NOTE: The information in this handout
is not intended to replace the advice of your veterinarian. This information
is the result of practical experience and not from controlled laboratory
Symptoms and diagnosis:
Megaesophagus is the dilation of the
esophagus due to the lack of muscular motility. When the ferret attempts to
swallow, the food or liquid cannot be propelled into the stomach causing the
esophagus to swell as it fills. As a result, breathing may be impaired, and
the ferret regurgitates. This is not true vomiting because the material
never enters the stomach. Gurgling and rumbling sounds are commonly heard.
If the food or liquid pools in the esophagus and then enters the stomach, a
loud noise can be heard (which sounds like water going down a drain). Some
of the regurgitated food might be inhaled, resulting in a pneumonia that is
extremely difficult to treat.
Megaesophagus is a relatively rare condition in ferrets. Acquired
megaesophagus is being diagnosed more often as vets become familiar with
ferrets. Megaesophagus can sometimes be diagnosed by giving barium to the
ferret, feeding the ferret, and immediately taking an X-ray. On the
radiograph, food can frequently be seen in the esophagus. The condition may
also be diagnosed by endoscope examination, fluoroscopy, or clinical
observations. Because the ferret does not get sufficient food and water into
the stomach to digest, it dehydrates and wastes away, often in a matter of
days. Prompt action is required to save the ferrets life.
Quesenberry states that the " . . . prognosis for
ferrets with megaesophagus is poor; generally, they die or are euthanized
within days of diagnosis." (Hillyer/Quesenberry; "Ferrets,
Rabbits, and Rodents - Clinical Medicine and Surgery" 1997, pg. 28).
However, we have had success helping the ferret live with this condition by
following suggestions listed below if diagnosis occurs before the ferret is
severely dehydrated and weak. Long-term survival for the ferret requires the
patience, commitment, and love of a dedicated owner.
For controlling the symptoms of megaesophagus, we found
that Zantac® (15mg/ml) may actually be the only drug that is required.
Zantac works by reducing reflux of the stomach acids that irritate the
esophagus. Give 0.1cc twice daily thirty minutes before feeding. (The basic
prescription mixture is peppermint so a pharmacist might be able to mix it
with a small amount of cod liver oil for a more palatable taste.) Weve
also found that refrigerated Zantac is accepted more readily. Propulsid®, a
motility drug, may also help. A small amount of the herb slippery elm mixed
with warm chamomile tea and sweetened with honey is great for soothing and
healing the irritated esophagus, especially after repetitive regurgitation.
Ferrets with acquired megaesophagus frequently have other stomach
problems, such as Helicobacter mustelae. The common treatment for H.
mustelae, according to Bruce Williams, DVM., Air Force Institute of
Pathology, is amoxicillin at 10-20 mg/lb. twice daily or alternatively, 20
mg/lb. for five days, then 10 mg/lb. for the rest of the time, metronidazole
(Flagyl®) 30 mg/kg once daily, and Pepto-Bismol® 1/15th tablet or 1cc
liquid once daily. This therapy must be continued for 4-6 weeks. Be prepared
to "wear the pink stuff" because ferrets hate the taste of both
Flagyl and Pepto-Bismol. New research (B. Williams, A.F.I.P.) suggests that
a combination of chlorythromycin (Biaxin®) 50 mg/kg once daily and
amoxicillin at 35 mg/kg once daily, or 20 mg/kg twice daily for two weeks
has great efficacy.
Care and Feeding:
Proper feeding is the key. If the ferret is
dehydrated, fluid therapy is needed immediately and needs to be continued
until the ferret is getting sufficient fluid from its diet. Once fully
hydrated, soft food may supply all the liquid the ferret requires, so it may
actually drink very seldom. Frequent feedings (5 - 6 times daily at first)
are given until the ferret is at a good weight, then gradually reduce to 3-4
feedings daily for maintenance. Dont allow the ferret to go more than
8-10 hours without food. If meals are late or skipped, the ferret may have a
difficult time keeping food down at the next feeding.
If the ferret is unable to keep food down, Stat-VME®, DVM Dyne®, or
Pounds Plus® can be given instead of the recipe below on a short-term basis
only. Mix 5cc (one teaspoon) of this concentrate with 10cc of water. Allow
the ferret to consume as much as it can eat by feeding very slowly. Five
ccs of the high calorie, low-bulk concentrate can provide enough calories for a ferret
for 24 hours but feed it all it will eat. On this regime, the ferret will
still require fluid supplementation. Never feed the concentrate straight
since it is too potent for ferrets.
When feeding the ferret, keep the head elevated and the throat in a
straight line. Never feed with the head down or at the normal angle. The
ferrets head must be raised to allow gravity to assist in swallowing
food! Let the ferret pause a couple of seconds between each mouthful of food
to allow time to swallow. Each feeding may take 10-20 minutes. Be relaxed,
unhurried, and dont allow distractions. The ferret can sense your
emotions and may have difficulty eating if you are stressed.
The ferret should consume at least one to two ounces (30 to 60 ccs) of
"soup" per meal or a total of 90 to 240ccs per day, depending
upon size and body condition. We found that feeding with a 20cc syringe or
from the finger works the best. If the food is very soupy, the syringe works
best. Clean the syringe (and the ferret!) with fresh water after every meal
and replace the syringe weekly. Ferrets that are not used to being hand-fed
may reject all your advances to feed it. Be persistent but gentle and
patient at feeding time. Remember, you have the "job" of keeping
your ferret alive by feeding it. Once the ferret is comfortable with hand
feeding, it will stop eating when it is full.
If the ferret does not regurgitate runny soup, make the food a little
thicker at the next feeding, more like a porridge, with less water or more
rice cereal. If the ferret starts choking (which is common), massage its
throat down to the chest area. This can sometimes stimulate the ferret to
swallow. If the ferret is unable to swallow the food and starts to
regurgitate, lower the ferrets head to allow the food to come up easily.
Give the ferret a chance to recover and then try feeding again. If the
ferret continues to regurgitate, wait 30 minutes, then try again. Be sure
the food is runny since this will enter the stomach easier than a thicker
porridge. Occasionally, you may have to wait a couple of hours before the
ferret is able to eat again.
If the ferret regurgitates and then inhales the fluid, there is a chance
that it may develop aspiration pneumonia. Monitor your ferret if it is
choking and take it to the vet for antibiotics if you think it has aspirated
fluid or food into the lungs.
In the cage, the water bottle should be suspended high so that the
ferrets neck is straight when drinking from the sipper tube. Never use a
water bowl with this condition. In theory, a ferret could eat solid food
(from a high platform) once the condition has stabilized, but this has not
been our experience. The ferret will, in all likelihood, require hand
feeding at least three times daily for the remainder of its life.
Magellans Soup for Megaesophagus
- 1 can Hills canine/feline a/d® (prescription formula from your
- 1 2.5 ounce jar baby Lamb or Chicken (be sure it doesnt contain
- 1 2.5 ounce jar baby food bananas (such as Gerbers)
- 1-2 Tablespoons baby food rice cereal (gives some bulk to the stool)
- 1-2 teaspoons of a high calorie, low bulk concentrated formula such as
Pediatric-stat, DVM Dyne, or Pounds Plus (optional for gaining weight
gain; available from pet supply companies)
- 0.5 cc Trace minerals such as Trace AniMinerals® (Pets Friend
- 0.5 cc Pet-Tinic® (available from your veterinarian)
- Mix together with filtered water until desired consistency is obtained.
Keep soup refrigerated and use within 48 hours. Warm just the amount
needed at feeding time. (Note: Feeding soft food causes loose stools.)
Note: This was the recipe that I used for Magellan and worked very well.
However, please consult with your veterinarian to determine the correct
nutritional needs for your ferret.
© Copyright Carla Almaraz All Rights Reserved.
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provided no modifications
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