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One Ferret’s Battle With Food Allergies

Fluctuating weight, increasing lethargy and bouts of vomiting send a ferret to the veterinarian numerous times before food allergies are diagnosed, and then the challenge begins to find the right diet.

Susan E. Jones
Posted: September 8, 2014, 8:30 p.m. EDT

Dublin ferret standing on tile
© Courtesy Susan E. Jones
Dublin was born in 2011 and is an easygoing ferret who likes to watch the world go by.

This is a story about a little ferret named Dublin. We adopted him from Texas Ferret Lover’s Rescue in December 2011 as a 6-month-old. He weighed 2 pounds 13 ounces. He is very easygoing and loves to lie on his back and watch the world go by and also chase the vacuum hose.

At the time, I was feeding a mix of kibble (one third Totally Ferret Turkey, Venison, Lamb; one third Wysong Ferret Epigen 90; one third Evo, which was replaced by Pretty Pets Natural Gold and then Wysong Archetype 2). All the ferrets got a serving of duck soup every evening. [Duck soup is a high-calorie, easy-to-digest food mix, and recipes for it vary — Eds.] In three months Dublin weighed a nice, filled-out 3 pounds and 1 ounce.

All was mostly well for nearly a year. Through the months his weight fluctuated a little, and he and the other ferrets were all treated for ear mites.

On November 3, 2012, I heard a whine/faint scream and went searching for the source. Sophie and Dublin were the only ferrets in the area where I heard the noise. I petted both and Dublin was unresponsive. I rubbed him and his eyes were open and glassy — his mouth agape. I yanked him up and grabbed my AlphaTrak blood glucose monitor to test him. He finally came around and his glucose was 111.

Nearly a year passed, and most everything seemed well except for some weight fluctuation. On October 5, 2013, however, he vomited before eating duck soup. I noticed that he was digging at the carpet after eating soup. He vomited again on October 15 after eating soup. I gave him Pepcid (famotidine) between meals and Carafate 30 minutes before soup. He didn’t improve in the next few weeks. I had recently switched my eldest girl, Rhodes to a turkey and lamb soup as an option for her inflammatory bowel disease, so I decided to see if Dublin liked it as well. He did.

Over the next few weeks, he vomited again. I found hair in his poop that was dark green and the consistency of jelly. I caught Dublin chewing on the blanket and noticed that his muscle tone was thinning. It was time for a vet visit.

On November 5, 2013, I took him to a local vet who did a full blood workup on him. She saw nothing remarkable in her exam, listened to my complaints and told me to give him Carafate three times a day and stop giving him duck soup. His weight was down to 2 pounds 9 ounces.

He made no improvement because this regimen was repetitive. I then called Dr. Dearixon, who works at a clinic six hours away, and she had me run a course of Biaxin antibiotic with the Carafate and famotidine to see if it helped any. He vomited again and continued with the mucousy diarrhea, so I brought him to her office before the Thanksgiving holidays. She reviewed his prior blood work, completed parasite examination, and took an X-ray, which showed no blockage. He had ear mites again so we started the whole crew on Ivermectin this time.

Dublin ferret on scale
© Courtesy Susan E. Jones
Dublin's weight fluctuations were one sign that something was going on with his health.

We discussed the possibility of it being a Helicobacter infection, but there should have been improvement with the prior regimen. We then discussed diet changes. At the time I had been offering the same kibble mix of brands for at least six months. I told her about the duck soup routine and the changeover to turkey-based duck soup. Her only comment was that he never vomited kibble. She changed the antibiotic to Biomox (amoxicillin) and away we went.

On December 6 he vomited before soup. On December 20, I was horrified when I wiped up a poop with a paper towel and it had visible blood in it! We went back to the local vet and she put him on Orbax. I emailed Dr. Dearixon about the new development and she thought possibly he had proliferative bowel disease. She added the antibiotic chloramphenicol to his treatment. The day after Christmas, Dublin vomited five times after soup. I caught him chewing on the bedding and on his tail. The next day he had dark green, seedy poop, but thankfully it had no blood in it. By December 29 he weighed 2 pounds 5 ounces and was showing more signs of lethargy.

On December 30 I had an extensive conversation with Dr. Dearixon about all the things we had ruled out: ADV, FIP, coronaviruses and DIM. We checked his stool multiple times for parasites. Other bacterial infections would have been wiped out with all these antibiotics. We had previously discussed diet, and I thought I had done well to switch him to turkey/lamb duck soup, but he seemed to have gotten worse. She mentioned removing all poultry but I didn’t see how I could possibly do that with nine free-roam ferrets. I asked her if we could come in on January 2, 2014.

First thing in the morning she did another full blood workup, tested for Giardia and Coccidia. She concluded that he either had a food allergy or something really bizarre. I just could not get it right in my mind that food could cause my boy to be so ill. I opted for Dublin to have exploratory surgery. She took biopsies of stomach, small intestines, colon and mesenteric lymph nodes. Dr. Dearixon told me afterward that he was the healthiest ferret she ever operated on. He was placed on sucralfate (Carafate), orbifloxacin (Orbax), metronidazole (Flagyl), famotidine (Pepcid) and cetirizine (Zyrtec) after surgery. We picked him up around 4:30 p.m. We decided not to drive the six hours back home that day because it was major surgery. Thank goodness, because he started hemorrhaging from the surgical sight right after the clinic closed! Ask me how ferrets know the doctors’ hours, I don’t know! 

The local shelter director and I tried our best to get the bleeding to stop. We even went and got liquid bandage after a tube of superglue didn’t work. His body temperature was dropping to 94 degrees Fahrenheit, and we were microwaving rice socks to pack around him. In a panic, we called Dr. D around 8 p.m., and she met us back at the clinic at 8:30 for emergency surgery. His packed cell volume (PCV) had dropped to 17 percent (it was 40 before surgery).

Dublin made it through, and back at home he recovered remarkably fast from the surgery and had a great appetite. As usual, the diarrhea was better as long as he was on antibiotics. He did not vomit any and was eating kibble within a day. The biopsy results showed inflammation all through his digestive tract. I had already expressed my concern to Dr. Dearixon about using long-term prednisolone, as I know how hard the steroids are on the ferrets. She said she would research other drug treatment options for his newly diagnosed eosinophilic gastroenteritis. 

It was official: Dublin had food allergies! I was left with the daunting task of figuring out a way to do what was best for my ferret.

Dublin ferret sleeping in corner
© Courtesy Susan E. Jones
After confirming that Dublin had food allergies, the challenge was to find the right diet to feed him.

I like to get to the bottom of things. There was no way I was going to take the easy way out and put him on prednisolone or other experimental meds and continue him on the diet that was tearing him up. I wanted him healthy again, a thriving young ferret who could live another six to eight years. But much was to be done! I now had three ferrets on so many meds that I literally had to make a chart just to keep up with the daily administration.

I had heard of a ferret nutritionist named Erinn Whitmore. I sent her a message and she replied, "Sure, I can help you out.” I completed her consult questionnaire form and included all of Dublin’s history. She could not believe the detail I had documented on his case. She recommended a one-protein source diet (preferably raw) either lamb or rabbit. I had to figure out how I was going to separate and feed this one ferret a raw diet or try and convert them all and upset everyone’s applecart. You know how ferrets can get very finicky, especially older ones. But I had to hurry!

By January 9, I submitted a 12-week action plan for how I was going to separate Dublin with a buddy in rotation each day. First they all had to get used to a cage being in their playroom. Let me tell you, they investigated for about 15 minutes and decided it was not for them. They acted like the "Ferret Nation” should be renamed "The Abomination.”

Strangely enough, Dublin was the only ferret who slept in that cage the first week. I think he was telling me, "It’s OK Mom. I know I’m going to feel better, and I have faith in your plan!” So began the plan to introduce him to only ingesting the Anergan lamb and rice kibble, and convert from the turkey and lamb soup formula over to a simple lamb soup.

He stayed out in the playroom during the day with a buddy. Aren’t they special? I tried to make him and the others feel like they were all getting plenty of attention and this was in no way a form of punishment. During playtime, they all came out and their adjoining rooms were opened, and I just took up the kibble from the group. Then Dublin and another playmate stayed out in the playroom all night with access to the cage and the food in it. What a nice vacation, as the playroom just happens to be our bedroom. Some overnight guests were harder to sleep through than others!

But, I still hadn’t decided on a plan for the soup. On January 15 and 16 of 2014, Dublin retched a clear liquid before soup at 9 a.m. I gave him meds but did not give any soup until 5 p.m. Erinn had given me a brand list of freeze-dried lamb food. I got online and ordered Nature’s Variety Instinct Raw Lamb, ZiwiPeak lamb and Stella & Chewy’s Dandy Lamb, and had them within a week. I also ordered the Wysong canned Anergan because it did not contain any peas.

Dublin ferret playing
© Courtesy Susan E. Jones
Soon after the change in diet, the difference in Dublin was noticeable.

When the order arrived, I started measuring and mixing and came up with the now famous "Dublin’s Lambchop Soup” (see below). I started mixing it with his old recipe to convert him over and it only took him 10 days to convert to eating this special soup three times a day. I noticed improvements immediately, with the added supplements taking over just as soon as he was off three weeks of antibiotic and post-surgical treatment of meds.

There were still a few bumps along the way but they were all on the road to recovery. The weight gain was almost as fast as it shed. He was back up nearly 3 pounds in just eight weeks. I noticed that eating the lamb soup really satisfied him and he had no interest in treats or even kibble. He knows it has made him feel better, and he is sticking to his diet. The others wanted to try his soup as well, and I saw no reason to make two different recipes so I transitioned all eight of my ferrets over to the freeze-dried lamb soup.

I also made-over the treat dispenser and have it stocked with a variety of freeze-dried, raw, nutritious meat bits with very limited carbs and grains.

Current Treats Used Are:
PureBites Chicken
Simply Nourish – turkey or chicken
Wysong Dream Treats – pheasant or chicken
Stewart Freeze Dried Chicken Livers
Blue Wilderness Cat Treats - chicken/turkey or chicken/duck 
Newman’s Own turkey & sweet potato dog biscuits
Halo Pumpkin Chews

Dublin’s Lambchop Soup
2 cups Wysong Anergan (Old or New recipe ~ be sure to check for "no peas”)
   Soak overnight in fridge covered with water in a bowl with a sealed lid.
3 oz. Nature’s Variety Instinct Raw Cat or Dog Lamb *Formula (they are the same)
3 oz. Stella & Chewy’s Dandy Lamb * Dinner (4-5 freeze-dried patties)
3 oz. ZiwiPeak Cat Lamb* Formula (*soak these three in water when you start)
3 cans Wysong Anergan Canned Cat Food (small cans)

Blend the above ingredients in blender until smooth.
Things I add to the soup: 
5 capsules of 1,000 mg taurine
2 Tblsp Pet Tinic Vitamins
2 Tblsp liquid B-12 vitamins

This recipe yields 10 each 8 ounce cups – each cup provides 4 each 2 ounce meals (two days worth if you feed twice a day). I freeze all when made and take out one each day.

I started this soup for Dublin on January 22, 2014, at half and half with his old turkey formula, and he was eating this full blown on February 2, so it did not take long at all for him to like it!

I also purchased Wholistic Pet Organics Feline Digest All. I sprinkle 1/4 tsp on the soup and blend in once daily. It has digestive enzymes as well as pre- and probiotics and has helped greatly with loose stools. 

NOTE: This diet is geared toward ferrets with food intolerances. [Consult your ferret’s veterinarian before making any drastic change to your pet’s diet. — Eds.] I initially switched Dublin from chicken soup to a turkey only soup with poor results. (Erinn Whitmore recommends rabbit or lamb as best and easiest to digest for IBD). I have already introduced all of the Wysong Archetype (freeze-dried) diet and Dream Treats. Rabbit is a big hit with my guys and four of them crowd around the bowl waiting for me to pour it! 

Like this article? Please share it, and check out:
The Ferret Poop Chart
Medications For Ferrets
See all questions and answers about ferret health 

Posted: September 8, 2014, 8:30 p.m. EDT


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One Ferret’s Battle With Food Allergies

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Reader Comments
I also have a ferret with eosinophilic gastroenteritis and at one point almost lost her. Very similar battle we had figuring out what was wrong. She is still on prednisolone but a very small dose every 5 to 6 days to help with the symptoms. Other than that, she is on a raw diet of rabbit, organic quail, anti-biotic free pork, and whole prey (African Soft Furred Rats). She is doing very well and is a normal bouncy happy ferret these days but that year of figuring out what was wrong was a very long one.
Jason, International
Posted: 10/9/2015 2:40:45 PM
I can't find the food with no peas ? They all have peas. My ferret is really sick I know it's the chicken but I need a more balanced meal. Please help me figure out how to get no peas thanks.
Ashley, International
Posted: 9/23/2015 8:40:50 AM
My vet never even suggested a change of diet for my guy. But everything you've talked about, he's been through! I'm going to try taking chicken out of his diet ASAP! He's been skinny since i got him last August, and would have diarrhea occasionally. But since he had surgery for adrenal disease and insulinoma, he seems to be in pain whenever going to the bathroom. The vet said his intestines looked very irritated and swollen (and even showed me photos of my ferret with his intestines outside his body during the surgery), but he never mentioned changing his diet. Sheesh. I
Serena, Columbia, SC
Posted: 4/23/2015 8:47:37 AM
I switched my ferret to chicken-free kibble. No more "loose stools" and the results were almost immediate!

Most of the kibble with "alternative protein sources" still has chicken in the ingredients.

Wellness Core makes a chicken and fish-free food, that has turkey and duck as it's main protein. It is still "grain free."

The only drawback is that the duck/turkey formula has protein of 38%, while the original chicken/fish formula has a protein of 45%.

The lower protein content may also help contribute with the solid stools.

My ferret(6+ yrs) was diagnosed with insulinoma about 6 months after he first started to show signs of loose stool. With this disease, the higher protein is probably better, but he seems more energetic and alert without the constant foul smelling pudding poops!
Ron, Cleveland, OH
Posted: 4/21/2015 10:43:21 AM
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