream, a pancreatic tumor is usually benign, meaning that a direct inspection of the pancreas may be needed in order to make a diagnosis. For this purpose, the vet will use an imaging scan such as ultrasound or x-rays to determine the nature and composition of the growth.
Malnutrition will typically be resolved by starting the ferret on a healthier diet that will build up over the course of a few weeks to an optimum standard in order to make sure that there is no sudden shock to their digestive system. Liver disease can be treated by addressing the underlying cause, this can be done either via the use of drugs or via surgery, though both methods have good rates of success. Fortunately, pancreatic tumors can be removed relatively easily (due to the fact that the vast majority grow on the surface of the pancreas in a self-contained sac), with a large amount (or even all) of the organ’s functionality remaining intact after the procedure.
Following surgery, most ferrets will make a full recovery within the space of a month provided that there are no serious complications. Owners should be prepared for the aftercare that such a procedure can necessitate, as the ferret will require regular doses of painkillers and antibiotics in order to properly recover. Furthermore, it will be necessary to keep their living space pristine to avoid infections and simultaneously restrict their movements so that surgical wounds are not accidentally reopened. It should be noted that ferrets suffering from malnutrition may take a while to get fully accustomed to their new diet, so overly rich foods should be avoided in the introductory stages. The vet will most likely want to schedule a follow-up appointment in order to check on the progress of the ferret’s recovery and monitor their insulin levels.
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