Gastric ulcers are fairly common in ferrets, so it’s essential that you familiarize yourself with the symptoms. If caught in time, ulcers are completely treatable, so recognizing and properly identifying symptoms can save your ferrets life!
The cause of ulcers in ferrets is an overgrowth of Heliobacter mustelae, an organism that is always in the stomach. Overgrowth can be caused by stress, foreign objects in the stomach/intestines, even hairballs. Causes of stress include excessive caging, boredom, illness, surgery, a move, adding a new ferret, losing a cagemate, seasonal changes, and more. The stress reduces their resistance, which causes the Heliobacter to flourish.
The most telling symptom of ulcers is black, tarry stools. The black color is indicative of digested blood in the feces, which means that the ferret has bleeding in the stomach and intestines. Other symptoms include:
- Decreased appetite
- Soft poorly digested stools (seedy, mushy diarrhea)
- Rubbing the face against things, pawing at the mouth (signs of stomach pain)
- Grinding teeth
- Bad breath
- Pale gums (a sign of anemia due to the continued blood loss in the stomach and intestines)
- Weight loss, often sudden and drastic
Treatment is a combination of antibiotics, a stomach protectant, and a bland diet.
- Antibiotics – Amoxicillin 2 times a day, and Flagyl or Biaxin 2 times a day. Biaxin is recommended over Flagyl, as Flagyl (or Metronidazole) has a bitter taste that ferrets cannot stand. The stress of taking it can actually prolong the healing time.
- Stomach Protectant – Carafate 3 times a day. This coats the stomach and should be given approximately 15 minutes before feeding to help ease any pain associated with eating and to aid digestion.
- A bland diet – Duck Soup, Gerber’s Chicken & Chicken Gravy Baby Food or canned A/D should be fed no less than 3 times a day (after the Carafate). Feeding every 4 – 6 hours is best. A sick ferret that is not eating kibble will need at least 60 cc’s of food daily, but the more it can eat and keep down, the better.
If left untreated, the ulcer can move deeper until it hits a big blood vessel or goes through the stomach or intestine wall (perforates). If this happens, the ferret can die in a matter of minutes. This is why it is so important to treat a ferret showing ulcer symptoms as soon as possible.
Full recovery will take a minimum of 4 weeks, during which time you will need to monitor your ferret’s food intake and feces very closely. If you have multiple ferrets, separate the sick ferret for at least the first 3 weeks, or until it is obviously well on its way to recovery (not exhibiting symptoms).
There are a few ways you can help to prevent ulcers. Keep your ferret’s stress levels at a minimum. This means lots of out of cage time and stimulating activities, toys and games. Make sure you give only ferret safe treats that can’t get lodged anywhere to prevent stomach or intestinal damage. Thoroughly ferretproof play areas so that your ferret can’t swallow any harmful items. Give your ferret hairball remedy/laxative on a regular basis to prevent hairballs/blockages.