What is Splenomegaly?

The term 'splenomegaly’ refers to an enlargement of the spleen. The spleen is an organ that plays an important role in an animal's immune system, as it takes waste products and dangerous substances in the bloodstream (such as dead bacteria and old blood cells) and filters them out, allowing them to be excreted from the body. The spleen also plays a role in the production of immune system cells (known as 'b' and 't' cells) that both fight against pathogens that gain entry to the body and help provide immunity to their effects. If the spleen becomes sufficiently enlarged, these functions can become impaired, posing a risk to the health of the ferret. Furthermore, the additional consequences of spleen enlargement can have a serious effect on the animal's well-being, in some cases proving deadly.

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Symptoms of Splenomegaly in Ferrets

The signs of splenomegaly are quite easy to spot, meaning that ferret owners will normally have a decent window of time in which to seek veterinary advice.

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dark or bloody stool
  • Pain
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy
  • Fever 

Causes of Splenomegaly in Ferrets

There are several possible causes for an incidence of splenomegaly. These include infection, cancer, heart problems, direct damage, and splenitis (inflammation of the spleen). Bacterial or viral infections tend to be the most common cause of issues with the spleen, and can cause an increase in size as various ducts become blocked and the organ begins to fill with pus. Splenitis will also cause swelling for similar reasons - the condition is usually brought about by recurring viral infections that make it difficult for the spleen to properly filter the blood, causing a buildup of fluid inside the organ. Heart problems can also cause widespread fluid retention (known as 'edema'), which can sometimes be localized to certain parts of the body. The distortion of and pressure exerted on the spleen by the fluids from an edema can quickly cause damage and loss of functionality. Likewise, direct damage to the spleen (most often from blunt force trauma) can cause internal bleeding that will stretch the spleen far beyond its normal proportions and can even result in toxins being released back into the bloodstream. Tumors can also grow within the spleen, which is especially dangerous due to the organ's direct access to the bloodstream (making the chances of the cancer metastasizing quite likely). 

Diagnosis of Splenomegaly in Ferrets

The vet will usually subject the ferret to a physical examination as soon as it arrives in the clinic, as this will allow them to quickly pinpoint the source of the animal's discomfort (which becomes easier if the spleen is becoming sensitive to touch). Once the issue is located, the vet will most likely opt to conduct imaging scans with ultrasound in order to find out exactly what is going on inside the spleen (i.e. determine whether the enlargement is due to fluids or a solid mass). They may also choose to take blood and urine samples for further testing, as these can reveal the presence of secondary infections. A fluid sample can also be drawn directly from the spleen itself via a syringe.

Treatment of Splenomegaly in Ferrets

If the spleen has been compromised by a bacterial infection, then the vet may choose to start the ferret on a course of antibiotics in order to try and improve their condition. In the vast majority of cases, however, the vet will opt to perform a splenectomy, as this will both alleviate the pressure being put on adjacent organs and tissues and prevent the spleen from venting toxins into the bloodstream. If a tumor is present, the procedure may prevent the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body (if performed early enough).

Recovery of Splenomegaly in Ferrets

Following surgery, it may take over a month before the ferret is back to normal, owing to the fact that they may still have to overcome the original infection. Owners should be aware that the ferret will require extensive aftercare in order to prevent further problems. They will need regular doses of antibiotics and painkillers for several weeks after the procedure, and will need their exercise to be strictly limited in order to allow the surgical incision to properly heal. The vet may want to book a follow-up appointment in order to monitor their progress and perform further tests (especially if cancer was the root cause of the enlargement).