What are Proliferative Colitis?

Proliferative colitis is well named as a “wasting disease”, as those affected by this infection lose half of their body weight in only one week. The infected ferrets will pass large quantities of watery, dark stools that are covered in green or clear colored mucus. In some cases, the condition will cause the ferret’s rectal tissues to prolapse and the tissues may not return to the normal state for several hours, or even days. If the ferret does not receive veterinary medical attention in time, death is the foreseen outcome for the wasting disease, proliferative colitis. 

Proliferative colitis in ferrets is caused by a bacteria that lines the large intestine. As infection takes over the large intestine, its lining becomes very thick, which interferes with the absorption of water and fluids.

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Symptoms of Proliferative Colitis in Ferrets

Proliferative colitis in ferrets will cause the pet to lose a large amount of weight in a very short amount of time. Some ferrets may lose up to 50% of their total body weight in a week as the Lawsonia intracellularis organism prevents the body from absorbing nutrients and expels all substances from the body. The most commonly noted sign associated with this wasting disease is a green, frothy diarrhea with or without a dark colored stool. In some cases, proliferative colitis will cause the ferret’s rectal tissues to prolapse, or protrude from the rectum. The ferret may cry out or moan while he/she strains to defecate. The pet will likely become lethargic, inactive and develop anemia over a short period of time. The pet may be reluctant to eat, engage in activities, or interact with the ferret owner. Additional clinical signs associated with proliferative colitis in ferrets are listed below: 

  • Alopecia (hair loss) 
  • Pale mucous membranes 
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Melena (an indication of bleeding in the stomach, as the stool gets its dark, tarry color from digested blood)
  • Diarrhea 
  • Dehydration 
  • Weakness 
  • Anorexia 
  • Mucus covered stools
  • Green, frothy stools
  • Lethargy

Causes of Proliferative Colitis in Ferrets

The wasting disease, proliferative colitis in ferrets is caused by the organism known as Lawsonia intracellularis. This infectious organism is transmitted through the fecal to oral route, shed through the feces of an infected ferret and consumed by another. Ferrets in unsanitary environments are likely to be infected as the organism is allowed to thrive. Those with weak immune systems, such as infant and old ferrets, are most commonly affected by the condition.

Diagnosis of Proliferative Colitis in Ferrets

There is no known laboratory test to pinpoint this disease in a live ferret. A true diagnosis of proliferative colitis can only be made on examination of the tissues of a deceased ferret, though clinical diagnostic exams could suggest the presence of the Lawsonia intracellularis organism. Thickening of the intestinal lining can sometimes be palpated from the outside of the ferret’s abdomen or these thick tissues can be seen on ultrasound or a radiograph. The veterinarian may request these diagnostic exams and base his/her diagnosis of proliferative colitis on this observation. The veterinarian may also run a fecal examination, fecal flotation test, and blood tests to exclude any other possible causes for this intestinal abnormality affecting the ferret. 

Treatment of Proliferative Colitis in Ferrets

The veterinarian will begin treating the ferret for dehydration brought on by the fever with intravenous fluids. This therapy of fluids will also treat any electrolyte imbalances the ferret might have and hypoglycemia (decreased levels of glucose). The veterinarian will then prescribe chloramphenicol, given either subcutaneously or intramuscularly for at least ten days. Metronidazole has also been commonly prescribed to ferrets affected by proliferative colitis and is also given to pets for at least ten days, up to fourteen days. 

Recovery of Proliferative Colitis in Ferrets

Ferrets can make a rapid recovery if the disease is detected and treated early. Once appropriate treatment is received, the ferret’s weight will be regained in a matter of days. To avoid reinfection, disinfect the area in which the ferret occupied, paying special attention to the litter box area. The organism responsible for the wasting disease is shed through a ferret’s feces, so continuously clean the litter pan during and for a period of time following treatment. If more than one ferret occupies the household, isolate the healthy ferret(s) or treat all pets for this gastrointestinal disease.