The Impact of Nutrition on Ferret Health

While some ferrets in the U.S. are sold from private breeders, the majority of ferrets kept as pets in the U.S. are sold at large pet stores and come from just a couple of commercial breeders. As a result, they are quite inbred. Consequently, many pet ferrets are from the same genetic pool and tend to develop a handful of common diseases. A few of these commonly seen diseases are impacted by what ferrets eat. While ferret owners can’t necessarily prevent these diseases from occurring in their pets with proper nutrition, they can feed their pets balanced diets to try lessen the impact these diseases have on their animals’ lives.

For example, many pet ferrets after about age 3 or 4 years develop tumors in their pancreases that secrete excessive amounts of insulin. Termed insulinomas, these tumors release insulin especially in response to a ferret’s consuming foods high in sugar. Sugary foods cause a surge in insulin release which in turn drives down a ferret’s blood sugar and leads to bouts of hypoglycemia, weakness, weight loss, and even collapse. Ferrets are carnivores that, even when healthy, have gastrointestinal (GI) tracts that are not equipped to deal with high-carbohydrate meals. Ferrets with insulinomas are even less tolerant of carbohydrate in their diets and tend to have massive swings in their blood sugar from high to low, as their tumors release insulin. While ferret owners cannot prevent the development of insulinomas in their pets, they can lessen the blood sugar highs and lows in ferrets prone to developing insulinomas by feeding them high protein, low carbohydrate food, such as that found in most pelleted diets commercially formulated for ferrets, and by avoiding high-sugar treats such as raisins, yogurt drops, fruit, and sugary ferret vitamin supplements.

In addition to insulinomas, older ferrets frequently become obese. Housed inside, often with little time to run around and exercise, these older pets eat out of boredom and become obese. Some develop arthritis which contributes to their sedentary lifestyle. Obese ferrets tend to accumulate fat around their necks, legs, and bellies, making them look they have stumpy limbs and fat heads. They also accumulate unhealthy fat inside their abdomens and around their internal organs, including their hearts and blood vessels. Like obese human beings, obese ferrets may be more prone to developing heart disease and strokes from excessive body fat accumulation. Ferret owners can help lessen the likelihood that their ferrets will become overweight by feeding them nutritionally balanced ferret diets that contain high levels of protein, moderate levels of fat, and low levels of carbohydrate, and by limiting treats. They can also encourage their ferrets to exercise to burn fat and calories.

Finally, another illness that occurs in ferrets of all ages and that may be impacted by improper nutrition is diarrhea. Diarrhea is a sign of illness and not a disease, itself. It has many causes in ferrets, including bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections of the GI tract, GI cancer, foreign object ingestion, and GI obstruction with hairballs. Diarrhea in ferrets can be induced by feeding ferrets raw food contaminated with infectious organisms such as Salmonella bacteria; thus, raw food (including dead mice, consumed safely by wild ferrets adapted to eating them) should not be offered to pet ferrets. In addition, some ferrets, like some dogs, cats, and people, develop diarrhea as a result of an allergic reaction to certain dietary proteins – a condition called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). This is a difficult condition to diagnose in ferrets and one that is typically only made after other causes of diarrhea are ruled-out. Ferrets with IBD must be treated under the guidance of a veterinarian with anti-inflammatory medications and special diets made from selected proteins. They should not be fed diets meant for cats with IBD, as ferrets consuming these diets often spontaneously develop bladder stones that cause life threatening urinary tract obstructions requiring emergency surgery to remove. If your ferret has chronic diarrhea, or you are unsure if you are feeding your ferret a proper diet, be sure to consult your veterinarian.

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