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What You Should Know About Surgical Recovery
by Kristen Onasch

If you own ferrets, odds are that at one point, you are going to have a ferret that needs surgery. Many ferrets will develop adrenal disease during their lives, and in most cases the treatment will be surgery. Surgery is also performed in cases of insulinomas, blockages, certain biopsies and other conditions. It is important to know what to do before and after your ferret's surgery to make sure that she has a successful recovery as quickly as possible.

BEFORE SURGERY

Thoroughly discuss the procedure with your veterinarian, whether it is a more simple procedure like castration or removal of surface cysts, or a more involved, invasive procedure like an adrenalectomy or intestinal blockage surgery. You will want to find out the following things.

Estimation of recovery time
Simple procedures will have a shorter recovery period, and your ferret might even be eating and recovered by the time he leaves the veterinarian's office. Invasive procedures will take longer and will require more care on your part to help the healing process.

How long to fast your ferret before the surgery
Your veterinarian will let you know when you will need to withhold food and water prior to surgery. For some conditions, such as insulinomas, fasting for 4 hours can actually be dangerous, and your ferret would need to be hospitalized on intravenous fluids prior to surgery.

Any after-surgery complications that might arise
You will find that you can never predict everything that may happen. But it's important to know things to look out for, and what signs or symptoms require immediate medical attention.

Your ferret's overall health and the effect it will have on his recovery
Ferrets that are in good health will recover faster and more successfully than ferrets with health problems. Make sure your veterinarian does a full examination, including blood work and x-rays, to determine whether or not there are any existing conditions that may have a negative affect on the recovery of your ferret.

What medicines you will need to give your ferret
Your veterinarian should tell you exactly which medicines to give, when to give them and for how long. If you have any questions, either before or after the surgery, be sure to ask. Missing dosages or failing to administer the medicine properly can have an adverse affect or render the medicine ineffective. Some medicines will have a bitter taste, so discuss with your veterinarian how your ferret will react to the medicine and whether or not any liquid medicines can be compounded to make them more palatable to your ferret.

What kind of anesthesia your veterinarian uses and how long your ferret will be anesthetized
Isoflurane and sevoflurane are among the safest anesthetic gases that your veterinarian can use. The longer your ferret is under anesthesia, the longer it will take your ferret to recover from the anesthetic. Ferrets can often have some nausea after being anesthetized, so ask your veterinarian how long you should wait before giving your ferret food.

But preparing for the surgery isn't limited to discussions with the veterinarian about the procedure. Make sure that you are feeding your ferret a good diet beforehand. Well nourished ferrets eating a healthy diet (this means a high quality diet and few to no treats with sugar in them) will recover faster. If your ferret is underweight, discuss with your veterinarian how to help him put on weight before he goes in for surgery. Special high calorie diets such as Science Diet A/D (canned diet, available by prescription at the veterinarian) may be recommended.

Additionally, make sure you have the things you will need to keep your ferret comfortable and safe after the procedure. These include:

  • Small, one-level recovery cage
  • Litter box with a low entrance or newspapers/puppy pads to use in the toilet area
  • High-calorie, high-protein food, such as duck soup, chicken baby food or supplements
  • Light-colored, clean bedding such as old t-shirts or sweats
  • Feeding syringes or droppers for water and food if the ferret cannot eat on his own
  • Blanket or cage cover to put over the cage to hold in warmth and provide your ferret with privacy
You will need to set this up before the day of the procedure, so it will be ready for your ferret when you bring him home. A one-level cage will keep the ferret restricted to a smaller area. (The Super Pet Deluxe 3-Level Ferret Home works very well as a one-level recovery cage; simply remove the small half levels.) Post-operative ferrets shouldn't overexert themselves, and climbing ramps can put a strain on the surgical area and even pull out external stitches. The low litter box or newspaper/puppy pads toilet area serves the same purpose. The light colored bedding will allow you to see if there is any drainage or bleeding, and it should be made of a fabric that external stitches will not get caught on.

AFTER SURGERY

Once your ferret is home, it is up to you to keep him safe, comfortable and on the road to recovery. While this can sound like a daunting task, it can go smoothly if you have the right information at your disposal.

Housing
When you first bring your ferret home, you will need to keep him completely separate from the other ferrets for at least a few days to allow the surgical area time to start healing. The other ferrets could lick, clean or otherwise bother the incision, which could slow down healing or even cause an infection. While the ferret should remain in the recovery cage for at least one to two weeks, ask your veterinarian when it will be okay to have supervised visits. (NOTE: If you have multiple ferrets, only one ferret should visit with the recovering ferret at a time.) This will help combat feelings of loneliness that the recovering ferret might have, and will help to stave off depression. If the surgery was very invasive and the healing process is going to be very drawn out, we recommend that you put the recovery cage next to the regular cage, so that the recovering ferret doesn't suffer from post-operative depression.

It is a judgment call as to when the recovering ferret can go back in with his cagemates. The wound must be scabbed over, totally dry (no seepage) or completely healed. You should discuss this with your veterinarian.

Intake & Output (Feeding & Stools)
In most cases, you should be able to feed your ferret by the time you get home. Most veterinarians will not allow the ferret to leave the hospital until he is recovered enough from the anesthesia to drink and eat. While many ferrets will eat their regular kibble five to six hours after surgery, you will definitely want to have some alternate soft foods available. These include Science Diet A/D, Chicken & Chicken Gravy Baby Food (ferret owners prefer Gerber), Oxbow Carnivore Care, Eukanuba Max-Cal (Feline), and duck soup. The main point of these alternate diets is to provide an easily digested, high calorie and high protein diet that is easy for the ferret to eat.

If your ferret refuses to eat, you will need to force-feed him. Contrary to what it sounds like, this doesn't entail pushing food down your ferret's throat! Never put the food straight back into the ferret's mouth towards his throat. This can cause him to aspirate the food into his lungs, which can lead to an infection and even pneumonia. When using a dropper or feeding syringe, squirt food in the ferret's mouth gently, and aim sideways or towards the front of his mouth. This will allow him to swallow the food at his own pace. Have the veterinary staff show you the proper technique and practice it there before you bring your ferret home.

For those ferrets that need to be force-fed, it's important to make sure they get enough to eat. Ferrets have a very short digestive system, so it's important to feed recovering ferrets every three hours or so. This will help keep their blood glucose levels steady, and keeping them well nourished will help them to heal faster. Your veterinarian will tell you how much to give at each feeding.

In most cases, your veterinarian will recommend leaving your ferret's usual kibble in the cage at all times. You want it to be available to the ferret when he is recovered enough for dry food. If the ferret is resistant to switching back to regular food, moisten the kibble with water to make it soft. Keep in mind that you will need to change moistened kibble regularly, since it will go bad more quickly than dry kibble.

When you first get home, don't be surprised if your ferret's stools are small. He hasn't been eating much, so small stools are normal. Random strange stools are also normal. However, you want to keep a close eye on the stools, and if they are dark green or black and tarry, you will want to contact your veterinarian immediately. This is commonly a sign that the ferret is developing ulcers from the stress of the experience. You can read more about ulcers here, including symptoms and treatment. The veterinarian will usually prescribe an antibiotic and a stomach protectant.

Behavior
Don't be overly concerned if your ferret acts somewhat lethargic when he first gets home. Surgery can be a very stressful experience for a ferret, between the procedure itself and the time spent in an unfamiliar place. Your ferret will probably sleep a lot, move slowly, and may have some bruise-like discoloration at the surgical site. This is all normal.

As mentioned earlier in this article, ferrets going through surgical recovery can suffer from depression. It's important to spend quality time with them, holding them and talking to them so they don't get lonely. Be sure you do not interrupt your ferret's sleep however. Ferrets that are depressed will often refuse to eat, which would make an already sensitive situation worse. It can delay or even stop the healing process. Dehydration can also result from depression, so be sure to monitor how much water your ferret is drinking. To determine if the ferret is dehydrated, scruff the ferret and then watch how quickly the skin goes back down. If it stays tented, the ferret is dehydrated and needs fluids, which your veterinarian can administer.

AND TO SUM UPů

While this article is meant to give you an idea of the process of surgical recovery, it does not cover everything. Every surgery will be different, so use this only as a guideline. Some procedures will involve long periods of recovery, during which your ferret will be very dependent on you. Other recoveries will take only a couple weeks or less. Your veterinarian should provide you with the post-operative rules and what to expect. If you have any questions about the procedure being performed, don't hesitate to ask. Any good veterinarian will be happy to answer your questions fully, as it will help to ensure the health of the ferret.
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