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Why Is My Ferret Pawing at His/Her Mouth?

Why Is My Ferret Pawing at His/Her Mouth?

Written by Chaya Goodman, LVT 

One of the more common reasons people bring their pet ferrets to see us is because they see them pawing at their mouths, often sticking their toes and feet into their mouths as if they were trying to scratch the roof of their mouths. This behavior can be seen with a few medical conditions which we outlined for you below. If you see your ferret pawing at it’s mouth, you should schedule an appointment with us or another exotic pet veterinarian.

Helicobacter Mustelae/Gastritis:

Helicobacter Mustelae is a gram negative bacteria that causes gastritis (inflammation of the stomach) in ferrets. This is commonly seen in young ferrets, but it can also be seen in some older ferrets due to stress and sudden dietary changes. It is transmitted by  fecal-oral route (ie: older ferret in the enclosure coming in contact with a younger ferrets fecal material). 

Clinical signs that can be seen with gastritis include pawing at the mouth due to possible nausea, excessive salivation, anorexia, vomiting, dehydration, and tarry/dark stool.

If you notice any of the above signs in your ferret, it’s important to schedule an appointment with your exotic pet veterinarian. Helicobacter can be diagnosed with a DNA PCR test, however a more definitive test may require an endoscopic or surgical procedure to obtain a sample of the stomach lining. 

Treatment for gastritis usually consists of three medications since all three help with the eradication of the bacteria. The medications that your veterinarian may prescribe are amoxicillin, metronidazole, and pepto bismol. These medications would be given twice daily, for a duration of 2-4 weeks. 

Once treatment is concluded, it’s important to prevent this bacteria from reoccurring in the GI tract. To prevent reoccurrence, avoid possible stressors such as overcrowding in cages or sudden dietary changes. In addition, if you are planning to introduce a new ferret, it’s a good idea to first have the new ferret examined by a veterinarian, and kept separate for a few weeks before introduction. This will help prevent possible transmission of gastritis, in addition to other possible illnesses. 

Insulinoma:

Insulinoma is a type of benign (non-malignant) tumor that involves the beta cells of the pancreas. These are the cells that are in charge of producing the hormone insulin. In a healthy ferret, as the blood glucose increases after eating, beta cells secrete insulin in the bloodstream to help lower the blood glucose to a normal level. However, when there are tumor cells present in the pancreas, insulin is released in the bloodstream regardless of whether the animal has eaten or not. This causes hypoglycemia (having low blood glucose). 

Insulinomas can be seen in ferrets at approximately 4-5 years of age. Signs to look out for include hypersalivation, pawing at the mouth, stargazing, weakness in the back legs, and seizures.

Unfortunately, insulinoma has no treatment, however it can be managed. It’s important to make sure that your ferret has food available throughout the day, and that s/he is eating. If your ferret is not eating, you can hand feed your ferret every 4-6 hours during the day. If your ferret is twitching, seizuring, or catatonic, you can apply Karo or other sugar syrup to the gums and tongue which may help raise the blood sugar. In these instances, you should immediately contact your exotics veterinarian. 

Insulinoma can also be managed with drug therapy. The drug of choice that is commonly used is Prednisone since it helps increase blood glucose levels without stimulating the secretion of insulin. Prednisone is a lifelong medication that would need to be given twice daily.

If keeping your ferret on a lifelong drug isn’t an option for you, surgery may be another option. During the surgery, the surgeon removes the growths located on the pancreas that cause excess insulin to be secreted in the body. It is important to note, however, that this may not be curative since there is a possibility of new growths developing in the future.

Despite there being no cure for insulinoma, it is still possible that your ferret can live comfortably since it is manageable. As mentioned above, it’s important that your ferret has food available 24/7 to prevent a drop in blood sugar. And finally, as soon as you see any sign of your ferret possibly experiencing low blood sugar, it’s important to see your veterinarian so you can go over the proper medical care that your ferret requires.

Foreign Body:

Ferrets can often obtain foreign bodies due to their natural inquisitive behavior. A foreign body means that an animal (or person!) has eaten something or has something in their gastrointestinal tract that gets stuck and cannot pass. This can be seen in both young and old ferrets, however younger ferrets tend to have a higher chance of ingesting rubber or foam objects, and older ferrets are more likely to have a hairball foreign body. 

Common signs to look out for are lethargy, decreased appetite, nausea, salivation, pawing at the mouth or face rubbing. Vomiting may be seen as well if the ferret continues to eat. 

If a foreign body is suspected in your ferret, it’s important to see your exotics veterinarian as soon as possible. Your veterinarian will most likely require your ferret to have x-rays in order to see where the foreign body is located. Once the x-ray is done and the veterinarian is able to identify where the foreign body is located, your ferret will then need to undergo surgery in order to remove the foreign body.  If it is a hairball that is suspected, there may be a chance that a laxative can be given every 8 hours until it passes. That is, however, not guaranteed, and if the laxative is not effective, then surgery would be the next and best option. 

To prevent your ferret from obtaining foreign bodies, you can try your best to ferret proof the house, especially when you let your ferret out of the cage. Do not give rubber toys or any rubber object to ferrets since ferrets love chewing those. And to prevent or decrease the chance of hairballs, you can use hairball laxatives during the shedding season

Fractured/Broken Teeth:

Ferrets can develop damaged teeth due to abnormal biting/gnawing habits, and chewing inappropriate objects. This can cause wearing of the teeth, discoloration, and breaking the enamel. Once the enamel on the tooth wears down or breaks, it can cause discomfort due to the pulp of the tooth being exposed.

Signs of dental disease aren’t always obvious… however your ferret might show some discomfort. This can include decreased appetite, drooling, pawing at the mouth, and difficulty swallowing. 

The most common treatment is to remove the damaged tooth, which is done under general anesthesia. Since your ferret will require anesthesia, it’s important to not allow your ferret to have food at least 4-6 hours before the procedure. This is to prevent your ferret from possibly vomiting during the procedure, which can also cause aspiration. 

To decrease the chance of your ferret fracturing a tooth, it’s important to prevent him/her from chewing inappropriate objects, or gnawing at the cage bars. Providing toys for your ferret to play with can help keep him or her busy and lessen the chance of cage bar chewing.

Citing Source Used:
Quesenberry, Katherine E., and James W. Carpenter. Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents Clinical Medicine & Surgery. Elsevier/Saunders, 2012.

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