This is a detailed account of our own experience with Helicobacter Mustelae with our own ferrets along with pictures and advice on how to treat it.
The reason we share our horrifying story is because we were totally unprepared and wish to help other ferret lovers (such as you) better prepare for such a situation, if it would occur. We have learned so much from this experience, and we have prepared a Ferret First Aid kit that we now keep in a “ready to use” state at ALL TIMES!!! If you’re interested in getting yourself a Ferret First Aid Kit as well, check it out.
It only took 2 days for Moose to go from ‘he seems a little off’ to ‘oh my God, is that BLOOD on the potty pad?!’ It was literally that fast.
They always warn you how quickly ferrets fade. It’s something we didn’t prepare for until it was too late. I hope this detailed account of Moose’s symptoms and following treatment helps you.
Here’s a Timeline of Moose’s Rapid Health Decline:
On July 2, Channing and I picked up Moose from our wonderful babysitter (after 5 days on vacation). Moose’s eyes seemed a little dull but he perked right up when we brought him home. So many familiar smells! Must. Walk. Perimeter.
On July 3-4, Moose appeared more tired than usually but let’s be honest. If there’s something ferrets excel at, it’s napping -so it’s hard to say if that was a warning sign we should have caught.
On July 5, Moose passed a very dark poop. Maybe we were lying to ourselves or maybe we didn’t no any better but we decided “It’s not black enough to be blood. He must have just eaten old kibble”. I am posting this photo as a resource for others. This IS what blood in poop looks like. This is the first warning sign we missed.
On July 6, Moose continues to be excessively tired but we chalk it up to a week away from us and the stress that comes with it.
On July 7, Moose passes a giant puddle of RED blood and mucus on his potty pad. I grab my keys and rush him to the emergency vet. The exotic vet on staff (thank God!) takes 2 x-rays to rule out an obstruction. Moose’s cyst is now the size of an egg. For reference, last year it was the size of a grape. The size of the cyst is putting pressure on his other organs causing additional inflammation in Moose’s GI tract.
On July 8, Our own vet prescribes Moose Carafate, a liquid medication that coats ulcers in the intestines to promote healing.
On July 9, Our vet examines Moose and takes an ultrasound. She determines that Moose has a severe Helicobacter infection that was caused by stress and insulinoma. That’s right. Moose now officially has insulinoma. His BG was 56.
On July 10, Moose starts on 2 antibiotics for a 14 day course (Amoxycilin and Clithromycin), as well as Carafate 4 times per day for 4 weeks. Lastly, Moose starts a twice daily dose of Prednisolone which he will need for the rest of his life.
On July 23, Albert and Newt start 2 antibiotics so that they do not reinfect Moose with helicobacter.
What is Helicobacter Mustelae?
Helicobacter Mustelae is an extremely common gastric infection in domestic ferrets. It is more commonly found in North America than Europe. The average age for helicobacter-induced disease is 3 months to 3 years in ferrets.
Under normal conditions, the Helicobacter bacteria is commonly benign in the intestinal tract. It is found in dogs, cats, ferrets, pigs, and humans.
Helicobacter Mustelae, specifically, is the most common strain of Helicobacter affecting ferrets.
Helicobacter Mustelae can cause gastritis and peptic ulcers in ferrets. The bacteria is also associated with gastric cancer in ferrets.
What Causes Helicobacter Mustelae in Ferrets?
It is thought to be transmitted through the weaning process, though stress and illness are factors that make ferrets more susceptible as well.
Ferrets with untreated insulinoma are more susceptible to Helicobacter infections due to the higher acidity level found in the GI tract.
Helicobacter Mustelae is often associated with stomach ulcers in ferrets.
What are the Risk Factors for Developing Helicobacter Mustelae Infection in Ferrets?
- Unhygienic conditions
- Epizootic catarrhal enteritis
- Other cancers
Symptoms for Helicobacter Mustelae in Ferrets Include:
- Excessive salvation (nausea)
- Pawing of the mouth (nausea)
- Clenched or grinding teeth (pain)
- Black, bloody stool
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Pallor or mucous membranes (due to blood loss)
- Hair loss or poor coat
How do you Diagnose Helicobacter Mustelae in Ferrets?
Helicobacter Mustelae can be diagnosed multiple ways.
- Biopsy via laparotomy
- Fecal culture
- Urea breath test
- Presumptive diagnosis
A presumptive diagnosis may be made based on the identification of several key symptoms (bloody stool, insulinoma, weight loss, recent stressful event).
How do you Treat Helicobacter Mustelae in Ferrets?
Treatment is dependent upon the severity of the infection. If the ferret is eating (and not vomiting) Helicobacter Mustelae is treated on an outpatient basis. It is important to keep the ferret hydrated.
If the ferret is refusing to eat, fluid therapy (such as subcutaneous injections) and alternative dietary options (liquid food) are necessary. We recommend this gentle liquid food for at home treatment (in conjunction with veterinary care)
***Warming the ferret’s food to body temperature or crushing food into a paste and offering via syringe may be used to stabilize the animal.
Medical treatment is unlikely to completely eradicate Helicobacter Mustelae. Antibiotics treat the active infection, and antacids can help alter the stomach’s pH levels to make it inhospitable for the bacteria to survive. Lastly, medications like Carafate can be used to coat and protect the resulting ulcers to assist in the healing process.
What Medication is Used to Treat Helicobacter Mustelae in Ferrets?
Amoxicillin and Clarithromycin are common and effective antibiotics used in the treatment of Helicobacter Mustelae. It is vital that the ferret remains on antibiotics for the entire prescribed course, otherwise the bacteria could become resistant to treatment.
Carafate is liquid medication that forms a coating over ulcers in the intestines. If a ferret shows signs of peptic ulcers (bloody stool) Carafate is typically prescribed. It is recommended that a ferret remain on this medication for 4-8 weeks as the ulcer completely heals (even if symptoms appear to subside).
MEDICATION TIMING: Carafate must be taken at least 2 hours before or after other medication as the coating for the ulcer prevents absorption of other medication.
How do you Manage Helicobacter Mustelae in Ferrets After Initial Treatment?
If symptoms reappear after the initial treatment, your veterinarian will most likely investigate alternative diagnoses behind the symptoms.
Some ferrets develop chronic Helicobacter infections, which can be severely debilitating. This is why it is CRUCIAL to provide the best treatment possible during the first incident (regular fluids, syringe feed if necessary, remain on full course of medication, decrease sources of stress).
Recurrence is common, especially under stressful conditions.
Is Helicobacter Mustelae Contagious?
Though Helicobacter could possibly be transmitted to humans, there are no documented cases at this time. Ferrets are commonly used to study the effects and treatment of the commonly known, H. pylori infection in humans.
Helicobacter Mustelae is particularly common in overcrowded and unhygienic areas. It is recommended that if one ferret shows symptoms of the infection, all ferrets should be put on antibiotics to prevent reinfections.
What is Moose’s Prognosis?
Moose has shown great improvement from the day we rushed him off to the ER to today, 2 weeks later. For the first time since his hospitalization, Moose is playing with his brothers, wrestling and jumping. His appetite is consistent and his stool looks normal.
UPDATE: We continue to syringe feed if we feel he is not eating enough at meal time. We are also testing his blood glucose levels regularly to understand his insulinoma better.
Moose does not just need to recover from the Helicobacter Mustelae infection. He also needs to get his Blood Glucose stable and then he needs to have surgery to remove the egg-sized cyst in his abdomen.
Because we started treatment almost immediately after the symptoms presented (bloody stools), we believe Moose has a good chance to make it through this.
He completed his 14-day dose of antibiotics. He will continue his Carafate regimen to help his ulcer heal for another 10 days. In the meantime, his brothers will begin their antibiotic regimen to minimize the chances of reinfection in our home.
Moose is almost 5 years old, which is officially “geriatric” for ferrets. We knew about Insulinoma. We had our guard up against Adrenal Disease (via the Deslorlin implant). We had NO IDEA that Helicobacter Mustelae would hit our baby so hard.
I feel so lucky to have the vet we have (she specializes in ferrets!). I also feel fortunate that I typically work from home so I have been able to watch Moose like a hawk and offer him the appropriate medication and food/fluids around the clock.
Here are the BEST Products to Increase Your Ferret’s Chances of Survival. Get the full kit here:
- Flavorless Pedialyte
- Baby Food
- Veterinary Q-tips
- Styptic Powder
- Karo Syrup
- Blood Glucose Monitor
My top advice to ALL ferret owners:
Educate yourselves on every ferret-related illness you can. Study the warning signs I listed above. These symptoms are common for many ferret illnesses. Put a first aid kit together RIGHT NOW and give your ferret a fighting chance at survival next time they get sick.