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Pancreatitis in Ferrets

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Yes, ferrets can get pancreatitis and it turns out it may be a bit more common than most vets thought!

Infectious, inflammatory and endocrine diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, parasitic infection, diarrhea or insulinoma are commonly diagnosed in ferrets, but somehow pancreatitis seems to remain overlooked in many cases. 

Although in the past scientist have noted limited cases of pancreatitis through research studies, it remains to be a disease that is not given much thought in the veterinary world. What is currently known about the inflammatory disease in ferrets is primarily from a small number of cases where the researchers happened upon pancreatitis. 

However, examination of biopsy and necropsy pancreatic samples submitted to two exotic pathology services revealed that pancreatitis is not an uncommon finding. This leaves us to recognize that the disease may be extremely underdiagnosed in clinical practice. The pathologists in this paper reviewed fifty cases where patients of both sexes ranged in age from 1.6 to 11 years. All 50 of the ferrets had evidence of either chronic or acute pancreatitis which is quite significant.

To understand what pancreatitis is, let’s first look at the function of the pancreas.

What is the function of the pancreas?

The pancreas is an endocrine organ responsible for two very different functions in the body. It secretes hormones such as insulin and glucagon which helps control blood sugar levels, which is where the endocrine function comes into play. Secondly, the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes. These enzymes help breakdown the starches, proteins, and fats from ingested food. This makes up the organ aspect of the pancreas.

What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is simply put the inflammation of the pancreas. Any time the pancreas becomes inflamed, it is called pancreatitis.

The enzymes that are secreted for digestion are very strong and corrosive and there are times when they become activated too early and the flow of them into the digestive tract becomes disrupted. If they are activated in the pancreas and not the small intestines, they can be extremely destructive to the body.  

Since the environment of the pancreas is nothing like that of the stomach, the enzymes basically begin to digest or eat away at the pancreatic tissue. This causes severe inflammation and, in some cases, the enzymes can spill into the abdomen resulting in damage to other organs including the liver, gall bladder, bile ducts and intestines. This is because the enzymes have one job, which as we stated previously is to break down the fat, proteins and starches. This is no different if they are in the stomach or the liver, but when they perform this function in the wrong organ it can wreak havoc on your pets’ body.

This often means vomiting, diarrhea, and tremendous pain for your pet due to the resultant swelling of the organ as it eats away at itself. I know, sounds horrible right?

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis in ferrets?

All of the cases of pancreatitis in ferrets have been diagnosed as secondary to other diseases and often after the patient had passed. 

This, unfortunately, does not leave much information about the clinical presentation of the disease in ferrets since the doctors were not looking for pancreatitis symptoms. 

However, in the cases studied for this article, the clinical signs of pancreatitis were associated with symptoms of concurrent disease. Because pancreatitis is not regularly diagnosed, the signs and symptoms of the disease itself may have easily been overlooked. 

Common symptoms noted were

  • Fever – most of the affected animals had a fever
  • Abdominal pain – this is commonly noted in animals with pancreatitis
  • Anorexia – many of the ferrets did not want to eat
  • Weight loss – this is to be expected if they did not want to eat
  • Diarrhea – often a common symptom in most animals with pancreatitis
  • Swelling of lymph nodes – this could have been due to other disease processes as well

Why do ferrets get pancreatitis?

As in most pets, pancreatitis in the ferret is usually concurrent with another disease. 

In dogs, pancreatitis is usually associated with the consumption of fatty foods, medication or parasitic infection and ferrets were no different. It was noted that ferrets that presented with pancreatitis also had many concurrent disease processes. The most common diseases noted were adrenal disease, gastrointestinal inflammation, cholestasis, and insulinoma. 

In addition, vets found some possible common contributing factors:

  • Insulin resistance – like insulinoma, which is quite common in ferrets
  • Infectious diseases – like coronavirus
  • Ascending gastrointestinal inflammation
  • Trauma to the abdomen

How is pancreatitis diagnosed in ferrets?

As of now, to acquire a definitive diagnosis of pancreatitis in ferrets a biopsy is needed. 

Since the disease is not regularly diagnosed in ferrets, there is no gold standard test such as a pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity or the cPL (canine pancreas-specificc lipase) snap test for dogs that are now commonly used in most veterinary practices. 

In many animals, blood work will show elevated liver levels, but even this is not definitive as a diagnosis of pancreatitis, although it can place your vet on the right path. There are subsequent tests to be done after blood work, but they are limited in the ferret.

In the case where pancreatitis was diagnosed and treated in a ferret, the veterinarians performed ultrasonography sand abdominal exploratory laparotomy. Basically, they explored the abdominal area and took a biopsy. 

This is an extremely invasive procedure and one which most vets will probably not want to delve into without sufficient reason. 

How is pancreatitis treated in the ferret?

In the one case where treatment was successful, pancreatitis was linked to the ferret also having FSCV or ferret systemic coronavirus. 

FSCV is caused by a coronavirus that is said to be a mutated form of the virus that causes Feline infectious peritonitis in cats. FIP is a viral disease of cats caused by certain strains of a virus called the feline coronavirus. 

Therefore treatment was aimed at both, pancreatitis and FSCV. In FSCV Most of the clinical signs of this disease are not caused by the virus, but by the immune responses that it elicits so the treatment is generally steroids. 

The following is a breakdown of treatment:

  • The ferret was fasted – this is commonplace to do in most cases of pancreatitis 
  • Treatment for coronavirus with oral long-term prednisolone
  • A low-fat, high protein feline diet
  • Sucralfate

As the diagnosis for pancreatitis in ferrets is an invasive biopsy there is a chance that many vets will not opt to do this and just treat for pancreatitis as a general precaution if the signs and symptoms are visible.

What is the prognosis?

In previous cases, the average survival time of a ferret with FSCV was 2 months. The question is, is this mainly because a possible case of concurrent pancreatitis was not taken into account and subsequently treated. 

The ferret that was treated with the above protocol did well for almost 2 years after his initial diagnosis (22 months). Leading us to say that if the patient is treated for both the underlying disease and pancreatitis, they would have much better chances of leading longer healthier lives.

While pancreatitis is not commonly diagnosed in ferrets it is something that should be taken into consideration, especially when treatment for possible coexisting diseases is not working. In addition, the formation of a simple, gold standard test is needed for diagnosis.

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