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An Emerging Ferret Disease: Ferret-FIP

A disease resembling feline infectious peritonitis is one of the latest diseases of concern in ferret medicine.

By Katrina Ramsell, Ph.D., DVM
Posted: April 1, 2008, 5 a.m. EST

A ferret diagnosed with Ferret-FIP
Currently, the outlook is grim for ferrets confirmed to have Ferret-FIP.
© Courtesy of Lynda Clark

A disease resembling feline infectious peritonitis has been recognized recently in ferrets and will be referred to here as Ferret-FIP. Most cases of Ferret-FIP have been identified within the last three years, with the count approaching approximately 50 cases. Similar to FIP in cats, this disease in ferrets is associated with a coronavirus, and it may be an immune-mediated disease. It has been hypothesized that the ferret enteric coronavirus (epizootic catarrhal enteritis virus) may be mutating within ferrets to result in Ferret-FIP – the disease state associated with the spread of virus within the body, inflammation and nodule formation. An alternative hypothesis is that there is a separate strain of coronavirus affecting ferrets and causing the disease. Cases are being documented and research is underway to further define and understand the clinical aspects and disease process of Ferret-FIP.

What Ferrets Are Affected With Ferret-FIP?
Ferret-FIP appears to affect young ferrets, with most being less than 18 months of age. Ferrets diagnosed with Ferret-FIP have been from various breeders and been on various diets. Many ferrets diagnosed with this disease lived with other ferrets and/or other pets. At this point, we do not know if or how contagious Ferret-FIP is to other ferrets.

What Signs Are Associated With Ferret-FIP?
Initial signs of a ferret with Ferret-FIP often include lethargy and a generalized (often hind end) weakness. Several owners have mentioned that their ill ferret had never been as active as other normal, young ferrets. Many owners report sudden weight loss, and most of the ferrets with Ferret-FIP become very thin over the course of the disease. Anorexia has been reported as an initial sign in some ferrets, but several ferrets have had a fairly normal appetite initially that has gradually declined throughout the progression of the disease. Sneezing (especially fits) and progressively labored breathing have been reported in several cases. Mild fever, dehydration, tooth grinding, vomiting, abnormal stools, seizures and neurologic signs (e.g. paddling) have also been reported. Some ferret owners have seen very greenish urine.

What Diagnostic Results May Indicate Ferret-FIP?
On physical examination, many ferrets with Ferret-FIP have had one or more abdominal masses. Moderate to severe emaciation, an enlarged spleen and kidneys, and heart murmurs are commonly observed. Enlarged peripheral lymph nodes have also been reported. X-rays have shown an enlarged spleen and abdominal masses in several cases.

Ferrets with Ferret-FIP consistently have increased blood globulin (above 6.0 g/dl; normal is < 3.0 g/dl) and total protein levels. All ferrets that were tested for Aleutian Disease Virus (ADV) were negative (via CEP test). Some ferrets had a mildly increased white blood cell count and/or mild to moderate decreased red blood cell count.

Ferrets with this disease often have abdominal masses, an enlarged spleen, nodules in abdominal organs and sometimes the lungs, and enlarged lymph nodes. To confirm the diagnosis of Ferret-FIP, coronavirus must be identified from a granuloma (nodule) or fluid from the chest or abdomen. Testing is currently being done to find viral ribonucleic acid (RNA) in frozen tissues at Michigan State University. Research at MSU has determined that Ferret-FIP is caused by a coronavirus that is different from the one that causes FIP in cats. Further research is needed to investigate the disease process in ferrets and to determine whether Ferret-FIP is associated with a mutation in the ECE virus or with a different strain of coronavirus.

What Is The Treatment And Prognosis For Ferrets With Ferret-FIP?
Ferrets with Ferret-FIP, like cats with FIP, have an extremely poor prognosis and usually die. Two ferrets diagnosed with the disease are still living, but the other confirmed cases have died. Several drugs and supplements have been used in cats in an effort to improve quality of life and slow the progression of the disease, but there is currently no cure for FIP in cats. There is also currently no cure for Ferret-FIP, and owners of ferrets with the disease generally have seen little or no improvement to the medications tried thus far.

Recommendations If Ferret-FIP Is Suspected
Ferrets suspected to have Ferret-FIP should undergo a comprehensive physical examination and thorough diagnostic tests. A young ferret with a high globulin level that is ADV negative should be suspected to have the disease. Unless fluid can be obtained and used to confirm the diagnosis of Ferret-FIP, an exploratory surgery with biopsies and histopathology may be necessary to get a definitive diagnosis. One must also consider whether the ferret’s condition is too compromised for the ferret to survive an invasive procedure such as surgery.

Because many ferrets are already carriers of the ferret enteric coronavirus (ECE), and Ferret-FIP is a poorly understood disease, quarantine recommendations are difficult. Ferrets suspected or confirmed to have Ferret-FIP should not be exposed to any new ferrets, but separating them from current cagemates may be detrimental to the mental health of the ill ferret and to the cagemates. If Ferret-FIP is an immune-mediated disease similar to FIP in cats, treatment should be aimed at controlling the immune response to the virus. Immune-suppressive and anti-inflammatory drugs, rest, minimizing stress, and providing a high quality diet may help slow progression of the disease and help ferrets with mild clinical signs.

If a living ferret is definitively diagnosed to have Ferret-FIP, supportive care may be helpful for a period of time, but humane euthanasia should be considered when the ferret’s quality of life is in question. If a ferret suspected to have Ferret-FIP dies or is euthanized, a thorough necropsy should be performed and tissues should be collected for histopathology. Confirmed cases should be reported to document and contribute to further research on this disease. Veterinarians can contact me if they confirm a case of Ferret-FIP.

Dr. Ramsell is an exotic animal veterinarian in Oregon. She is the president and shelter veterinarian for the Cascade Ferret Network, and she is the on the Health Affairs Committee for the American Ferret Association.

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Reader Comments
This article is very informative but I especially appreciate Whitney taking us on her journey with Omnom. I have had a hard time finding any descriptive systems and their progressions. I know the "research" is still being done, but sharing our experiences is how we learn and/or maybe it will prompt a study that will finally find a treatment or a vaccine that is successful. I'm sorry for your loss!
Traci, Richardson, TX
Posted: 7/1/2015 4:46:18 PM
*final update* So after my last post, Omnom started to have a tiny improvement, which spurred us to continue the Polyprenyl treatment. He continued to get incrementally better and 7 months after he stopped eating on his own, we walked in on him eating solid kibble from the dish like it was no big deal! It was miraculous, and he had a couple more months of feeling a little better, eating kibbles and being generally wonderful. Unfortunately as is expected with this disease, he began on the down slope again. He became more lethargic, basically sleeping all the time, stopped eating kibble, and even started getting finicky about eating his soup. He was having nervous system-type signs of being stiff and uncomfortable when not upright and falling off things. The end of September he was getting more and more bothered by eating and pretty much sleeping about 23.5 hours each day, getting pretty bald and was constantly cold. He made it to the 1 year mark surviving after the FRSCV diagnosis, which was unbelievable. On October 3rd, we quietly celebrated his 3rd birthday- another incredible milestone. Sadly, the next day he began feeling very poor and we knew- this was not like the other times when he would have bad weeks of fever and lethargy then feel better for another few weeks- this was different. He started refusing food completely, he stopped being able to walk and stand, was having accidents in his bed because he could't get to the box and he lost a lot of weight in just a few days. We spoke to our vets, and they discussed what options we had, and gave us their support no matter what we decided. That night Omnom became unresponsive, was very pale, cold and limp. We knew it was time. He put up an incredibly brave fight, but he was ready to stop fighting. We held him and hugged and kissed him, told him it was ok to go be with his late buddy Cashew, and told him what a complete joy his life was for us and everyone he met. The morning of October 5th, we took him to our clinic and held him as the vet helped him cross over to the next world. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but there was no question that he was ready to go. We elected to have a necropsy performed so that they could learn all they can about the nature of this disease and further research. I love Omnom more than anything in this world and I only hope that our experiences with the disease and his passing will help other ferrets (and their owners) who have been diagnosed with this and hopefully one day we can find a cure. Omnom would've wanted to help all the ferrets in the world; it was his way. Thanks to everyone for the kind words and thoughts. Omnom introduced us to the wonderful world of ferrets. He was a perfect, handsome, loving boy. ~RIP Omnom Nom Bailey 10/3/10-10/5/13~
Whitney, Champaign, IL
Posted: 11/15/2013 9:08:25 PM
Whitney, I'm sorry to hear that Omnom hasn't improved. Very sorry this happened.
Marylou, Irvine, CA
Posted: 4/29/2013 5:10:37 PM
*update 2* So, since the deslorelin implant last month, the itching has completely stopped. Unfortunately, Omnom has started to quickly go downhill. Somehow we managed to scrape together enough money to get the Polyprenyl. And it was not cheap- a ~2 mo supply for him was $99. He has been taking it (in place of interferon) for 2.5 weeks now, and he has not shown any improvement. I feel positive if it was going to help, we would've seen something already. In cats, improvement was noted in 10-14 days- I just think we tried it too late. He is having a lot of difficulty walking, with weakness in his hind legs and ataxia. He is extremely lethargic and sometimes out of it and occasionally has bouts of excessive drooling. He also had one episode of possible mini seizure activity. 7 months now, since he became ill. Which is a pretty big feat that he's made it this far, but it's still really unfair to know that he won't get to celebrate his 3rd birthday. I really wish we had tried the Polyprenyl earlier on because it's shown such promise in cats. But I think now it's too late for anything to help. We are just enjoying every last cuddle we have with him. He has a check-up on May 1, and I'm afraid it might be his last. Again, I just want to get the word out about FRSCV- especially to other ferret owners facing the horror of this disease in their little one. I will update again if the situation changes.
Whitney, Champaign, IL
Posted: 4/27/2013 2:37:11 PM
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