Posted: January 22, 2009, 1:25 p.m. EST
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More than four weeks have passed since one of her ferrets fell ill, and Dr. Ruth Heller of Borderbrook Animal Hospital in Murraysville, Pennsylvania, is “cautiously hopeful” that the mystery ailment that sickened many ferrets and took the lives of 11 has run its course in her ferretry. Initially, Heller and others suspected that the illness was a mutant strain of epizootic catarrhal enteritis (ECE). Test results from Michigan State University were negative for coronavirus, which rules out ECE. Further testing is being done.
For now, Heller’s suspicions have shifted. Coccidia was found in one of her ferret’s tests, but Heller isn’t convinced that was the main cause of the illness. “It is very possible that this was a virus of a different type, which led to immunosuppression and a bloom of Coccidia in the ferret whose tissue was tested.”
Cathy Strobach, who operates Zoo’s Ferret Sanctuary near Kirkland, Illinois, had 21 ferrets get sick from a mystery illness in late November through mid-December 2008. Ten ferrets died. The illness she saw caused signs similar to those seen by Heller, most notably rapid dehydration and difficulty rehydrating. Because the cause of this illness remains unknown, there’s no way to know whether the illnesses seen by Strobach and Heller are the same.
Strobach said the ferrets she saw with the illness rapidly changed in appearance (usually in three to nine hours) and were almost unrecognizable. The ferrets also had bright red noses and green feces (ranging from mint green to olive green).
Strobach ran multiple fecal tests on her ferrets, one day running 30, but Coccidia was never detected. She had a veterinarian do blood tests on the worst of the ferrets. The blood test results indicated kidney failure and high hematocrit, but nothing else abnormal. Although the cause of the kidney failure was unknown, the dehydration caused the high hematocrit.
“I feel in my heart that it’s a virus,” Strobach said. If it is a virus, how it arrived at the sanctuary is a mystery. Strobach enforces a strict quarantine policy and keeps new ferrets in a separate room from the general ferret population for at least two weeks.
Another puzzle to this mystery illness involves the ferrets that fell ill. The ferret population at Zoo’s Ferret Sanctuary is mostly older, perhaps 6 years or older. Many of the ferrets have health problems. The odd part is that the illness did not necessarily strike the oldest or most debilitated, some of the healthiest ferrets at the sanctuary got sick.
Strobach’s treatment of the illness included subcutaneous fluids, feedings every three hours (yes, she lost a lot of sleep), Amoxicillin, Carafate, Pepcid, Pet Tinic and Essiac. Strobach recognizes that the use of Essiac is controversial to some people and warned that no one should give Essiac to their ferret unless they thoroughly investigate how to do so, because proper dosage and preparation are critical. If used incorrectly, Essiac could have adverse effects.
Strobach began giving Essiac to all the ferrets in the sanctuary around December 10. No new cases of the illness have occurred since December 16. Is this a coincidence? Strobach can only guess. “Either it was a virus that ran its course or the Essiac boosted the immune system.”
Heller’s treatment didn’t include Essiac, and she mentioned Tamiflu as possibly being the treatment that stopped further outbreaks of the illness.
“I am glad that it's not ECE,” Heller said, “but [I’m] still stumped and frustrated as to what it truly was.”
Until more tests are done and the cause of the illness is found, there’s really no way to know exactly what the illness was or why it stopped. Testing on this illness and research into other ferret ailments are being done at Michigan State University by Dr. Matti Kiupel in the Department of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation. Funding for ferret research is scarce, and donations are always welcome.