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News Article

Unusual case of mycobacteriosis in a ferret


Report highlights the risk of mycobacterial exposure from aquaria.

A case of mycobacteriosis in a pet albino ferret is described in Veterinary Record. It was such an unusual case that the investigation involved medical doctors, clinical veterinarians and veterinary pathologists.

The three-year-old female spayed ferret developed clinical signs of worsening lethargy, weight loss, muscle wasting, vacant stares and reduced appetite, fluctuating over a period of three months. Before this, the ferret was otherwise fit and well with no known medical conditions. Her rapid clinical deterioration necessitated euthanasia shortly after veterinary assessment.

Postmortem testing revealed infection with Mycobacterium xenopi, which is most commonly identified in amphibians, reptiles and aquatic life. Infection of a captive-bred domestic ferret is highly unusual. This is the second documented case of M. xenopi in a ferret, and the first to determine a likely source of infection.

Potential sources of human-animal, animal-animal and environmental-animal transmission were investigated. No human-animal or animal-animal risks were identified.

As the affected ferret was the only one of a small group of pet ferrets to have regular exposure to the owner’s aquarium (climbing furniture to submerge its head in the water and drink the water), a postmortem study of a dead guppy and aquarium water analysis were performed which confirmed mycobacteriosis. Although M. xenopi was not specifically cultured, as a slow-growing organism, M. xenopi may have been outgrown by more rapidly growing mycobacteria or Gram-positive bacilli present in the water. Thus, transmission of M. xenopi via aquarium exposure was plausible, the researchers say.

Mycobacteriosis is a serious disease in the feral ferret in New Zealand. Elsewhere in the world, cases of both tuberculous and non-tuberculous mycobacterial infections are relatively uncommon, particularly in domestic ferrets. However, ferrets are known to be susceptible to a number of mycobacterial infections. Treatment of mycobacteriosis in ferrets is problematic due to the hardiness of this bacterium and the extent of dissemination by the time a diagnosis is determined; the disease is considered to be fatal.

Water is recognised as the prime reservoir of M. xenopi and the bacterium has been identified in water supplies in homes and hospitals. M. xenopi is recognised as a cause of pulmonary disease in humans and is frequently isolated from immunosuppressed patients or individuals with pre-existing lung disease.

The authors say the case highlights the dangers of ferrets having any contact with potentially infected water reservoirs. This is because of the fatal nature of this disease, the susceptibility of ferrets and the lack of effective treatment options to date. A history of exposure to water reservoirs containing aquatic or amphibious life, including domestic aquaria, should be routinely sought during the veterinary examination of sick domestic ferrets.

Article: Transmission of Mycobacterium xenopi to a pet albino ferret (Mustela putorius furo) from a domestic aquarium by Natasha Davendralingam, Indran Davagnanam, Mark Frederick Stidworthy, Vicki Baldrey, Laureen Michele Peters, Nadene Stapleton, published in Veterinary Record (2017) vol. 181, no. 7, doi: 10.1136/vr.104250

Article details

  • Date
  • 14 September 2017
  • Source
  • Royal Veterinary College
  • Subject(s)
  • Dogs, Cats, and other Companion Animals