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Ferret Nutrition And Malnutrition

What elements make up balanced ferret nutrition, and what goes wrong when ferrets eat an imbalanced diet?

By Jerry Murray, DVM
Posted: March 1, 2011, 5 a.m. EST

ferret by food bowl
© Courtesy of Maddie George
Ferrets have much different dietary needs from dogs and cats.

Ferrets are an obligate carnivore, which means they require a meat-based diet in order to survive. Ferrets are also evolutionarily designed to eat a meat-based diet. Ferrets have a simple gastrointestinal tract and a unique physiology.

Ferrets have a short intestinal tract. They also have a rapid transit-time through the intestines. It usually takes only three to four hours for food to go from the mouth to the litter box. This makes the ferret’s digestive tract inefficient. To make things even worse, ferrets have a simple gut flora, minimal brush border enzymes and lack a cecum. This means ferrets cannot digest fiber, starch or other complex carbohydrates. To make up for this inefficient digestive tract, ferrets need a diet with a high level of protein, a high level of fat, a very low level of fiber, and a very low level of carbohydrates.

Ferret Protein Musts
Protein is the basic structural component of all of the tissues in the body, and protein is required for growth and to maintain normal tissues in the body. Protein is made up of amino acids, and approximately 24 amino acids are found in animal tissue. Ferrets require a high protein level (35 to 55 percent). This is higher than requirements for cats and dogs. The protein must be high-quality, meat-based protein to meet their requirements for the essential amino acids.

Deficiencies in certain amino acids can cause serious problems. Taurine is required for normal heart muscle and eye function. A diet that does not have enough taurine can cause the heart to stretch and enlarge (dilated cardiomyopathy). This can lead to congestive heart failure and death. In the eye, a low taurine diet can cause blindness from central retinal degeneration. Taurine is present in poultry and fish, and most commercial ferret diets add extra taurine to the diet. In some countries, such as Australia, some working ferrets are fed homemade diets with rabbit, lamb and kangaroo meat as the main ingredients. Rabbit, lamb and kangaroo meat can have a low taurine content, so a taurine supplement might be required to prevent taurine deficiency problems.

The amino acids methionine and cystine are also important for good health. These two amino acids contain sulfur. When they are digested, the sulfur is converted to sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid is eliminated through the kidneys and into the urine. This acidifies the urine and prevents bladder infections and struvite bladder stones. Protein from plants such as corn gluten, wheat gluten, soybean meal and soy protein isolates do not contain these sulfur-containing amino acids. Diets high in plant-based protein will raise the pH of the urine, which can cause struvite bladder stones. Fortunately most commercial ferret diets have dl-methionine added to acidify the urine.

Why Ferrets Need Fat
Fat is important in the ferret diet for several reasons. Fat contains 2.25 times the energy of protein or carbohydrates, so it is a highly concentrated source of energy for ferrets. Fat also contains the essential fatty acids linoleic, linolenic and arachidonic. These fatty acids are needed for normal skin and hair coat.

Fat also contains the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Vitamin-A deficiency can cause stunted growth, night blindness and muscular incoordination of the rear legs. Vitamin-D deficiency can cause abnormal bone development. Vitamin-E deficiency can cause anemia, anorexia, a weak immune system, an impaired gait and paralysis. Vitamin-K deficiency can create problems with blood clots that can lead to bleeding problems. Most commercial ferret diets have a fat level of 20 to 30 percent, which should prevent these problems. In addition to the fat-soluble vitamins, most commercial ferret diets include the water-soluble B vitamins.

Must-Have Minerals For Ferrets
Minerals are also crucial for proper ferret nutrition. Calcium and phosphorus are the two minerals that cause the most problems. Meat contains a lot of phosphorus and very little calcium. Ferrets actually need slightly more calcium than phosphorus. If calcium is not added to the diet, then a calcium deficiency develops. With time the ferret will lose weight and become reluctant to play. Eventually the bones will not have enough calcium in them, so bone fractures can occur. In countries where ferrets are fed homemade diets consisting of meat and organ tissue only, young ferrets commonly develop bone problems and are unable to stand up because their bones are so weak. They will often try to move by crawling or "swimming.” These kits are often called "swimmers.” Most commercial ferret diets have the correct amount of calcium and phosphorus to avoid this serious problem.

Ferrets And Carbohydrates
Ferrets do not require carbohydrates and do not need carbohydrates in their diet as long as the diet has enough fat and protein. Carbohydrates can cause two common problems. Carbohydrates stimulate the pancreas to make insulin. Ferrets normally eat small meals frequently, so the pancreas is repeatedly stimulated to produce insulin. This chronic overstimulation of the pancreas may cause an insulinoma (cancer) to develop. The other problem that carbohydrates may cause is diarrhea. If the ferret cannot digest the carbohydrates (starch, complex carbohydrates) in the diet, then water will be drawn into the colon and cause a watery diarrhea.

Ferrets And Fiber
Ferret diets should have a very low fiber level. A high level of fiber will draw water into the colon, which can cause a watery diarrhea. Fiber will also decrease the absorption of fat and protein. If a ferret’s diet contains too much fiber, the ferret may not be able to eat enough food to meet its energy needs.

Ailments That Affect Ferret Nutrition
There are also disease conditions that can cause malnutrition and even slow starvation, despite feeding a ferret a good diet. Ferrets are prone to stomach ulcers. Ferrets with ulcers fail to eat enough due to abdominal pain. Ulcers must be treated with a medication to coat the stomach and alleviate the pain (Carafate), an antacid (Pepcid, etc.) to reduce stomach acid and pain, and a soft food to increase the appetite.

Cancer of the gastrointestinal tract (lymphoma) and inflammatory bowel disease can cause a problem digesting the food, and a problem absorbing the fat and protein from the food. This will usually cause diarrhea and weight loss. Both of these conditions can be improved by using pred and/or chemotherapy to reduce the inflammation in the GI tract. Some cases of inflammatory bowl disease will benefit from a weekly injection of vitamin B12.

Older ferrets can have painful dental disease that prevents them from eating enough food to meet their nutritional needs. A teeth cleaning, extraction of loose teeth, and an antibiotic to clear up the gum infection can solve this problem.

Ferret nutrition is a rather complicated interaction between protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Not enough of some of these can cause problems, and too much of some of these can also cause problems. Feed your ferret a diet that is complete and balanced to help avoid nutritional deficiencies and toxicities.

Like this article? Please share it, and check out:
Frequently Asked Questions About Ferret Health
One Ferret Health Issue You Can't Ignore Is Hair Loss

10 Uncommon Ferret Health Problems
See questions and answers about ferret health
See questions and answers about ferret behavior

Posted: March 1, 2011, 5 a.m. EST


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