When a veterinarian examines a ferret because it has diarrhea, several diseases immediately come to mind including Aleutian mink disease virus, rotavirus, corona virus, and intestinal bacterial infections. What hasn’t often been thought to be a possible cause, at least until now, has been coccidiosis. It is now known that ferrets can in fact harbor coccidia, a type of protozoal parasite, in their intestinal tract.
Coccidiosis has long been known to affect puppies and kittens. Coccidiosis most commonly causes diarrhea, which may contain blood, in young canines and felines. Healthy adult dogs and cats are quite resistant to disease caused by coccidia even when they are exposed to and infected by the organism.
Unlike with cats and dogs, coccidiosis seems to be affecting ferrets of all ages. Between 2005 and 2009, three outbreaks of coccidiosis in ferrets of all ages living in shelters led to approximately half of the animals becoming sick and one-quarter of the animals dying. Affected ferrets developed foul-smelling diarrhea (sometimes containing blood), dehydration, and weight loss. Examination of fecal samples revealed the presence of coccidia in only one of the shelter groups, and even then the numbers were not high enough to initially cause concern.
As the ferrets failed to respond to treatment, further testing (including DNA sequencing) identified a type of coccidia, Eimeria furonis, as being associated with severe damage to the lining of the intestinal tract. Once the diagnosis was made, affected ferrets began to get better with continued supportive care and treatment with a sulfadimethoxine-containing medication like Albon. However, long term treatment was necessary and in many cases did not completely get rid of the infection.
What does this mean for ferret owners? If your pet has diarrhea and your veterinarian is having trouble reaching a definitive diagnosis, coccidiosis is a potential cause even if the parasite has not been identified in fecal exams. This is especially true if your ferret has recently been housed in a group setting like a shelter, pet store, or breeding operation. Empiric treatment with a three week course of sulfadimethoxine is a reasonable course of action in these cases.
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