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Why is my ferret restless and breathing heavily?

Front view of a mottled (black-brown-white) ferret in a cage.

(Photo: Flickr/boscosami)

Why is my ferret restless and breathing heavily?

September 20, 2013

Q: My female ferret (Shadow) is about 4 years old. She was fine yesterday but today is breathing heavily and acting restless. Otherwise eating, drinking, and eliminating properly. She's restless like she can't get comfortable and her nose is a little runny. What could be wrong?

A: There is more than one possibility here. She may be in the beginning stages of a respiratory infection. However, that usually has other signs, such as appetite loss, fever, coughing/sneezing, and lethargy. Other respiratory system conditions can cause heavy breathing. This can include lung infections and tumors or polyps. Some adrenal disorders can also cause such symptoms.

My biggest concern is heart disease. Shadow is at the age when many ferrets develop a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. The first symptom is often heavy or fast breathing. The heart muscle weakens and is unable to adequately pump blood, and therefore, oxygen, to the body. Heavy breathing, even at rest, results. Restlessness often occurs, too, because an animal feels nervous about the breathing difficulty, and it can be harder to breathe when lying down. You can read more about cardiomyopathy here.

There is no way for us to be sure of what is going on with Shadow because her symptoms can indicate different conditions. Testing will be needed to figure out what is wrong. I recommend seeing a vet. The vet can do blood work, take x-rays, and perhaps do an EKG or echocardiogram to reach a diagnosis. Then proper treatment can begin. Here is a link to a site where you can enter your zip code to find a ferret vet near you.

Unless Shadow's breathing quickly returns to normal, she needs to see a vet soon. Abnormal breathing always indicates a problem.

-- Answer from Anna N., a biologist and veterinary assistant on JustAnswer.

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