Ferret Friendly Facts and Advice by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

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ECE: The Green Slime Disease

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Surviving the Dreaded "Green Slime Disease" (or ECE)

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

When I found Thor, the abandoned silver ferret was quite aggressive because he was unfixed, so I couldn't put him in a cage with my other ferrets. In my rush to house him, I borrowed a cage and didn't think to disinfect it. Bad move! Within 48 hours, my entire ferret crew (13 in all, including Thor, who was fixed by then), were unable to keep their food down. Then came the telltale profuse, stinky, green diarrhea (what idiot put off-white carpeting in this house?). It was the dreaded “green slime disease”!

What is it?
The “greenies” is more properly known as epizootic catarrhal enteritis, or ECE. It's a ferret-specific virus that causes inflammation and infection of the intestinal lining (mucosa). The symptoms start with vomiting, and then the damage to the intestine makes it hard for the ferret to absorb nutrients and water, resulting in diarrhea, dehydration, and malnutrition. The weakened ferret is then susceptible to secondary infections.

The highly contagious virus is transmitted by infected body fluids and can be spread when an uninfected ferret touches an infected ferret, or even something that an ECE ferret has touched within the last day. You could carry ECE home with you and not know it. Even a healthy-looking ferret can be a carrier—an ECE ferret can shed the virus for several years after infection. Mothers can pass along ECE to their kits, too.

ECE is more dangerous to older ferrets (age 2 and up) and ferrets with other existing illnesses. Baby ferrets may show symptoms for only a few hours (you may not even notice) and seem relatively unbothered by the greenies.

Most of my ferrets were middle-aged or senior citizens when the greenies struck, so a rapid response was in order.

Treating the greenies
The first priority in treating ECE is rehydration. Give electrolytes (such as unflavored Pedialyte) along with distilled water for a total of 100 cubic centimeters of fluids per day. Check fluid consumption by marking a water bottle, or by orally administering the fluid with an oral syringe or dropper and keeping records. The key is to keep this up constantly—give 10 cubic centimeters every few hours throughout the day and night. In severe cases, a vet may have to administer fluids intravenously.

Second, your ferret needs antibiotics. The antibiotics don't kill the ECE virus, but they prevent dangerous secondary infections that would occur otherwise. The drug of choice is either amoxycillin, a broad-spectrum medicine, or metronizadole, a medicine that targets the digestive system. (My ferrets hated both medicines and spit the pink stuff all over us, so we had to devise a system: Wrap each ferret in a T-shirt to prevent wriggling; stick the dropper way back in the ferret's mouth and put the medicine down the throat; and hold the ferret's mouth shut until he swallows.)

Next, increased nutrition is vital. Because the ferret has difficulty absorbing nutrients, and may refuse to eat, it's important to get as much nutrition into the ferret as possible. Use a supplement such as Nutrical, Sustacal, or Deliver in a liquid mixture of ground-up ferret food. Turkey or chicken baby food is another highly nutritious and easily digestible option. Any of these semiliquid mixtures may have to be force-fed through an oral syringe or dropper—sick ferrets aren't very motivated to eat. A minimum of 100 cubic centimeters of food (given throughout the day) is needed each day, in addition to the 100 cubic centimeters of water.

Other medicines can help a sick ferret, too. Your vet can help you calculate doses of Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate, or Pepcid AC to help protect the intestines and make digestion more comfortable for your ferret. Finally, keep the ferret warm and dry (but never leave a ferret on a heating pad unattended!). Try to keep the ferret quiet, away from noise and commotion, and out of bright lights.

As you can see, this is a lot of work! The hydration, feeding, and medication regimen may go on for several weeks. When the greenies struck our household, with 13 ferrets, we humans were exhausted! However, all of our furry kids pulled through. In the months following, the ferrets had the classic “seedy stools” that indicate continued digestive upset (tiny globules of undigested fat make the stools look granular). Their stools also took on a rainbow of colors: all shades of green, yellow, and even orange.

Don't panic!
Remember that even when your ferrets look perfectly healthy, they still carry the virus, possibly for their lifetime, and can spread it to other ferrets. The good news is that once a ferret has had ECE, he builds up immunity to it and is unlikely to show severe symptoms again.

If your ferrets have not had ECE, you should take some precautions when you visit other ferrets. When coming home from an exposed location, remove your clothes and shoes outside and place them in a plastic bag. Spray your hands and feet with disinfectant (bleach is fine) before entering your house. Immediately take a shower. Wash your clothes in hot water and wash or disinfect your shoes.

Similarly, if your ferrets have ECE and you are going to visit another ferret place, shower, put on clean clothes straight from the dryer, and spray your hands and shoes with disinfectant as you leave. Also, make sure your vet knows that your ferrets have ECE, so the vet's facilities can be disinfected properly.

ECE is quite widespread in North America. Many ferret kits sold in pet stores have had the virus passed down from their mother, so you may have an ECE ferret and not even know it. Some people purposely expose their kits to ECE to “get it over with” at the easiest stage. Also, keep in mind that green diarrhea can come from a number of other sources as well: stress, sudden food changes, and other stomach bugs. Don't panic over one green poop, but keep an eye on your ferret and have your vet evaluate stool samples and dehydration levels.

ECE is a highly survivable disease if treated properly. I had the bad luck to have a bunch of older ferrets with a severe case, but everyone is doing great now—and Thor became a permanent member of the household.