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Update January 2018

We would like to share an update concerning the developments in research on behalf of our workgroup.
Again we want to express our gratitute towards all contributors, old and new. Thanks to your support we are able to finance this research!

In the meantime a number of ferrets have had a thorough examination and we have some first results. We want to share as much as possible with you, but right now sequel research is being done and interpretations with other specialists are being made. Therefore conclusions can't be made yet, but we are heading in the right direction trying to find answers.

Some raw fed and ill (young) ferrets have been researched. Inflammations have been found in the gut, gallbladder, liver, pancreas and kidneys. It seems diverse pathogenic bacteria and possibly parasites might be the cause of it. These pathogens are mainly found in raw meat and prey animals. Further research is done with these pathogens, trying to discover an evident proof to be the possible cause of the problems we see with young and (young) adult raw fed ferrets lately. After receiving more results we can try to develop the right treatment, targeted for the specific pathogens. The last part could be difficult, as a great variety of pathogenic bacteria has been found.
Additional research is done with the possibly related mid-ear issues. This process takes much more time, as bones of the skull need to be decalcified.

For now the most important advice towards owners/caretakers of ferrets: Do NOT feed raw meat or prey animals until more knowledge is collected about the pathogens and their possible damage they can cause in health and welfare of ferrets!

Once more we like to appeal to all ferret lovers and owners to help us. Only with your support, we will be able to continue this project. Specially now it seems we are heading in the right direction and additional research is of great value to find answers.

Update May 2018

Sunday the 20th a small seminar in the form of a Ferretday has taken place. The aim was to raise more funds for the ongoing research and to give an update of developments.
We would like to share these developments with you. It is just an update for now as the research still is in progress.

The past few months ferret-vet Hanneke Roest has been working real hard to try to sort out the recent ferret health problems, concerning mainly the young ferrets.
One common point stands out in all involved ferrets; they all had been raw fed at some point in their life. Either commercial raw, prey animals, game or meat for human consumption.

In 2017 an article has been published in one of the leading veterinary magazines, The Veterinary Record, about a Dutch research done at RIVM (Bilthoven) and the Veterinarian Clinic of the University of Utrecht, concerning possible pathogenic bacteria and parasites in raw meat petfood. This research as well as the publication must meet strict criteria. For this research a variety of available commercial raw petfood branches had been tested. A few shocking fact from this study were: in 23% of the products an E. Coli type bacteria was found,which can cause kidney failure in humans; 80% of the tested products contained antibiotic resistant E. Coli; Salmonella was detected in 20% and Listeria in 50% of the products: the parasites Sarcocysts (23%) and Toxoplasma (6%) showed up as well. All these bacteria and parasites are also dangerous for ferrets.
The available meat in The Netherlands to produce these petfood products is all waist material from the bio-industry. Since 2007 meat producing farmers and breeders are forced by the government to put in less antibiotics, which may result in a higher amount of bacteria in meat. Meaning that regular butcher meat isn’t always suitable to use in a raw meat diet either. Many recalls of (supermarket) meat due to bacteria contamination have occurred in the past years. For us humans it is also advised to thoroughly heat the meat we use.

As the use of commercial minced raw pet meat has been discouraged the past time, many ferret breeders, -owners and –rescues switched (partly) to prey animals. Due to the increased demand for prey animals, like mice, there was a shortage on the market for it. Therefor suppliers weren’t able to provide the high-quality SPF mice or rats anymore and had to turn to commercial prey animal breeders abroad. We do expect the living conditions of these animals to be at least very questionably.

To date, following emerged from the research

Since the start of the Workgroup 11 ferrets have been euthanized for the research. Five of them have had a complete necropsy at the University of Utrecht. The other six have had the necropsy at the Ferret clinic and samples of diverse material and organs were send for testing and cultures to a pathological laboratory in Germany. Another fourteen ferrets, which are still alive, have been used for additional research; material has been send for cultures and other tests.

  • Almost all the examined animals were having chronical inflammations in stomach, bowel (intestines), pancreas, gallbladder, liver and kidneys;
  • There were found eosinophils, remarkably often, in diverse organs as well as in blood. These are a type of white blood cells, involved with the combat of parasites and immune reactions in a body (like allergies);
  • A variety of bacteria has been found, including a pure culture of entero-pathogens like resistant (Haemolytic) E. Coli, resistant Pseudomonas and Campylobacter;
  • Among others, bacteria have been found in still born kits (pup) and in uterus inflammation;
  • In some ferrets an inflammation was found in the brain or mid- and inner ear. An area very difficult to examine;
  • One ferret demonstrated an inflammation in the mid ear and from there an inflammation of the brain and even the spinal cord, caused by a multi resistant E. Coli bacteria. This ferret was also having the same type of inflammation with eosinophils like the other ferrets of the program.

Virus study hasn’t been done, for it is very complicated. Known viruses like Corona, Aleutian Disease (ADV) and other detected viruses in ferrets show other type of disease as seen in these cases.

Five years ago E.Coli bacteria were found in examinations as well. Back then they were treatable with regular antibiotics.

Given the amount of eosinophils detected, it could indicate towards parasites. Additional research has been done for it. No parasites were found, not in stool, nor in tissue or blood. It is highly unlikely parasites are the cause of these extensive chronical inflammations. 

Many breeders had issues with uterus inflammation (pyometra), mammary gland inflammation (mastitis), stillborn kits and non-conceiving jills.

It has had some difficulties to map out the research. A variety of specialists are involved and consulted to aid and interpret some found results, like Nico Schoemaker, Yvonne van Zeeland and Paul Overgaauw (microbiologic and parasitologic specialist) from the University of Utrecht.  Thanks to the intensive efforts of Hanneke Roest we can indicate what’s going on.

The one thing in common of all the participating ferrets in this research is the fact they have had raw meat and/or prey animals (mostly at a young age already or even in the litter). Ferrets adore raw and thrive on it, specially kits. This and other reasons is the main factor why raw and prey is extensively used among breeders and pet owners. Breeders and owners were giving it with the best of their intentions. The health problem occurs in all breeders. 

What is probably going on

The intestinal health (microbiome) of very young ferrets is destroyed because of the pathogenic bacteria found in raw meat and prey animals. An alteration of the intestinal health occurs, with less healthy bacteria which sickens the animal.

Given the many eosinophil reactions seen in the GI-tract and the absence of parasites, we can assume that an immune (defense) response is going on due to the altered microbiome and the damage in the intestines made by the pathogenic bacteria. There is a direct link with a healthy microbiome and the immune system (defense) of human and animal.

The asymmetrical immune response and pathogenic bacteria are responsible for a long-term illness. These ferrets have permanent damage in the GI-tract and became hyper sensible for almost everything given by mouth: intolerance for food and medication. They suffer from permanent nausea specially when eating and nutrients aren’t totally absorbed; therefore they are prone to lose weight.

Even if the initial bacteria are gone, the activated immune response will keep the illness last. Breeders who gave raw meat in the past will continue with the illness for quite some time. The altered microbiome is actually passed from mother to kit. A kit is supposed to be sterile (without any contamination). During birth, lactation and from the skin it receives the microbiome of the mother. Normally it would be a healthy cocktail of bacteria, but in this case, it is the altered microbiome either with or without pathogens. In case of being fed with a raw meat diet, the problem will only increase.

An urgent advice to all ferret owners

Do not feed any raw meat, prey animals or raw egg to your ferret. It is an absolute myth that gastric acid kills everything.

The following symptoms can be seen in ferrets with the illness:

  • Losing weight;
  • Changes in stool (from normal to loose or slimy; bad smell; abnormal colour);
  • Poor appetite or abnormal eating behaviour;
  • Abnormal behaviour; lethargic/calmer or hyperactive;
  • Nausea;
  • Bad coat or difficulties with shifting fur.

As a nauseous ferret can be difficult to recognise, a follow up below of symptoms which indicate nausea. Not all ferrets behave equal, so not all symptoms need to be present. Nausea is easier to spot given liquid food, like RCC (Royal Canin Convalescence support).

  • Refusing the RCC or not liking it;
  • Eating the RCC from the edges of the bowl and eating with breaks (seconds) in between/ interim eating;
  • With doubt to start eating;
  • Licking around the mouth/lips; smacking;
  • Digging kibble (or other food) out of the bowl and consume it on the side or somewhere else;
  • Pointing backwards or sideways with the head while eating; tilting the head;
  • Trembling/shaking or bristled tail/fur while eating;
  • Grinding teeth or pawing at the mouth;
  • Chewing fabric, strange objects, side of the litter pan/pet toilet;
  • Hiccups;
  • Lying flat after eating;
  • Walking or standing with a high curved back/ 4 feet close to each other;
  • Needing to be fed on the lap or with aid (of a finger, spoon etc);
  • Shaking its head while eating.

How to proceed?

At this moment there is no treatment available to cure the ferrets from this illness. The found pathogenic bacteria are not easy to treat. A ferret is also an animal with a very sensible GI-tract, which is easily damaged by medication. Current available antibiotics to deal with this type of bacteria is not suitable for ferret treatment, without compromising the stomach or bowel.
Obviously, the research will continue and certainly efforts are being made to find a satisfying treatment.

Sadly to say, but the affected ferrets are gravely or terminally ill for now. It also became clear that affected ferrets can pass the illness (pathogens) on to other ferrets, animals and humans. Strict care and hygiene are essential to prevent spreading to other animals but even more important; to humans.
We are dealing with a very complex condition, which can be spread in different ways and won’t be remedied in the near future. Besides the difficult search for effective medication to treat the chronical inflammations, we are dealing with (heavily)damaged microbiome in ferrets which can’t be cured fast and easily. There hasn’t been done any particular research on a ferret’s intestinal health before. Even more, the study of human microbiome still is in progress.

In summary: we are dealing with a serious and very complex issue. Nevertheless, as said, we will continue the research.

In particular we want to express our thanks to Hanneke Roest. Because of her boundless commitment and enormous involvement, we have reached this far in the research already.

Workgroup Rawfed Ferrets
Questions can be sent to Dutch e-mail address vragen@werkgroep-fret.nl.

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