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'Cardiomyopathy' is a general term for heart diseases that affect the heart muscle itself, as distinct from conditions that might affect the blood vessels that surround the organ. A weakening of the heart muscle will typically result in 'dilated cardiomyopathy', whereby the heart finds it harder to pump blood around the body. As the condition worsens, it produces more pronounced and uncomfortable symptoms for the ferret involved and if left untreated, the eventual effects of a weakened heart muscle are often lethal.
The signs of heart problems in ferrets can at first be somewhat difficult to spot. This means that once symptoms become readily apparent, owners should seek veterinary help as soon as possible, as the condition will often already be in its advanced stages.
As the heart muscle of the ferret weakens, it will often result in an inability to effectively circulate blood around the body. Because of this, blood often builds up in many blood vessels, particularly those in the extremities and the ones closest to the heart itself. As this continues, the fluid will seep into the surrounding tissues as new blood is forced into the area, resulting in varying degrees of swelling and discoloration.
One of the main locations edema develops is within the chest cavity, with fluid often draining into the lungs. As a result of this, the ferret may develop a noticeable cough as it attempts to clear the liquid, in addition to pronounced breathing difficulties as time goes on.
The ferret may also show a degree of apparent laziness due to dilated cardiomyopathy. Owners may notice the animal abandoning its normally energetic and curious behavior in favor of a more sedated and depressed level of activity. The animal will commonly opt to remain stationary for long periods of time, avoiding physical exertion whenever possible and to avoid being disturbed, it may choose to isolate itself in a secluded part of its enclosure. Owners may find that the ferret will reject attempts to play or interact and at times even ignore offers of food.
As mentioned above, it is not uncommon for an animal suffering from a weakened heart muscle to exhibit a significant loss of appetite. Although seemingly innocuous at first, the weight loss will become more pronounced and noticeable with time, causing other symptoms as it continues. Malnourishment will quickly cause visible signs that there is something wrong, such as a dull, matted coat and an increasing amount of weakness in the ferret's limbs as it struggles to maintain its energy levels. It can also cause an even more evident level of lethargy and tiredness as well.
Loss of Coordination
When the condition enters its more advanced stages, the heart will begin to find it harder and harder to pump blood around the body. As a consequence of this, the ferret may begin to appear somewhat disoriented and unable to properly control its movements. Owners may notice the animal starting to walk in an uneven, staggering manner and having difficulties when trying to navigate past obstacles and grip objects.
Eventually, if the weakened heart muscle is not treated, the ferret will start to go into cardiac arrest. At first, less serious events such as fainting or otherwise lapsing into unconsciousness may occur as the animal is no longer able to maintain the circulation of blood around its body. Sooner or later, however, its heart will eventually be unable to cope with the stress being exerted on it and will cease to function, resulting in rapid unconsciousness and death. In the time leading up to a heart attack, the ferret may appear to be experiencing a great deal of chest pain, and may begin to breathe much heavier than normal.
The main causes of cardiomyopathy in ferrets are hereditary birth defects and injuries to the heart. If the condition is hereditary, there is little that can be done to predict its emergence without having direct knowledge of the medical history of the animal's forebears, though the condition will typically present itself early in the ferret's life in any case. Injuries that weaken the heart muscle can happen as the result of many health conditions, including liver disease and poisonings, which can result in the death of nerve and muscle tissue throughout the body. Once the damage is done, it can sometimes be difficult for the ferret to recover, due to additional pressure being exerted on the heart. The mechanism by which the cardiomyopathy creates the symptoms outlined above is fairly straightforward: once weakened, the heart becomes unable to pump blood around the body efficiently, resulting in fluid pooling (edema) in various regions. This pooling then places additional stress on the heart as it attempts to work harder to correct the problem, thereby further damaging the muscle. Eventually, not enough oxygenated blood is circulated around the body, resulting in nausea, confusion and eventually death.
To diagnose the problem, the vet will typically start by physically examining the ferret to check for external symptoms such as swelling of the limbs and to perform a basic check of their heart rate. Afterward, they will typically examine the structure and function of the heart itself via ultrasound scans and electrocardiogram monitoring. At this point, they will have a fairly good idea of what damage has occurred thus far, and will move to try and identify any underlying problem by taking blood and urine samples for analysis in a lab. They may also have some questions for the owner regarding the timeline of the symptoms’ progression, as this will help them gauge the severity of the damage to the heart.
The first course of action will be to relieve the direct pressure on the heart caused by edema. In order to do this, the vet will give the ferret diuretic drugs, which will provoke urination to remove water from its body. Injections of steroids and other drugs to strengthen the heart muscle will often be given in order to stop the problem from reoccurring and prevent further damage. If the condition is hereditary, the vet may recommend sterilizing the animal in order to prevent passing the heart defect on to subsequent generations.
Following treatment, the ferret will need to have its activities restricted for some time in order to give its heart a chance to recover. After this period, owners should still try to limit the ferret's levels of exertion in order to prevent more damage occurring. In many cases, the vet may advise changing the animal's diet to include healthier foods that will not result in excessive weight gain or arterial obstruction.
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