As I am wont to do, I have been on a bit of a nutritional tirade as of late. This tirade is about something so many ferret owners use ad nauseam, and more than is necessary, to the point of possible health consequences on the part of our ferrets.
That something is pumpkin. Plain canned pumpkin.
Pumpkin can certainly be immeasurably useful in emergency situations. It binds up stools, preventing prolapses, dehydration, and explosive diarrhea. It can push along minor bezoars (foreign bodies) in the digestive tract. But it is not the be all and end all of ferret nutritional supplements. It is a fruit, and needs to be treated as such.
We wouldn’t feed our ferrets watermelon daily, right? Or cherries? What about an apple?
Pumpkin doesn’t make sense for daily, weekly, or regular use. There is a reason it comes out the exact same color that it goes in.
Pumpkin is mostly carbohydrates (20g carbs/cup, 8g sugars, 7g dietary fiber.) See this for more nutritional data on canned pumpkin. As any avid Mustelamania follower will know (and any knowledgeable ferret guardian!) carbohydrates are believed to be the single leading cause of insulinoma formation in ferrets. Feeding a species-appropriate, raw diet is, in essence, attempting to eliminate carbohydrates from the diet entirely. And, when done properly, it does!
However, pumpkin is the black crux that ferret guardians grip to ever so tightly. I am tired of seeing people suggest pumpkin for every little loose stool. I am even more tired of seeing that folks feed pumpkin daily for no reason at all! I see mention of “prevention.” Prevention of what? You can’t just assume that your ferrets are going to have diarrhea, or assume that lurking somewhere inside of them is a blockage in waiting. If you are feeding a proper diet, neither of those things ought to be an issue in the slightest, and certainly not the sort of worry that would require DAILY use of an item intended to be only for emergencies.
Pumpkin’s “magic” is in its fiber. Fiber works by absorbing water from the digestive tract. For animals that already live on the brink of dehydration (like most carnivores, especially when kibble fed) this is a disturbing fact in and of itself, because it absorbs (IE: steals) the water from the gut that could be better utilized to properly break down proteins (because water is a NECESSARY component to the chemical breakdown of proteins.) Without that vital water, the kidneys and other organs have to work much harder to process the diet that your ferrets are supposed to be eating – long term use of pumpkin could, in this way, be causing unnecessary, secondary taxing of the kidneys that can lead to damage and disease, as well as crystal formation.
Secondly, fiber works by absorbing that water to expand in the intestines. This is great in the off-chance that your ferret is experiencing diarrhea, or has a minor hair ball (trichobezoar.) However, consistent use of pumpkin leads to consistently expanded, enlarged bowel movements – which, over time, stretch out the intestines, both lowering gut motility and causing muscle damage to the intestines themselves. A carnivore’s digestive tract is not designed to stretch to that degree, and forcing it to by feeding high-fiber foods constantly eventually leads to malabsorption due to damaged intestines, as well as irritable bowel issues.
Think about the kibble-fed cats, dogs, and ferrets that you know. Do any of them, as they age, develop loose stools? Digestion issues? Constipation issues? Hairball issues? Food sensitivities? It’s such an absurdly common phenomenon that kibble manufacturers even make foods specifically aimed at these issues: senior diets, hairball diets, “indoor cat” diets. All of these capitalize on the fact that their products have done such consistent damage to the guts of our pets, that they have to add is even more damaging fiber to cover up the symptoms of stool issues. And that is all that fiber does – it covers up an ongoing issue.
In the case of ferrets and pumpkin – it is covering up a problem in the diet. Whether the problem is poor hairball control (feed raw egg yolks and you won’t encounter this problem – see here) or whether the problem is consistent loose stool, pumpkin is not curing the issue, it is merely masking it, all the while asking the pancreas to bone up and produce more enzymes to break down the sugars in the pumpkin.
When the intestinal tract is stretched, has low motility, or is overall atrophied, it can no longer properly absorb the nutrients that it is attempting to digest. The intestines work by having tiny folds (villi) all over that increase surface area, but also allow for stretching and contracting of the organ itself. Inside the villi are microvilli, tiny pores that are responsible for the absorption of nutrients. When a carnivore’s intestines are constantly stretched out, they lose the ability to contract as tightly, which then leads to and overall stretching of the villi and microvilli. This constant stretching requires lubrication, and so the many glands and mucous membranes of the intestinal tract produce more mucous to cover the stretched tissue. Mucous blocks the microvilli, clogging up the tiny holes and allowing for less nutrient absorption. Over time, this leads to chronic inflammation, which in turn can lead to irritable bowel syndrome.
I am fairly convinced that the sheer number of cases of insulinoma we are seeing in otherwise well-fed ferrets is not simply genetic. It is due to misuse and misappropriation of an item never intended to be fed regularly. I am also fairly convinced that the number of cases of bowel disorders can be attributed to the misuse of this item, also.
Pumpkin is a useful thing to keep in the freezer. You may have an off weekend where your ferret gets into something he or she shouldn’t have – and develops loose stools. Or perhaps you saw him munching on something you are certain will not pass through on its own. Having pumpkin around for these instances is monumentally important and can save you and your ferret a lot of pain and stress.
But a far better method of preventing loose stools is to simply feed a species-appropriate diet. If you feed raw already, and experience loose stools more often than just with organ and muscle meat meals – consider upping the ratio of bone, as well as whole prey items. You can also contact me for help. If you feed kibble, consider that your ferret may not be doing well on that particular brand, and think about trying something different. Of course, contact me if you need suggestions. To prevent hairballs, simply add a raw egg yolk a few times a week to meals. Yolks are animal protein, full of vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients, as well as naturally break up trichobezoars without all the damaging consequences of inappropriate food items such as pumpkin.