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Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that causes inflammation in tiny formations within them known as ‘alveoli’, which help absorb oxygen. Pneumonia normally develops out of a viral infection, but can also be caused by bacterial infections. The condition can ultimately causes a large degree of damage to the affected animal. In ferrets, the condition is viewed as being relatively unusual, with most seriously ill animals never developing pneumonia. Like many other animals that are susceptible to the condition (including humans), ferrets infected with pneumonia can often find that their symptoms are lethal in nature.
It is handy that the symptoms of bacterial pneumonia are mostly quite visible, as this gives owners plenty of notice to seek veterinary help. That said, they should be vigilant for a rapid deterioration of the ferret's condition as the illness progresses.
In addition to causing the body to expend a large amount of energy in fighting the illness, pneumonia also causes a substantial loss of appetite. This nausea will often make the ferret outright avoid food that is offered by its owners, and will usually coincide with a drop in its levels of activity. Combined with the stress put on the animal's immune system, this can cause a rapid loss of weight, with the ferret's appearance changing noticeably in the space of just a few days. This lack of proper nutrition will often cause their usually well-ordered coat to appear dull or unkempt, giving a clear sign that something is wrong.
Many ferrets infected with bacterial pneumonia will display a considerable amount of lethargy. In contrast to their normally frenetic pace of activity, owners may notice that the animal will tend to remain sedentary and simply lie in one area of its enclosure. Furthermore, they may ignore attempts to play or interact in favor of remaining still.
As tissue in the lungs becomes inflamed, it will provoke the production of extra mucus in an attempt to flush the microbes out of the body. In turn, this fluid will begin to be ejected through the mouth and nose. Sneezing and coughing is a common sight as the infection progresses. It should be taken into consideration by ferret owners that in such a small animal, any considerable loss of fluid during illness can result in a worsening of the symptoms. For this reason, extra drinking water should be made available to replenish the fluids lost.
The inflammation of the lungs caused by the pneumonia can often be painful, provoking particular discomfort upon inhalation and exhalation. If the ferret is in considerable pain, owners may notice a change in its behavior, especially as the symptoms worsen. Typically, the animal will appear withdrawn and unwilling to engage in physical activity. Additionally, they may become unusually defensive if their owner tries to touch them, possibly even becoming violent.
One of the most distinctive signs of a pneumonia infection is the occurrence of a fever. This usually presents itself within a few days of the other symptoms appearing and will usually last until the condition has run its course. Owners can notice a fever by feeling the ferret's body temperature increasing drastically, as well as by observing the onset of violent shivering as the animal begins to perceive itself as being cold.
The final (and most dangerous) symptom of the presence of bacterial pneumonia is the ferret beginning to struggle to breathe properly. Owners can easily notice this, as the animal will start to make wheezing noises when inhaling and exhaling. Left untreated, these breathing difficulties can often worsen and, in many cases, can lead to severe complications or even death.
There are several main causes of bacterial pneumonia: injury to the chest, vomiting, malnutrition and the presence of metabolic diseases. As bacterial pneumonia is caused by foreign microbes entering the lungs and multiplying (thereby irritating and impeding the function of the alveoli), the most direct way they can gain access is via inhalation or a penetrating injury to the chest cavity. If not properly cleaned and treated, a wound may allow bacteria to enter the body and infect the lungs. Vomiting can also cause bacteria that are responsible for food poisoning to accidentally be inhaled. Once in the lungs, these will start to cause the same problems as seen in the stomach, as they begin to multiply in a hospitable environment. Malnutrition is also a key player in the development of bacterial pneumonia; ferrets that are not properly nourished will often have weakened immune systems as a consequence, leaving them open to all manner of infections. Metabolic disorders have much the same effect, mainly by disrupting the function of key organs that would otherwise ensure the overall health of the animal.
When the ferret is brought to see the vet, they will often first be subjected to a rigorous physical examination. This will allow the vet to rule out any other potential causes for their illness whilst giving them an opportunity to assess their symptoms for themselves. X-rays can also be used in order to gain a better understanding of what is going on inside the lung, whilst samples of the ferret's urine and mucus will let the vet determine exactly which bacteria are at work.
Bacterial pneumonia will usually cause the vet to decide on one of two options. If the condition is not deemed to be life-threatening, or is in the process of being dealt with by the ferret's immune system, they will usually opt to keep the animal under observation until it recovers. If the pneumonia is sufficiently serious, however, they will often decide to begin a course of antibiotics, which will kill many of the bacteria and give the body's immune system a chance to fight back. In many cases, this will be combined with fluid therapy to make sure that the ferret does not become dehydrated.
After starting a course of antibiotics, most owners will be able to expect their ferret to be back to normal within the space of a couple of weeks. That said, it is important to bear in mind that the full course of antibiotics should be administered in order to prevent a resurgence of drug-resistant bacteria (and this can take up to a month to fully complete). The ferret may need its activity to be restricted for a week or so in order to conserve its energy, and a nutritious diet should be provided in order to help the ferret regain the weight that it has lost. The vet will typically want to schedule a follow-up appointment in order to confirm that the pneumonia has fully disappeared and that there are no further complications arising.
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