Anorexia is a term used to describe the situation where a ferret does not want to eat or is physically unable to eat. There are many causes of anorexia. Often, a loss of appetite is the first indication of illness. Diseases of the digestive system – including the esophagus, stomach, intestine, liver, pancreas – the kidneys, the blood, the eyes, mouth, nose, and throat, the skin, the brain, and many other organs in the body can cause a loss of appetite. Pain of any cause can also make a ferret less willing to eat.
Alternatively, some animals occasionally refuse food for reasons that are much less serious, such as dislike for a new food or behavioral reasons such as a new home, new animal or new person in the household.
Regardless of cause, loss of appetite can have a serious impact on your ferret's health if it lasts 24 hours or more. Very young animals (less than 6 months of age) are particularly prone to the problems brought on by loss of appetite.
Because of the numerous causes of anorexia, certain procedures are necessary to pinpoint the underlying problem. These are determined by your veterinarian and may include:
- Physical examination including buccal exam (looking at the gums), auscultation (listening with a stethoscope), abdominal palpation (feeling the size and shape of the organs in the belly), and taking the temperature and weight
- Complete blood panel and urinalysis, to screen for certain diseases of the internal organs
- X-rays of the chest and the abdomen
- Fecal examination, which is a microscopic evaluation of the stool to look for parasites
- Additional tests tailored to each case, depending on what is initially found
Treatments are of two kinds: specific and supportive.
- Specific. Specific treatments are those that deal with the underlying cause. That is, they either slow down or eliminate the problem that caused the loss of appetite in the first place. Examples of specific treatments that reverse loss of appetite include giving antibiotics to eliminate a severe bacterial infection, surgically removing a foreign object that was blocking the intestine, and treating dental disease that made chewing painful.
- Supportive treatments. These treatments are those that help sustain a ferret that is debilitated as a result of not eating. Examples include fluid therapy such as intravenous fluids or subcutaneous fluids (injections of fluid given under the skin), hand feeding or coaxing to eat, appetite-stimulating drugs, and others. Supportive treatments do not reverse the problem that led to the loss of appetite. They simply help the animal through the most difficult part of the illness.
Note whether any recent change has occurred in the home environment, such as a recent move to a new home, new person or new animal in the home. These may contribute to the loss of appetite and should be mentioned to your veterinarian.
Note whether any other symptoms are present. The presence of symptoms in addition to loss of appetite should prompt a veterinary examination.
To combat dehydration, some ferrets can benefit from being given oral rehydration supplements such as infant electrolyte solutions like Pedialyte. Ask your veterinarian whether this is appropriate and how much should be given.
The following suggestions are methods for providing relief and helping recovery in a ferret with loss of appetite. They are not meant to be substitutes for a good veterinary examination:
- Vigilance. The development of any symptoms in addition to loss of appetite, as described above, should bring about a prompt examination by a veterinarian.
- Additional feeding techniques. If a ferret is unwilling or unable to eat, feeding may be enhanced with certain techniques such as warming the food so it is easier for the ferret to smell it, mixing in certain home-cooked ingredients specifically suggested by your veterinarian, or offering the food by hand or with an oral syringe. Any warmed food should be checked to make sure it is not too hot, which could scald the ferret's mouth or digestive system. This is particularly a concern when the food is warmed (unevenly) by microwave.
- Young animals (6 months or less) are particularly fragile when not eating, and loss of appetite for even 12 hours in a ferret of one to six weeks of age can be life threatening. Regular cow's milk is poorly balanced for ferrets, soft drinks and sport drinks are usually much too sweet and are deficient in electrolytes, and soup is usually too salty and does not provide enough nutrients for energy. These infant animals may need to be fed a milk replacer by syringe if they have not yet been weaned; consult your veterinarian for suggestions regarding the best milk replacer for ferrets. Oral rehydration solutions made for children are less well-balanced, but are still better alternatives than soda pop or chicken soup. It is essential that you consult with your veterinarian to determine what to feed and to determine how much to give.