Odin is a young male ferret that presented to us with a cough that just wouldn't go away. Most of the time his breathing appeared normal, but he would cough frequently, sometimes bringing up phlegm. His owner had noticed his nose would often be runny as well.
When we listened to Odin's chest with a stethoscope, his lung sounds were louder than we would normally expect but no other abnormalities were heard. When listening to an animal's chest we can hear a variety of sounds - whooshes, squeaks, whistles, crackles, all of which can indicate different types of respiratory problems. While we were examining Odin, he made some snorting and rattling sounds from his nose and mouth area.
We decided to do some tests on Odin to work out what was causing the cough. He was first given a sedative injection to help him relax and then we gave him anaesthetic gas to breathe to keep him sleepy enough so we could conduct the tests. Anyone who has a ferret knows how wriggly they are and how hard they are to hold still. When they are awake, they are always on the go!
When Odin was safely asleep, we took some x-rays of his chest and his skull to check his airways, lungs and sinuses. Everything on the x-rays looked normal. Then we passed an endoscope (a long thin fibre-optic tube with a light and a viewing window) down his airways to take a closer look. From the start of his airway (the windpipe or "trachea") there was a large amount of thick mucus covering the walls. This continued as the airway branched into smaller passages, but as we went further towards the small airways within the lungs, the mucus gradually reduced until it disappeared. A sample of the thick mucus in the upper airway was collected and sent to the laboratory for analysis. While awaiting results, Odin was started on antibiotics.
While Odin was asleep we noticed that his ears contained a lot of brown crumbly material - this is often a sign of ear mites. A quick look at some of the crumbs under the microscope found several of the critters! Ear mites are contagious to other ferrets (as well as to cats and dogs) and can cause ear irritation. They can be treated with a spot-on liquid medication on the back of the neck.
The laboratory reported back that the mucus contained a moderate number of inflammatory cells but no significant amounts of bacteria could be grown from the mucus. This suggested that the initial cause of the mucus was not bacterial. Other possible causes include a viral infection or an allergy. Despite the lack of bacteria in the mucus, Odin's cough improved with antibiotic treatment. He put on a little weight and his level of activity increased. This was a good sign because a quiet lethargic ferret is a very sick ferret! We also decided it would be a good idea to wash all of his bedding thoroughly and allow it to dry in the sun, or change his bedding altogether in case he was allergic to his bedding.
With the bedding changes and the medication, Odin initially showed good improvement, but his cough has returned so we will continue to investigate further to see if we can find a way to reduce Odin's cough problem in the long term.