By VIN Community Contributors
Simon Starkey BVSc, PhD, D.ABVP(Avian)
ferret on grass
Photo by Shutterstock
Is your ferret DIM?
No, I don't mean slow or silly. DIM stands for disseminated idiopathic myofasciitis, a serious but thankfully relatively rare disease of ferrets.
So what do all those big words mean? Basically this term means a widespread inflammation of muscle and adjacent tissue of unknown cause. DIM emerged as a disease of concern to ferret owners and veterinarians in late 2003. The disease occurs predominantly in young adult ferrets, typically striking animals between 6 and 12 months of age.
Affected ferrets almost always have a fever, are weak and lethargic. and demonstrate pain or difficulty moving. About half of affected ferrets will have difficulty eating or swallowing and some will have abnormal stools. Routine blood tests may help support the diagnosis by demonstrating a characteristic increase in white blood cells and an anemia.
While the symptoms and blood tests may support a diagnosis of DIM, a true diagnosis can only be achieved by taking muscle biopsies. In a 2007 journal article examining the condition in 17 ferrets, all 17 animals had damage to the muscle of the esophagus as well as the heart. Eleven of the 17 animals had damage to muscles of the hind legs and/or lower back muscles.
From a diagnostic perspective, taking a biopsy from the legs or lower back is much easier and safer than taking a sample from the esophagus. However, it is important to keep in mind that in up to a third of DIM cases, these tests will fail to accurately diagnose the condition. In these cases a tentative diagnosis will likely be reached by your ferret veterinarian based on the symptoms and blood test results.
Sadly, despite significant research, a cause for DIM has yet to be identified. With no known cause many different types of treatment have been attempted for ferrets with DIM. Treatments have ranged from various antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids to more advanced therapeutic attempts such as trials of interferon and/or cyclophosphamide. Unfortunately no treatment regimen has proven effective against the condition and sadly death or euthanasia is almost guaranteed for any ferret with an accurate diagnosis of DIM.
It is important to keep in mind that other diseases can cause similar symptoms and blood results as DIM. As such your veterinarian will discuss other diagnostic options in an attempt to find the true cause of your ferret's symptoms. Occasionally treatable conditions, such as toxoplasmosis, may cause similar signs in ferrets. As such working with your vet to achieve a definitive diagnosis can be a worthwhile endeavor.
As always, if you are concerned about your ferret's health contact a ferret-savvy veterinarian. Remember few veterinary schools actively teach ferret medicine and surgery, and few graduate vets take the time to study these wonderful pets, so you may have to look around to find one.