Gastrointestinal foreign bodies and hairballs (trichobezoars) causing a gastrointestinal obstruction are quite common in pet ferrets. In general younger ferrets are more prone to a foreign body causing an obstruction, and middle-aged to older ferrets are more prone to hairballs causing a blockage. Gastrointestinal blockages can be fatal if not treated quickly.
1. What Is A Gastrointestinal Blockage?
A gastric blockage occurs when the stomach is full of a material that cannot pass out of it. This can be caused by a foreign body, such as a rubbery, spongy or plastic object.
Young ferrets chew on and swallow almost anything, but they seem to especially like soft rubbery and foamy objects. Those objects can include shoe soles and inserts, noses and eyes from stuffed animals, and pet toys. Less common items might include fleece from bedding, fabric from towels or sleep sacks, dog food pieces, dog treats, cherries with pits, carpet fibers and pieces of plastic.
In my experience, ferrets rarely eat socks, pantyhose, underwear or thongs — which dogs seem to favor — or string and other linear foreign bodies that cats seem to favor. Large hairballs that fill up the entire stomach are more common in middle-aged to older ferrets, especially those ferrets with adrenal gland disease.
An intestinal blockage occurs when a foreign body or hairball leaves the stomach but gets lodged in the intestinal tract. The diameter of the small intestine is very narrow, so some objects that fit into the stomach can get lodged in the small intestine. This can include soft rubbery objects, foamy objects and hard objects like cherry pits and bones. Hairballs that are small enough to leave the stomach may be too big to pass through the intestinal tract, so these may cause an obstruction in the intestinal tract.
2. How Do I Recognize A Blockage?
The signs of a blockage vary depending on the cause of the blockage, where the blockage is located and how long it has been there.
Foreign bodies and hairballs in the stomach may cause vomiting, decreased appetite, lethargy, weight loss, pawing at the roof of the mouth, teeth grinding and tarry feces.
On the other hand, foreign bodies or hairballs in the intestinal tract usually cause more severe problems, such as teeth grinding, anorexia, vomiting, weakness, abdominal distension, shock and death.
3. How Does My Veterinarian Diagnose An Obstruction?
If your see your ferret eat an object that it should not eat, or if your ferret is having signs of a gastric or intestinal obstruction, then take your ferret to your ferret-knowledgeable veterinarian right away.
Your vet will start by doing a physical exam of your ferret. Some obstructions can be felt with gentle palpation of the abdomen. Unfortunately most obstructions in the stomach and some obstructions of the small intestines cannot be found while palpating the abdomen.
Radiographs (X-rays) are the next step. Bones and most metal objects show up very well on radiographs; however, foamy or rubbery objects and hairballs do not usually show up on a radiograph. A small amount of barium can be given to the ferret, and more radiographs can be taken. Not all objects will be visualized even with barium, but it may show where the obstruction is located.
A gas-filled distension in the stomach or in the first part of the small intestine may also help locate the obstruction. Ultrasound can also be used to help diagnose a gastric or intestinal obstruction.
4. How Is A Gastrointestinal Obstruction Treated?
Treatment of an obstruction can be either surgical or medical. Which option is best for your ferret depends on what was ingested, where the obstruction is located and your ferret’s condition.
In my experience, surgery is usually the best option. An exploratory surgery is done to look at the stomach and intestinal tract. At this time, the veterinarian looks at the other abdominal organs for any other problems in addition to the obstruction. These organs include the adrenal glands, pancreas, liver, spleen and kidneys.
Most foreign bodies and hairballs can be easily removed from the stomach. After the surgery, most ferrets are treated with an appropriate antibiotic like amoxicillin (Amoxi drops or Clavamox drops); an antacid like Pepcid AC; Carafate to coat the stomach before feeding the ferret; and a soft food like baby food, Hill’s a/d or Carnivore Care for roughly seven days to help the stomach to heal. Your veterinarian will advise you on the best treatment for your ferret.
Obstructions in the intestinal tract can be more difficult to repair. With a full obstruction in the small intestines, the intestinal tract can become so damaged and necrotic that a section of it must be removed along with the object that caused the obstruction. This is called a resection (removing part of the intestinal tract) and anastomosis (attaching the two ends back together). Treatment after the surgery often includes a broad-spectrum antibiotic like amoxicillin (Amoxi drops or Clavamox drops), enrofloxacin (Baytril) or marbofloxacin (Zeniquin) along with a soft food. Again, your veterinarian will advise you on the best treatment for your ferret.
Medical treatment can be used in cases with a partial obstruction, provided that the ferret is still in good shape. If the ingested foreign body is small enough to pass out in the poop (i.e. an eraser from a pencil, a very small piece of fabric like the eyes from a stuffed toy), then either a high-fiber product like canned pumpkin or a laxative like most cat and ferret hairball products (Ferret Lax, Laxatone for ferrets, etc.) can be used to help the ferret pass the object out in its feces. This treatment should only be tried if your veterinarian recommends it. Using this method, the ferret must be closely supervised to insure it doesn’t take a turn for the worse. If the ferret does not pass the object with the help of fiber or a pet laxative, then surgical removal is required.
5. Can Gastrointestinal Obstruction Be Prevented?
Most obstructions can be prevented by restricting access to any indigestible object. This usually means ferret-proofing the room before the ferret comes out of its cage and very closely supervising a young ferret that is out for playtime. Hairballs may be prevented during the shedding season (spring and fall) by frequent brushing, weekly bathing and daily use of a pet laxative during the shedding season.
Similarly, ferrets with itchy skin and hair loss from adrenal gland disease would also benefit from frequent brushing, weekly bathing and daily use of a pet laxative to prevent hairballs. Ferrets that groom their cagemates can also be treated with a pet laxative, and the cagemates can be frequently brushed and bathed to decrease hair ingestion.
Gastrointestinal blockages are common in ferrets. Fortunately these blockages can be treated, and, in most cases, the ferret has a complete recovery. Be aware that intestinal obstructions must be treated quickly to limit the damage to the intestinal tract.
Preventing an obstruction is far better than treating an obstruction, so double-check your ferret’s room for any object that could be ingested, and brush, bathe and offer a pet laxative to your ferret during the shedding seasons.