Protein Trial/Elimination Diet for Ferrets (Raw Diet)
Author: Katt Crouch
If you are experiencing ANY health concerns with your ferret, ALWAYS contact your vet immediately. It is absolutely vital that you work closely with your vet in caring for your ferret’s medical health and online advice should never replace proper medical care.
If you suspect that your ferret may have IBD (Irritable Bowel Disease) or a food allergy then you may need to do an Elimination Diet to determine what foods cause your ferret to experience flare ups. The first and most important thing to do is to first get your ferret’s condition under control. Often this requires medications, though some ferrets do well with diet changes alone. Talk to your vet before starting a protein trial. It is typically best to try controlling IBD and allergies through diet before jumping to chronic steroids (pred), but if you are unable to get your ferret’s IBD under control through diet alone, a course of antibiotics may be needed and prednisolone may eventually be necessary.
What is an Elimination Diet?
An elimination diet, or protein trial, is a diet in which you eliminate ALL but ONE protein/food, and slowly introduce new foods one at a time. The basic concept is to first get the symptoms under control either by meds, diet, or both, and then to test proteins to determine which ones your ferret can or cannot tolerate.
The first step in an elimination diet is typically to switch your pet onto a single, novel protein. What does that mean? A novel protein is a protein that your pet has never had before. As you may well know, most ferrets imprint on their food and if they are not used to receiving a varied diet, they may not take to a completely new protein. Typically new foods should be introduced gradually, to warm your ferret to the idea that it is indeed edible. In the case of a ferret having gastrointestinal issues however, you want to get the inflammation down as quickly as possible. Forcing a sudden change to a new food that the ferret doesn’t recognize as edible yet can cause stress, exacerbating the GI upset. So now what? IF your ferret will not accept a new meat, then your best choice is to choose a protein that your ferret is familiar with, but is less likely to cause a reaction. If your ferret will accept a new meat (many ferrets who are used to a very varied raw diet will accept whatever new meat you put in their bowl), then the best place to start is with a novel protein.
Choosing a Meat:
Hypo-allergenic literally means “low-allergenic”, or something that has a very low chance of causing an allergic reaction. This does not mean that “hypoallergenic” things can’t cause an allergic reaction, just that they are less likely to do so.
Lamb and Goat: Lamb is typically considered “The Hypoallergenic Meat.” Lamb is very easy on the digestive system, easy to digest, and unlikely to cause an allergic response by the immune system. Goat meat is very similar to lamb, but is often much cheaper (if you can find it) and more widely accepted by ferrets (it is not uncommon for ferrets to snub lamb). For these reasons, lamb or goat are typically the first choice of go-to meats when starting an elimination diet.
Due to the fact that introducing an entirely new meat can be difficult and even stressful for some of the pickier ferrets, it is advisable to at least familiarize your ferrets with lamb and/or goat, feeding it just often enough for them to recognize it as food. This way, if you ever end up needing to do a protein trial, your ferret will already recognize lamb (or goat) as food and you can immediately go to a lamb-only diet.
Rabbit: Rabbit is another meat that, in ferrets, rarely causes an allergic reaction. Rabbit is also a great non-poultry source of edible bones. However, rabbit meat is very deficient in both fat and taurine, so even if your ferret is eating a whole-prey form of the rabbit (whole ground, whole rabbit) rabbit isn’t an ideal meat to have as a ferret’s sole dietary protein for very long. For this reason rabbit is not typically recommend as a starter protein for an elimination diet; however, it is a great choice for a second or third protein to introduce later.
Pork: Pork appears to be an uncommon allergen in ferrets. Though pork is more likely to cause an allergy than lamb, goat, or rabbit, it is also a more commonly fed meat. Most raw fed ferrets are already getting some pork in their diet and will accept it without a struggle. Pork is also easily accessible at most grocery stores. It is a very fatty meat, which is helpful for putting weight back on ferrets and provides a nice balance to lean meats like rabbit. While pork in North America is very tightly regulated by the FDA, this may not be true of all countries.
Note: Trichinella spiralis is a parasite commonly found in pork that is resistant to freezing. Pork in North America is carefully regulated and inspected so risk of trichinella is extremely low. However, if you live elsewhere you should research your pork sources and ensure that trichinella is not a common problem in your region. Meat from wild pork or boar should never be fed due to the risk of trichinella.
Duck: Duck is another great meat that most ferrets with allergies tolerate well. Like pork, it is a nice fatty meat. It is also a great source of edible bones. However, duck may be difficult to find and is often costly. It is good to feed your ferrets duck if you have access as it is a great, fatty, darker white meat that is typically well accepted.
Turkey: Turkey is a decent source of edible bones, though many of the larger bones need to be smashed for a ferret to be able to eat. It is typically less expensive and easier to access than duck, but a less common allergen than chicken.
Chicken: Chicken is a very common allergen in ferrets. It is thought by many that the antibiotics or GMO-rich diets of chicken are more frequently the source of the problem than the meat itself. Many ferrets who cannot tolerate standard chicken CAN tolerate GMO-free, antibiotic-free, organic, free-range chicken. Chicken is typically the easiest to find source of edible bones for those feeding frankenprey style raw diets. That said, it is typically best to save it for one of the later proteins to test simply because it is such a common trigger for ferrets with IBD and/or food allergies.
Beef: Beef for some reason appears to be the most common allergen in ferrets. While many argue that ferrets should not be fed beef since it is not an animal they would hunt in the wild, the fact is wild Polecats and ferrets do indeed eat carrion – including red meats such as deer, elk, etc. While these aren’t quite the same as beef, they are all red meats. Red meat is high in Vitamin B and Iron, both of which are important for a ferret’s health. However, beef is a very rich food and some ferrets do not tolerate it well even without allergies. Perhaps it is the richness, or perhaps it is the fact that most beef on the market is loaded with antibiotics and fed heavily GMO diets. Whatever the reason, beef very commonly causes reactions in ferrets with food allergies or IBD. This is unfortunate as beef meat, heart, and organs are typically among the easier to find and less costly food sources. Beef is often best saved for one of the last proteins to introduce in a protein trial, because of the high rate of allergic reactions.
Quail: Quail is a meat that most ferrets seem to tolerate very well. It is an excellent source of edible bones as well, which can be harder to find if your ferret is not able to eat chicken. Availability of quail varies by region, but many local grocers and ethnic markets keep quail in stock and often free range quail can be found from local farmers on craigslist or local co-ops.
Venison and Other Wild Game: Game meat, such as deer, moose, elk, caribou, etc is a great source of meat for your ferrets. Wild game is antibiotic and GMO free, and one of the healthiest meat options you can find in that regards. Game meat is typically extremely lean and should be balanced by offering other fatty meats in the diet.
Wild animals can carry parasites, so it is important that any game meat be frozen solid for a minimum of 3 days prior to feeding it raw. Freezing should kill most parasites. The exception is, as noted above under pork, Trichinella spiralis – a parasite that is resistant to freezing, particularly in the Northern hemisphere. Trichinella can be avoided by avoiding wild pork or boar, wild rodent (squirrel, chipmunk, etc), and wild carnivore meat (e.g. bear). Wild herbivores (deer etc) and wild poultry is typically very safe to fee after freezing. If you have concerns, research common parasites in your area. Local Fish and Game or Wildlife services should be able to provide you with more information on local parasites.
Whole Prey: Whole prey is obviously the best diet your ferret can be on. It is no coincidence that whole prey is also tolerated extremely well by ferrets with IBD and food allergies. Ferrets with IBD commonly do better with a small amount of fiber in their diet, but feeding carb-rich foods such as pumpkin or other plant matter puts strain on their pancreas and may contribute to insulinoma – the fur, teeth, and claws of whole prey provide this fibrous material without the risk of insulinoma.
Commercially Ground Raw: Commercially ground raw is often a great choice for ferrets with particularly bad IBD or other GI issues. Any inflammation in the GI tract, such as that experienced in IBD or during an allergy response, is going to reduce the intestines’ ability to properly absorb nutrients. In ground form the meat is already partially broken down, making it that much easier to digest and absorb. In addition, many commercial grinds are whole-animal grinds, and contain the fur, claws and teeth previously discussed under whole prey.
Another important note is that many commercial grinds are already balanced in regards to organ, heart, and bone content. This is a huge help in maintaining proper nutrition for your ferret while doing a protein trial. Beware though, as not all grinds are balanced in the ideal ratios for ferrets. If you are unsure, contact the commercial raw provider – a good company will not hesitate to answer your questions and should be able to give you an idea of what ratio or hearts, organs, bones, and muscle meats are in each of their grinds.
Step One – Get It Under Control:
Step ONE Means ONE Protein!
Okay, you have chosen your starting protein (which we will now refer to as your Base Protein) – now what? The first thing to do is, as mentioned above, get the inflammation under control. First you must REMOVE any proteins that you suspect may be causing the issue. Typically the best way to do this is to remove ALL proteins except for one novel protein – or at least less-likely to be the culprit protein (see above).
STOP feeding your ferret ALL meats, treats, supplements, etc except for the Base Protein. For 1-2 weeks your ferret should ingest nothing but the Base Protein, and any necessary medications. If you do not begin to see improvements within a few days, you can try some natural supplements (to be discussed). If in 1-2 weeks you still do not see any improvement, than your ferret may need medications to reduce the inflammation before progress can be made OR he may need to be tried on another protein. You should ALWAYS be working closely with your vet during any health concerns, so discuss with your vet whether they think a round of antibiotics and Carafate might be beneficial for your ferret.
[Triple Therapy is the common medicine regime for ferrets with ulcers or IBD-like symptoms. It consists of Amoxicillin, Metronidazole, and Carafate (Sucralfate). It is best, except in severe cases, to try Triple Therapy before jumping to steroids like Prednisolone, as steroids can have long term consequences on your ferret’s health.]
Once your ferret’s symptom begin improving, you can begin to introduce new proteins. You want to ensure at least a week on the ONE Base Protein before trying anything new as it can take time for the body to cut back the immune system’s inflammatory response causing the IBD symptoms – in other words the body needs time to “flush” itself and clear up a reaction to previous proteins. You want to start on as clean of a slate as possible. If you do not see any improvement on the Base Protein and meds after a few weeks, you can try switching to a NEW Base Protein. You want to find something that your ferret does not react to, that you can fall back on. This is very important!
Step Two – Try Something New:
Now that your ferret’s inflammation is at least mostly under control, you can begin to introduce new meats, and supplements. The rule is ONE CHANGE AT A TIME!!!! If you change more than one thing, than it will be impossible to determine which change the ferret responded to (either positively or negatively). This applies to both new proteins AND new supplements – try one or the other, but never both at once.
Introduce changes slowly, in case your ferret has a strong reaction. Start with adding a small amount of the new protein into the next meal (typically making about ¼ of the total meal new protein is a decent starting point), and watch for any sign of reaction. If there is no response after about 1-2 meals, then increase the new protein gradually each meal, adding more of the new protein and less of the Base Protein, until the meals are entirely the new protein. As long as there is still no sign of a reaction, feed this new protein only (nothing else) for a few days. If there’s still no reaction, then you likely have found a second protein that your ferret can tolerate – congratulations! You can now feed both your Base Protein, and the Second Protein interchangeably.
If there is any sign of a reaction during your trial of the new protein, then immediately stop giving the new protein and revert back to the Base Protein Only diet. Go back to step one – get your ferret’s inflammation back under control, and then try a different protein by the same process.
This same process applies for testing supplements. Try one supplement for a few days and take note of any changes for the better OR the worse. If there is any reaction to the supplement, immediately stop and get things back under control before proceeding forward with any new changes (either protein or supplement). If the supplement doesn’t help (even if it doesn’t hurt them either), then there is no benefit in giving it and you should remove the supplement unless it is something your ferret really needs (e.g. a taurine supplement if your ferret isn’t eating heart). Supplements are like medications – you should only give them when absolutely needed. If the supplements help however, you now have another tool in your arsenal to help reduce your ferret’s inflammation during an IBD or allergy flare up.
Step Three: Variety
Step 3 is to keep doing what you have been doing. Slowly introduce one new protein at a time, back-tracking to the Safe Proteins whenever there is a reaction. Gradually build your ferret’s variety back up. Also, experiment with different feeding methods. Does your ferret do better with slow changes between safe proteins, or constant rotation? Does he do better with supplements or without? Are there environmental stresses that could be contributing to flare ups? Pay attention – these things are important. Also, keep a written record throughout the process of what you have tried and how your ferret responded – this will help a great deal in tracking patterns over time so that you can better control your ferret’s diet and reactions.
Proteins that Cause a Reaction:
If a protein causes a reaction when you feed it, stop that protein and get your ferret’s inflammation back under control before proceeding. Make note of any additional stressors that may have been contributing to the reaction as well – was your ferret stressed, did you try a new supplement at the same time, etc. After your ferret’s inflammation is back under control for at least a few weeks, try the protein again. Sometimes external stressors can contribute to an IBD flare up, causing what appears to be a reaction to the protein when it is actually a reaction to stress or simply a change in protein rather than the protein itself. It is important to ensure that your ferret is indeed sensitive to that protein before restricting their diet. Try the protein at least twice – if they react both times, particularly if the reaction is similar each time – then you can more confidently assume that the protein is the cause of the reaction. If there is some lingering doubt, you may consider testing the protein a third time but be aware that every reaction causes inflammation in your ferret that is detrimental to their health, so only attempt a third trial if you are truly uncertain. Also, if your ferret has a very obvious, and strong reaction to the protein, do NOT do a second trial. Some signs of a severe allergy include swelling of the face/paws, or other regions, severe diarrhea, and vomiting immediately after a meal (caveat: some ferrets who eat too quickly will also vomit, but in response to gorging rather than the protein – watch your ferret eat when trying a new protein so you can better gauge any response).
Maintaining Balance During a Trial:
As you should already know feeding a raw diet, maintaining proper balance and variety is absolutely key in maintaining your ferret’s health and preventing nutrient deficiencies. When selecting a protein, try to select something that you have easy access to organs and heart meat for at least the second protein to trial, if not the first. For example pork is a fairly gentle meat and many ethnic markets carry pork organs. If you cannot find organs locally, you can order from many online raw providers such as HareToday, and MyPetCarnivore. Many of these sites carry bulk organs as well as balanced commercial grinds.
If your ferret is on an imbalanced diet it should only be for a SHORT period, and supplements will need to be added to ensure your ferret is receiving proper nutrition.
Taurine: Taurine is an absolute MUST. Taurine is an essential amino acid for ferrets and cats, meaning that it is absolutely vital for their health (taurine is vital for brain and eye health) but they cannot produce it on their own and must get it from their diet. If you are going to have a period in which your ferret does not get regular heart in his diet, you will need to provide taurine in supplement form. There are many brands of taurine powder available; as long as the only ingredient is taurine it should be safe to feed your ferret. Ferrets should be given 500mg of taurine a day PER ferret – this equates to 1/8tsp of loose taurine or you can simply purchase 500mg or 1000mg capsules and empty the capsule powder into the meal (whole 500mg capsule or half of a 1000mg capsule). Taurine is best given divided between meals, so that would mean for EACH ferret give 250mg taurine per meal.
Bone Replacement: Calcium is another absolutely vital part of your ferret’s diet. While feeding continuous boneless meals, such as during a switch or during a protein trial, it is vital that you provide a bone replacement supplement. Powdered bone meal is the preferable supplement and can be found at many health stores or online. If bone meal is unavailable, powdered eggshell can also be used. The long term effects of feeding powdered eggshell as the only source of dietary calcium is unknown and it is best to switch to bonemeal as early as possible, and even better to introduce bones into the diet as soon as possible.
Organ Replacement: Organs are a very important source of many vital nutrients and vitamins for our little carnivores. If your ferret goes through a period of the protein trial without organs it is best to offer an organ replacement supplement. While a short period without organs may not cause harm, we do not know precisely how long a ferret can go without organs without experiencing a nutrient deficiency. With that in mind, it is best to re-introduce organs into your ferret’s diet within a few weeks. If you expect a prolonged period in which you are unable to give organs, then an organ replacement supplement is an absolute must. Pet G.O. powder is a very good organ replacement supplement. Call of the Wild powder may also suffice in the short term, but does contain plant based ingredients. See below for more on each of these. In extreme cases only, Cod Liver oil can be used as a liver substitute to ensure your ferret does not become Vitamin A deficient but this should only be a very temporary solution, and a last resort. No matter what supplements you chose, nothing ever replaces real organ meat and the sooner your ferret can be returned to a balanced diet containing regular meals of varied organ meats, the better it will be for their overall nutrition.
Pancreatin: Pancreatin is an enzymatic supplement that may help to pre-digest proteins prior to feeding. Partially breaking down the meat with the enzymes may serve to denature (break apart) the particular protein that your ferret is reacting to and more importantly, it can help to make proteins easier to absorb and digest. This can be very helpful in ferrets in an active flare up as the inflammation will reduce their ability to properly absorb nutrients from their food.
Pancreatin is best used by applying the powder to the food 30 min to 1 hour prior to feeding, as this enables the enzymes time to begin the breakdown process. Apply 1/8-1/4 capsule per meal.
NOW Foods Pancreatin capsules are a commonly used brand
Slippery Elm Bark: Slippery Elm Bark works similarly to Carafate – it is a “tummy coater.” Slippery Elm creates a protective coat over the stomach and intestines, enabling the intestinal lining time to heal. It also has soothing properties and can be extremely helpful in an active flare up. However, use Slippery Elm sparingly as the tummy-coating action will also interfere with proper nutrient absorption which can lead to an increased risk of nutrition deficiencies if it is used too frequently. Apply 1/4-1/2 capsule per meal.
Nature’s Way Slippery Elm Bark Capsules are a commonly brand used
Reishi: Reishi is a mushroom that is thought to have strong antioxidant effects that may help fight inflammation. It can help to reduce inflammation and upset in a flare-up. Apply 1/4 capsule per day per ferret.
New Chapter LifeSheild Reishi Capsules are the most popular brand used by ferret owners
Call of the Wild: COTW is a multivitamin supplement designed by Wysong that contains many vitamins and micronutrients. While it is often recommended as an organ replacement, it does contain some plant-based ingredients and should not be used to replace actual organ and heart meat in your ferret’s raw diet. However, COTW is a great supplement to have on hand, particularly if you have a ferret who suffers from IBD or food allergies. COTW can provide a nutrient boost when your ferret is having an active flare up. During a flare up, the inflammation can reduce nutrient absorption in the gut and COTW may help to “fill in the gaps” by making meals more nutrient dense. In addition, COTW contains probiotics, which may help to re-balance the natural gut flora and improve absorption.
Additionally, COTW can be used as a vitamin supplement during a protein trial if you have a temoprary period during which your ferret is not getting organ meats. Pet G.O. Powder (see below) is the preferable organ supplement however. Use only as needed as it is possible to overdose on many vitamins.
Note: COTW supplement is NOT needed for a healthy ferret on a well balanced raw diet. Also, while there are some fruit/veggie ingredients, MEAT products are the first few – fruits and veggies don’t come until lower on the list. The amount in the powder is not negligible but is relatively small. Additionally, you are only giving a small amount of the supplement so the actual amount of fruit/veg matter ingested is very small – significantly smaller than what is found in any kibble, and many FD products.
Pet G.O. Powder: Pet G.O. Powder is an organ concentrate designed to serve as a replacement supplement for diets lacking in proper organ variety. This powder can be very useful if you are conducting a protein trial and have a period in which you are unable to offer your ferret organ meat. It is vital that a raw diet be properly balanced to avoid nutrient deficiencies. While it is best to get organs back into the rotation as soon as possible, Pet G.O. powder will help to ensure that your ferret is still getting the important nutrients that he needs during the trial. It can also be used to supplement a diet that has organs, but lacks a good variety of organs. For example if your ferret is only eating chicken livers, it would be advisable to add Pet G.O. powder to their diet. Use Pet G.O. Use only as needed as it is possible to overdose on many vitamins.
Apply 1/4-1/2tsp per day per ferret.
Probiotic Powders: Probiotic bacteria, or the natural gut flora, are important for maintaining gastrointestinal health and function. Anything that throws the intestines off-balances (inflammation from an IBD flare up, a bacterial overgrowth, antibiotics) can contribute to an upset GI tract in your ferret. Supplementing with a probiotic powder during a flare up or illness, or after a course of antibiotics may help in resetting the natural gut balance and restoring proper function. There are many brands of pet probiotic powders available. Read labels carefully and try to stick with brands that are designed for carnivores (cat supplements), have minimal plant-based ingredients, and have minimal additives and preservatives. Many individuals use probios as a regular supplement but this is not necessary if you have a healthy ferret. While daily probiotic powders will not hurt your ferret, all supplements should be considered medications and be used only as needed. Dosage may vary by the brand and formula, but typically ½ capsule per day is sufficient.
Kefir: Many use Kefir as a source of live probiotics. As with powdered probios, using kefir during an upset or after a course of antibiotics may help to reset the gut flora. It is important to find plain, unsweetened, unflavored Kefir. Unlike probiotic powders, kefir should NOT be given as a daily supplement and is reserved for use only when it is truly needed. That said, because of the live nature of the bacteria cultures found in kefir, many find this to be a much more effective supplement than the powdered form of probiotics.
Note: Plain, unsweetened yogurt may also be used as a source of live probiotics. However, yogurt is more likely to cause a lactose-related reaction than kefir.
As previously mentioned, it is important to keep track of all aspects of your ferret’s diet and reactions during a protein trial. At first it may seem simple enough to remember what seemed to help or hurt, but as you being to experiment with more new proteins or supplements it becomes easier and easier to lose track. Additionally, keeping a written log can help to make trends over time more apparent. For example, looking back on your log you might be able to recognize that all of your ferret’s reactions occurred after making a sudden switch in proteins, or that your ferret responded best to probiotics plus pancreatin rather than either alone. These little nuances and patterns are difficult to catch over time without a careful log and can go a long ways towards giving you the maximal control over maintaining your ferret’s without medications.
Important things to track with EACH MEAL include:
- Protein Fed (e.g. pork liver, ground whole chicken, lamb, turkey hearts)
- Form of Protein (e.g. soup, ground, whole chunks, whole prey)
- Amount Eaten
- Supplements Given (with amounts)
- Poop Appearance (appearance, color, texture, size, mucous content, blood, etc)
- Poop Grade (rate on a scale of 1-5, 1 being horrible, 5 being a perfect poop – this is a suvjective rating that will help you score your ferret’s response at a glance when reviewing past logs)
- Activity Level
- External Stressors (e.g. did your ferret not get out of the cage that day, were you stressed about something and they might have picked up on it, did another ferret get ill or pass away, did you add a new addition to the group, interact with other pets/ferrets/people, did you have to scruff and stuff him to eat, did they get a new toy that he was overly excited about, etc – ANYTHING that can cause stress whether good or bad should be noted here)
- Additional Notes (e.g. was he extra itchy today? Do his gums look pale? Did you forget to give meds on time? Anything additional that you feel is notable should be recorded here.)
DISCLAIMER from the author: This article is written based on personal and collective experiences and anecdotal evidence of years of ferret owners with IBD ferrets. Eventually I would like to do more thorough research on each of the individual supplements discussed and provide some hard, scientific evidence for their action in IBD in our carnivores, but in the meanwhile several people have contacted me in regards to elimination diets for their ferrets and I wanted to at least get the information out there for people to see. Additionally, raw diet and holistic are is spurned by many vets and unfortunately kibble companies carry the bulk of the finances where pet nutrition and research is concerned. There is rarely funding available for research on raw diets and holistic supplements for pets. It is ALWAYS advisable to do your own reading and research. J
Talk to your vet before starting a protein trial – some ferrets’ IBD simply cannot be controlled by diet alone, and your ferret may need to go on a regular dose of prednisolone even with a carefully controlled raw diet.