Reprinted with permission by Bruce Williams, DVM, DACVP
Feeding The Sick Ferret
The Internet is replete with recipes for nutritional supplements for ill ferrets. Most of these supplements go by the name of “duck soup” and are derived from a base of human nutritional supplements, such as “Ensure” and “Deliver 2.0”. These supplements contain a vast number of additives from brewer’s yeast to heavy cream, to olive oil, and everything in between. Some supplements even claim to reverse cancer!!! Many veterinarians will treat sick animals with Hill’s A/D, a canned dietary supplement formulated for dogs and cats.
Several common threads run though the gamut of special diets proposed for ill ferrets – 1) they are time-consuming and expensive to prepare, 2) there is often little scientific basis for the various additives you may find in them, and 3) they are generally fed in a liquid formulation via syringe by the owner. While the first is merely inconvenient, the second and third can actually be dangerous to an ill animal. Worst of all, forcing a weak or struggling animal to take liquids via syringe may result in accidental inhalation (or aspiration) of the material into the lung, resulting in aspiration pneumonia, often a much worse disease.
There is another way to provide more than adequate nutrition for the ill ferret, and a way that I have used not only on my own ferrets, but prescribed for thousands of ferrets over the years. Gerber’s Chicken baby food has proven over the years to be a more than adequate temporary replacement for a typical ferret diet in ill or older ferrets that resist eating normal ferret feeds. While I certainly do not endorse using chicken baby food as a staple diet – it is safe, convenient, and affordable.
How to give chicken baby food to your ferret: Many people expect to open the jar of Gerber’s Chicken and have the ferret dive right in. Unfortunately, especially with a sick ferret, it is not that easy. But after a few feedings, most ferrets will be eating it like a champ.
While ferrets may take a number of different varieties of baby food, I only recommend one – Gerber’s Second Foods chicken or chicken with chicken broth (the ones in the little blue jars). Note: There are plenty of other flavors available, such as turkey, veal, or ham – which I have had little luck with - or many fruit and vegetable varieties. As ferrets are obligate carnivores, and do not digest vegetable fiber or tolerate high fructose sources like the fruit baby foods well, I strongly caution against them for use as dietary replacements.
Baby food should be fed warmed to slightly above room temperature. You can heat it in a microwave, and check it with your finger to make sure there are no hot spots. For the first feeding, place a small amount on your finger. Gently open the ferrets; mouth by placing your fingers on either side of the upper jaw just behind the canine teeth. After gently prying the ferret’s mouth open, place the baby food on roof of the ferret’s mouth. Your ferret may spit and resist a bit, but don’t worry – he’ll (or she’ll) get plenty in, and better yet, won’t inhale any down in its lungs. Repeat as necessary. As far as amount – I usually start with about one-sixth of a jar every four hours, and then when the ferret is well-acclimated and licking it off your finger, then you can give them as much as they want at a sitting.
Generally, following one or two “force-feedings”, your ferret will start licking the food off of your finger. As sick ferrets love to be hand fed, I recommend staying with this mode of “hand-feeding” (or more properly, “finger-feeding”) for at least a week, or longer.
Ferrets often will graduate to eating off a spoon, and later a saucer within a matter of days or a week. (If using a saucer to feed baby food, make sure that you check the food thoroughly for “hot spots” after removing from the microwave.)
The baby-food-and-ground-ferret-chow mixture is also a very good way to “wean” your ferret from this delectable and nutritious mixture and back onto its normal kibble. If your ferret has become “addicted” to the baby food (and some do), then grind and add progressively increasing amounts of ferret food into the baby food. As your ferret starts to eat the baby food mix, you can even start hand-feeding your ferrets kibble chunks dipped in the baby food. While you may have to resort to all sorts of chicanery to get your "addicted" ferret back onto its normal reaction - I've always felt a healthy baby-food-loving ferret is the better part of the bargain.
With a sick ferret, you have enough to worry about – you shouldn’t need to worry about how to keep your ferret fed during its recovery. This system works, and works well – it’s worked for my ferrets and it’ll work for yours.
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