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Eosinophilic enteritis is a sporadic disease of ferrets which is most often seen in young male ferrets. It is a disease that was discovered about ten years ago, and unfortunately, we know little more about it today that we did back then. Eosinophilic enteritis is a variant of the complex of diseases known cumulatively as "inflammatory bowel disease" in ferrets, but whose appearance is characteristic enough to have earned it a name of its own.

Eosinophilic enteritis is actually a misnomer, as the lesions in this disease extend far beyond the intestinal tract, and can be seen in any abdominal organ (I commonly see it in liver, mesenteric lymph nodes, and pancreas), and has even been documented in the thorax as well. Eosinophilis are a type of white blood cell that moderates allergic and antiparasitic reactions in the normal animal. For this reason, we have long believed that it arises from a food allergy or parasitic infection, however, there is no real evidence to back this up.

The problem with EE is that eosinophils are filled with some very destructive compounds which they normally use against parasites. In this disease, large numbers of eosinophils degranulate in the tissue, causing intense tissue damage. It is almost like a chain reaction, devitalizing tissue in many organs of the body.

The diagnosis of EE is somewhat difficult - because of the range of tissues that it affects, the clinical signs are often vague. If the intestine is affected, the main sign is diarrhea, anorexia, and weight loss. If the disease is more widespread in the abdomen, you may also see pain on abdominal palpation.

Blood work may show elevated levels of eosinophils, and any significant increase in eosinophils in an animal with GI signs should make the prudent practitioner think of EE as a possibility. Definitive diagnosis, however, is made by biopsy of affected tissue during exploratory laparotomy. Note to vets: while it may be difficult to identify inflamed areas in the abdomen in cases of EE, always biopsy the mesenteric lymph node as part of your sampling - it very commonly exhibits large infiltrates of eosinophils in affected animals.

As we don't really know the cause of this disease, treatment revolves around minimizing the damage done to the body's tissues by the eosinophils. Prednisone helps to stabilize the membranes of these cells, keeping them from degranulating as easily, and it also decreases their ability to congregate in large numbers. However, it can't work miracles, and often the disease is well advanced before we even know an animal has EE, and damage in the GI tract or other parts of the abdomen is too advanced for a good prognosis. If we can get a handle on the disease with prednisone, treatment is generally life-long - removal of the prednisone results in a relapse. The key is to find the lowest dose that controls the signs and maintain on that.

Another important part of treating these animals is to change the diet. Most animals will benefit by a switch from traditional chicken-based-protein foods. Foods that have been used to good effect are turkey-and barley based foods or Hill's z/d, a prescription food in which the chicken protein is hydrolyzed so that the body does not recognize it as chicken. Initially, turkey based baby food will help those in acute phases of the disease, or during flare-ups.

Years ago, I gave EE cases a poor prognosis. Today, the outlook for these animals is much better, and most can live to an old age.