Q: I have a 7-year-old ferret called Astro. Recently I noticed that he started coughing, so I took him to the veterinarian. After listening to his heart, she diagnosed cardiomyopathy. She prescribed him some medication that she said would take the fluid off of his lungs and ease the coughing. He seems to be running around as normal and eating as normal, and is still very playful. I have noticed that if he runs out of one of his medications, Baytril, he starts coughing again, and when he’s resting, his breathing is heavy (but not always). When there is heavy breathing, it is noticeable only when he is resting.
I did notice, at one point, that he was coughing more than usual. I went to the same vet, who listened to his heart. She said that it seemed to be doing as it should (beating at the normal rate, etc.) but seems to be skipping a beat now and again. She changed her diagnosis, now saying that Astro’s condition is arrythmia. The vet seems quite frustrated because she can’t seem to diagnose the condition as positively as she would like.
This has left me a little confused. I’m not sure what to believe Astro’s condition is. When I hear him breathing or coughing, it sounds like he has a chest infection. What is this fluid on Astro’s lungs? Is it an infection? I have done some reading on both cardiomyopathy and arrythmia, but the symptoms in ferrets seem so similar (which is obviously why my vet can’t be too sure of what the condition is!).
We have been asked to take his toys away from him, and not to get him too excited by my regular vet. But we went to see another vet, who said that it wouldn’t make a difference to his heart whether we took the toys away or not. Is it possible that our ferret has both cardiomyopathy and arrythmia? Or could it be something different entirely?
A: It sounds like what you and Astro need is a firm diagnosis. Ferrets commonly have arrhythmias, even with normal heart function. Most arrhythmias are not a problem and do not cause any signs.
Arrhythmias become dangerous when they interfere with normal heart function and less blood is pumped in or out of the heart. The best way to diagnose whether an arrhythmia is dangerous or not is with an electrocardiogram examination. This is the same procedure as is done in people. Three or four leads are placed on your ferret, and then an ECG strip is produced that tells us about heartbeat rate and rhythm. A vet can then examine and measure this ECG strip to tell whether or not the arrhythmia is dangerous. Medication is available to help stop most arrhythmias.
Cardiomyopathy is a more common cause of heart disease signs than arrhythmias. Cardiomyopathy is suspected when there are breathing difficulties, build up of fluid in the lungs and abdomen, when the heart looks big on radiographs and when we hear heart murmurs. But cardiomyopathy is diagnosed with the use of an echocardiogram. This is an ultrasound of the heart.
Not all general practice veterinarians are able to do the echocardiogram and electrocardiogram examinations in their office. For this reason, we use veterinary cardiologists to help us diagnose cardiac disease in ferrets. For Astro, I recommend that you ask your vet to refer you to a veterinary cardiologist. He or she will be able to tell you exactly what is wrong with Astro’s heart and how best to treat it.
Your veterinarian has done a great job in identifying that the heart is the cause of Astro’s troubles, now you need a specialist with specialized diagnostic tools to give you specific answers and get you and Astro on the right path to treatment.