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When a ferret experiences either difficulty giving birth or complications during pregnancy, the condition is referred to in general terms as 'dystocia'. There are many factors and bodily processes involved for an animal to successfully carry a pregnancy to term, so there are many opportunities for something to go awry. These complications can range from fairly minor issues to problems that can threaten the life of both the mother and offspring. Although many of these problems are hereditary, it can be almost impossible to predict if a ferret will develop such a condition until it is too late to prevent it.
Unfortunately, many of the symptoms of pregnancy complications are not immediately noticeable, meaning that a condition can go untreated until labor begins. Because of this, owners of affected ferrets should seek immediate assistance as soon as they notice the problem.
One of the most obvious signs that there is something wrong with either the fetus or the birth canal is the passing of bloody discharge from the cervical entrance prior to labor. This can be due to any number of problems, but in ferrets is commonly a good indicator of a potential stillbirth.
Odd Fetus Size
If the fetus of the ferret is noticeably large or small, it could be an indicator of improper development and impending complications during labor. The size of the protrusion of the ferret's abdomen is easily visible to their owners, making it easy to casually gauge the size of the fetus within. If the bump is noticeably small (especially in the later stages of pregnancy), it is typically indicative of an undeveloped (or even dead) embryo. If the bump is oddly large, however, this can be a sign that the fetus is malformed (or possibly just unusually large) and may well be difficult for the mother to deliver.
Abnormal Birth Canal
If the birth canal (leading from the uterus through the cervix and out of the vaginal entrance) is improperly formed, it can become an impediment to a risk-free birth. The most commonly seen defects are generally either an odd shape (aggressively curved or misaligned) or compression of the canal due to growths. This will not usually be evident until the birth begins, however a particularly malformed birth canal may cause the ferret a noticeable amount of pain during the later stages of the pregnancy.
Many of the symptoms associated with pregnancy complications or difficulties during labor will produce varying degrees of pain in the ferret. This can cause a noticeable change in the animal's behavior, with it becoming withdrawn and unwilling to be touched, as well as developing a foul temper. During labor itself, the animal may cry out in pain, which is abnormal due to the fact that ferrets normally have a relatively smooth and comfortable delivery process.
The ferret can usually be expected to have a fairly quick and stress-free birthing process (unlike many other mammals). If the duration of labor seems to be taking too long, it could be indicative of a major problem with either the fetus or the ferret's ability to expel it from the birth canal.
There are three main causes of complications during pregnancy and labor in ferrets. These include growths, abnormal hormone levels, and malnutrition. Growths such as cysts and tumors within the birth canal or womb can often prevent the fetus from being pushed out of the body by physically blocking its path. This can lead to symptoms such as bleeding or abdominal pain. Additionally, growths within the womb itself can contribute to abnormal development or positioning of the infant during birth, making it difficult for the mother to push it out. Abnormalities in the ferret's hormone levels can also cause problems both with the development of the fetus and the structures within the birth canal, either causing deformation of the child or preventing the birth entirely. Likewise, malnutrition can cause both poor development of the fetus (making it appear small in size) and cause difficulties due to muscular weakness when the ferret tries to push the kit out (prolonging the labor process beyond the limits of safety).
Most problems with associated with pregnancy and birth in ferrets are detected as the process of labor begins. Because of this, the vet will have to move fast to diagnose the issue and provide treatment. The most effective way to do this is to use an imaging scan such as an ultrasound or x-ray machine to examine the kit in utero. This will allow them to judge both its and the mother's condition without resorting to potentially dangerous direct manipulation of the birth canal. Furthermore, the vet may have some questions for the owner in order to try to identify any other symptoms that may have appeared over the course of the pregnancy.
If the fetus is still alive, the vet may try to induce more powerful muscular contractions by administering a dose of a birth induction agent. However, if the fetus has died due to one of the aforementioned issues or there are growths within the birth canal blocking the way, the vet will most often opt for surgical removal. This procedure typically consists of a laparotomy followed by making an incision into the womb to obtain the fetus.
The majority of ferrets will recover fairly rapidly from surgery, with most returning to normal after a three or four weeks. It will be necessary, however, for the owner to provide them with a course of antibiotics and painkillers in order to avoid further complications. In many cases, the vet will recommend scheduling a follow-up visit in order to sterilize the animal to prevent the condition from recurring in subsequent generations of ferrets.
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