Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle which leads to impairment of the heart's ability to pump blood, and eventually to heart failure. It is the most common cause of heart failure in the ferret. There are two types of cardiomyopathy, dilatative and hypertrophic, with the dilatative form being most common in ferrets. In this disease the walls of the heart become increasingly thinner and weaker until a point is reached when the heart can no longer function effectively as a pump. The cause of cardiomyopathy is unknown in ferrets, although it has recently been discovered that in cats dilatative cardiomyopathy can be prevented with the addition of an amino acid (taurine) to the diet, and in dogs lack of another amino acid (carnitine) has been shown to cause the same disease. It is possible that a similar relationship may exist in ferrets, but this has not been established yet.
Symptoms of cardiomyopathy are similar regardless of whether it is the dilatative or hypertrophic form. Weakness, lethargy, and breathing difficulty are commonly seen. Coughing may be a symptom also.
As the heart begins to fail, blood pressure changes lead to an accumulation of fluid in the chest, making it increasingly difficult for the ferret to breathe, and thus reducing stamina. Other blood pressure changes may lead to enlargement of the liver and spleen, and the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, so the abdomen may look distended.
Diagnosis of cardiomyopathy can be made with an x-ray and ultrasound examination, although a veterinarian may use other tests to further define the problem such as an EKG, blood profiles, and thoracocentesis (using a thin needle to obtain fluid from the chest for microscopic examination). In an x-ray, the heart of a ferret with cardiomyopathy appears visibly enlarged. The use of a sonogram is essential for defining the type of cardiomyopathy and the degree of damage present. This is important before beginning therapy.
Treatment of cardiomyopathy involves medication to remove accumulated fluid, such as the diuretic furosemide. Vasodilators to modulate blood pressure are also often used, such as Nitrol or captopril. Digitalis derivatives can be helpful to increase the strength and efficiency of the failing heart. The long term prognosis for ferrets with cardiomyopathy is poor, but treatment can effectively reduce the symptoms and increase the quality of life for a period of many months.
If you have any questions or comments about the information above, feel free to send a message to Dr. Suzanne Lee, D.V.M. at SLeeDVM@aol.com.Return to the Ferret Clinic
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