An important Update and New Observations About the ECE Virus
By Mary Van Dahm
Through personal experience and from talking with many experienced ferret veterinarians, we are learning that the ECE (Epizootic Catarrha Enteritis) virus may have some long term effects on many of the ferrets that contract this disease. Kidney and liver disease are showing up in an accelerating rate in animals 1 year or older who have been through this disease. We have also noticed some increase in stomach and intestinal cancer and thickening of the intestinal walls. We are currently recommending that all ferrets over 2 years of age that have gone through this virus should have a CBC and chemistry panel done to check for these conditions, especially if your ferret is showing any change in behavior or condition (Such as lethargy, biting, sudden weight loss, dark urine, chronic loose stools).
While some shelters and clubs recommend exposing ferrets to the disease to ‘get it over with’, we still believe that keeping your ferrets ECE free, if possible, is in the best interest of your pets. We have found that some ferrets do get the disease more than once and it can sometimes be as severe the second time around as it was the first time. It has been speculated that the virus may have mutated or that there are several strains of the disease, but nothing conclusive has been proven at this time. From our experience of running a shelter and helping so many ferrets through this disease, we have found that ferrets that are constantly exposed to the virus (in a situation where new ferrets are always coming down with the disease) rarely show recurring symptoms of the disease, as though their bodies are revved up to produce antibodies to the virus – similar to getting a vaccine. When these ferrets are finally adopted out from the shelter and then re-exposed to the virus at a much later date, they sometimes come down with it again, suggesting that their former immunity to the disease was only temporary.
As warm weather returns, some ferrets may have recurring boughts of loose, green stool. It is possible that cool weather renders the virus dormant and it ‘wakes up’ when the weather gets warm again causing a relapse in the affected ferret. It is important to remember that anytime your ferret has diarrhea or loose stool, start giving him fluids and electrolytes, even if he doesn’t seem dehydrated. Also make sure that he is eating. You can offer him some Nutrical or a title Ferretone in addition to his regular food, but remember that too much oil can upset his stomach, too. Any time your ferret has diarrhea for more than 24 hours, get him in to see a veterinarian. Ferrets can go down hill very fast and veterinarians can give your ferret sub-Q (under the skin) fluids and administer medications to help stabilize your pet. Your vet can also test your ferret’s stool to see if it something other than the ECE virus that is causing the diarrhea (coccidia and camplobacter can also cause diarrhea in ferrets).
An important reminder that we would like to bring up at this time is the contamination of pet shop kits with the ECE virus. If you have a ferret at home that has had the ECE virus, please refrain from playing with the kits you see in any of the pet shops you may visit. While the kits themselves rarely seem to be affected by the disease, people who purchase the kits and take them home to their other ferrets can bring the virus with them. Since a lot of people still don’t know about the ECE virus, bringing a contaminated kit home can be a death sentence to the established ferret, if the owner doesn’t know to begin treating the ferret right away.
In reverse, if your ferrets at home have never had the ECE virus, be careful where you go to get another ferret. Try to go to a pet shop that gets a direct delivery from the breeder (the animals are not shipped to a warehouse and then to the store) and make sure the pet shop doesn’t have the ferrets where every kid in town can reach the kits and possibly contaminate them. It’s not that the kids are purposely trying to contaminate the kits, it’s just that they (and adults, too!) don’t stop to think about the fact that they could be carrying the virus on their hands or clothes.
Many pet shops are now keeping antibacterial hand wash dispensers near their ferrets so people can sanitize their hands before or after handling the kits on display, but there’s no proof yet that these lotions are effective against the ECE virus.
You can also check the newspapers for ads by people needing to give up ferrets. Generally, if they are giving up a ferret that is over 2 years old and hasn’t been around other ferrets, the chances of infection are lower.