Message Number: YG2081 | New FHL Archives Search
From: Sukie Crandall
Date: 2001-04-03 01:09:00 UTC
Subject: Re: Sukie on Furballs

>Hair that makes it through the digestive system and recovered in scat is
>not exposed to the same environment as the hair gummed up in a
>trichobezoar stuck in a stomach for who knows how long. While hair is
>acid resistant, it is not totally so, so those hairs recovered from
>long-term hairballs may have undergone significant morphological change.
>I know of no study which has addressed this issue and I haven't looked
>at it myself.

Yes, that is part of my problem in figuring this out.

>Ferret fur is not in any of the published works illustrating fur types
>for identification that I own or have ease of access. But that doesn't
>matter because you own ferrets. Brush your ferret over its ENTIRE body
>and pull the hair from the brush.

Did that.

>Wash the hair in distilled water and
>air dry.

Did not do that.

> Under a dissecting scope and using a fine brush, separate the
>hair types from each other and segregate by size, color ad morphology.

Don't have a dissecting scope. Limping along with a stereoptic Nikon
Naturescope (20x portable) which is sexy to have in the field, but
has distinct limitations...

>Fix the hair to microscope slides using conventional mounting
>techniques. Make micrographs of the various fur types and print for reference.

I got slap-dash and just did a side-by side with fur samples, fiber
samples, and samples from the furball.

>Or you can simply place a few known hairs that sort of look like the
>ones in question on the slide and compare them to the unknowns. If they
>match, it's ferret fur. If not, then it is something else.
>Here is a clue. Ferret underfur is transparent (the white color is an
>optical effect rather than due to a pigment, much like why whole milk
>seems white, and defatted milk turns bluish). The guard hairs are
>pigmented in the upper half to 2/3rds only, the lower parts of the
>shafts also being transparent.

Yes, noticed that. Even in the pigmented ones there is the
appearance that there is a transparent outer portion and a core of
color within it; may not be the actuality but it is the appearance.

>Artificial fibers are pigmented throughout the length and width of the
>fiber (although they may appear somewhat transparent).

That fits better with the majority of the stuff from the furball that
I have so far examined than fur does, as did three other features
(diameter, lengths, and level of kinkiness).

> On extreme
>enlargement, they are uniformly smooth, but hair is rough and may look scaled.

Sadly, I don't have that capability, nor do I have a fume hood or chemicals.

>Bob wrote:
>>>In wild animals, this bulk typically helps move hairs
>>>through the digestive system.
>Sukie replied:
>>On that score I have wondered about insect exoskeletons, as in giving
>>meal "worms", as a possible diet change if they take to them. Any
>>data on if those might be useful as bulk?
>Bob responds:
>The keratin in exoskeletons is not digestible at the rates ferrets push
>it through the digestive system, so the ease of intestinal passage would
>be dependent upon the size of the particles swallowed. For a segmented
>animal like a meal worm, I would suspect the exoskeleton would fall
>apart and not be much trouble.

That's about what I had conjectured in relation to them as a possible

> For some other animals, like beetles or
>spiders, depending on the size of the segment and the ferret's
>willingness to chew it, I would have more of a worry.

In addition to carapace size there would also be things like venom
presence, or insecticide exposures to consider, while home-gown
mealworms would not carry such risks.

>I have inspected more than 1000 carnivore scats, including some
>extremely unpleasant dissections of puma scat after it consumed deer. In
>that number was about 150 mink scats collected in the eastern foothills
>of Central California. Those scats contained frequent insect parts,
>notably legs and carapaces, and they were crunched enough to make most
>identification impossible. I would suspect the same from polecats. But
>pet ferrets who never learned how to eat insects? I don't know. I do fed
>my ferrets the occasional cricket as a treat and have never had a problem.

Can only try... Have had some go wild if an insect gets trapped in
the house, though.

>Sukie replied:
>>Our's do get powdered bone when I boil down a chicken and then powder
>>those epiphases which are calcified enough to be hard, but not so
>>fully calcified that they form splinters. I simply am not wild about
>>what happens when a diet containing larger bits of bone goes wrong.
>Bob responds:
>Bone powder in stomach acid does the same basic thing that happens with
>you eat a Tums; it dissolves and buffers the stomach acids. Bone salts
>are extremely sensitive to the presence of acids and dissolve on contact
>(Want to see a picture? I have lots!). That is the difference between a
>ferret swallowing a fragment of bone, a fragment of keratin, or a chunk
>of rubber. Both the keratin and rubber are essentially unaffected by the
>stomach acid and try to make it through the intestines with all their
>sharp edges. Bone, on the other hand, is at least partially dissolved,
>which rounds and smoothes the corners, making the passage easier.
>Bone has two components which are important nutrients: the organic
>protein matrix (various collagens) and the inorganic bone salts
>(hydroxyapatite). The HCl in the stomach rapidly reacts with the bone
>salts, dissolving them on contact. Later, digestive enzymes attack the
>protein matrix, digesting a minute fraction. The end result is the bone
>is rounded, pitted, and smoothed compared to the original fragment
>swallowed (If you have access to a good library, look up a copy of Peter
>Andrews' "Owls, Caves and Fossils." Wonderful pictures of exactly what I
>am talking about, even if some of his conclusions are wrong). Bone
>powder, depending on how fine it is, the amount, and the amount of HCl
>excreted by the stomach, would probably completely dissolve and wouldn't
>be useful in transporting hair.
>Ferrets are not dogs; they don't gulp chicken bones and get them stuck
>in their throats. Most of the concern about ferrets eating bone is
>exaggerated. Ferrets are obligate, primary carnivores and evolved (as
>polecats) eating animals containing a lot of tiny bones. If they
>couldn't handle it, they wouldn't be here now, but instead stored in
>some museum drawer as an example of yet another extinct animal. I feed
>my ferrets whole chicken bones on a daily basis. The ferrets eat the
>soft ends, chew or scoop the marrow, then hide the hard diaphyseal
>"tubes" for me to find and save for my own research (I've compared them
>to bones recovered from known mink caches and the chew marks and method
>of nutrient extraction is essentially identical. I am always looking for
>bones chewed by carnivores).
>Of course, the odd ferret may have a hard time with bone, especially
>those who have never learned how to eat it. They can cut their gums, or
>even get a sharp fragment lodged in the back of their throat. There is
>even the remote possibility that a sharp diaphyseal fragment could
>puncture something. But I have averaged about 20 ferrets in the last 5
>years, fed they bone DAILY and have never had a problem in more than
>36,500 feedings (1 bone feeding per day x 5 years x 365 days per year x
>20 ferrets = 36,500 individual feedings, not counting the years prior to
>this then I owned less ferrets). I have personally seen more ferrets
>choke on kibble than on bone, but I allow that many people fear feeding
>bone to their ferrets, so I try to accept their reservations. Can a
>problem happen? Of course it can! But the probability of it occurring is
>very small.
>Bob wrote:
>>>There could be other
>>>factors at work; my ferret free roam, so they don't perform extended
>>>ritual grooming and other habits of boredom which might increase
>>>hairballs in caged ferrets.
>Sukie replied:
>>We find that grooming is something that our's use more a cultural
>>cement than as a way around boredom -- rather like primates use it.
>>Perhaps your household's culture differs from our's in that regard.
>Bob responds:
>Probably not much different. I was speaking more of those ferrets who,
>due to cage stress or boredom, groom themselves constantly. More of a
>neurotic behavior than a socializing behavior.
>Sukie replied:
>>Not the ones that seem to make up the majority of the furball; those
> >are KINKY, thin, and short when seen under the microscope, not
>>slicker than hairs...
>Bob responds:
>Those could still be ferret hairs. Hair takes on different morphology
>depending on site of origin. Maybe the short kinky hairs you are seeing
>came from the lower abdomen, or from the ears, or someplace else where
>they don't appear to look like the typical hair. Not all underfur looks alike.

Good point. Ah, poor ferrets, I am going to be taking samples and
peeking soon (My schedule stinks right now, so can't right away.)...

>Bob wrote:
>>> not what I would suspect as being
>>>something that might START a hairball). After all, hairballs are found
>>>in a lot of animals who never come into contact with artificial fibers.
>Sukie replied:
>>Except that if that clearly were the cause we'd expect to have had
>>furballs in the many years before, give that the diet is pretty well
>>of the same general type and range, so it's certainly not clear-cut.
>Bob responds:
>But ageing causes significant differences. Not that I would know...

Errrrr, yes, but we aren't talking about 19 year old ferrets, and we
have had a lot age in the almost two decades that ferrets have been
in our family. The two with the furballs have both been 4 year old
males, and both have been recent.

>My ferrets live on fabrics with a lot of fuzz, and I've even seen some
>in the scat when a new blanket is occasionally chewed up in play. Yet my
>ferrets have never had a hairball. Maybe there IS some artificial fuzz
>in the hairball, and maybe more fuzz than hair, BUT that doesn't mean
>they are correlated. Maybe it does. I don't know.
>Bob wrote:
>>>If you like, I can look at your hairballs and identify the fibers.
>Sukie replied:
>>How about if you do part of it, and I save a bit for a different
>>approach in case that option pans out? I got only one of the
>>furballs. How large a sample do you need?
>Bob responds:
>To be a true picture, it would have to be a random sampling of various
>parts of the trichobezoar.
>I think the important question should NOT be "Are there artificial
>fibers in my hairball?" I think it SHOULD be "Does it MATTER if there
>are artificial hairs in my hairball?" If the answer to the second
>question is no, then the first question becomes trivial.

Since we have NEVER had furballs before in 19 years, and since there
was the change with the bedding all having fake fleece or fake fur
this Winter I am not ready to assume that the source may not be a --
perhaps THE -- serious concern. If we had been through major
furballs before that would be a different matter, but we simply have
NOT, and going a few months shy of 19 years without such a problem is
a pretty good indicator that something was going right for a long,
long time... It's almost two decades -- nothing to sniff at.

>This reminds me of the old saying, "99% of all people who get rectal
>cancer use toilet paper, so toilet paper causes rectal cancer." Well,
>maybe 99% of all hairballs contain some proportion of artificial fibers,
>but perhaps the presence is an epiphenomenon of ferret housing, not a
>contributing factor to the formation of trichobezoars. To me, the
>problem is the current ferret diet may supply all the necessary
>nutrients ferrets may require, but I seriously wonder if it supplies
>those non-nutrients the ferret's digestive system evolved to eliminate.
>In other words, we may be feeding our ferrets the correct nutrients, BUT
>are we feeding them the correct food?
>Bob C