Gastrointestinal Disease (Helicobacter Mustelae) in Ferrets

By PetMD Editorial on Jun. 7, 2010

Helicobacter Mustelae in Ferrets

Under normal conditions, the Helicobacter bacteria are benign inhabitants of the intestinal tract, being found in several species, including domestic animals such as dogs, cats, ferrets and pigs, and in humans. The most common organism affecting ferrets is the Helicobacter mustelae, which is most often acquired through the weaning process. However, only a small percentage of these ferrets will develop clinically significant Helicobacter-associated disease, especially those that are stressed or are suffering from another concurrent disease.

Moreover, H. mustelae is seen more commonly in North America as compared to Europe. This may be due to variations in the Helicobac­ter strains. The mean age range of helicobacter-induced disease in ferrets is 3 months to 3 years of age.

An investigation of the relationship of gastric disease to Helicobacter-like organisms has resulted in the discovery of H. mustelae in ferrets as a cause of gastritis and peptic ulcers. The bacteria has also been associated with gastric cancer in ferrets.


Symptoms and Types

Although some ferrets will display no symptoms, many affected ferrets will paw at their mouth when nauseated or clench and grind their teeth (bruxism). Other common signs associated with H. mustelae infection include:

  • Anorexia
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea
  • Black, bloody stool (melena)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss (indicates chronic disease)
  • Pallor of the mucous membranes (due to chronic blood loss)
  • Poor hair coat or hair loss (alopecia)


H. mustelae is thought to be transmitted during the weaning process, though stress and concurrent illnesses are factors that may make the ferret more susceptible to infection.


To establish a causal relationship between infection with Helicobacter and clinical signs, a gastric biopsy via laparotomy is needed. Exploratory laparotomy is also useful to eval­uate the extent of gastric pathology and to rule out foreign bodies, cancer, and intestinal inflammatory diseases, but is not indicated in every case.

Alternatively, a presumptive diagnosis may be made based on identification of suggestive clinical signs, exclusion of other diagnoses, and a favorable response to empirical treatment.



Unless your ferret is refusing to eat or is vomiting or severely dehydrated, it will be treated on an outpatient basis. Otherwise, fluid therapy and dietary supplements may be used to stabilize the animal. Warming the ferret's food to body temperature or offering it via syringe may increase the likelihood of it eating. Your veterinarian will also recommend a regimen for the dietary supplements and may prescribe medication.

Living and Management

No noninvasive tests are currently available to confirm eradication of gastric Helicobacter. If clinical signs persist or recur after cessation of therapy, your veterinarian will want to pursue other diseases as the cause. In addition, some ferrets with chronic Helicobacter infections are severely debilitated and will not respond to treatment.

The high prevalence of Helicobacter in ferrets raises the possibility that household pets may serve as a reservoir for the trans­mission of Helicobacter to people; however, no cases have been documented.

Some possible complications are hemorrhage and anemia from ulcers, perforation, and recurrence. Most infections are eradicated by using the treatment regimen described above. Recurrence is common, especially under stressful conditions. Repeat therapy may be necessary.


This disease is common where animals are kept in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. If you keep many animals, be sure to provide them with enough space and a clean environment. Drugs that prevent secretion of gastric fluids are helpful to treat, and possibly prevent, gastri­tis in anorectic ferrets.

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