What Are Carbohydrates?
A carbohydrate is a molecule consisting of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. It’s considered a macronutrient and is one of three ways a body can get energy, followed by Protein and Fats.
In many animals, they are primarily used as fast source for energy in cells. However In ferrets, excessive carbs in the diet is thought to be linked to a nutrition related disease called Insulinoma. (Though there is no actual scientific evidence at this stage to confirm or deny that statement.) Ferret intestinal flora differs from other mammals in having a less concentrated anaerobic flora due to their smaller large intestine and thus, can digest simple carbohydrates. A majority of their energy requirements come from protein and fat, therefore carbs are not required as the sole energy source. Excessive carbohydrate intake is said to lead to a reduction in essential protein and fat and produce disease issues in the ferret.
Carbohydrates are made up of three components: fiber, starch, and sugar. They are classified as simple or complex, depending on the chemical structure and how quickly the sugar is absorbed and digested. Fiber and starch are considered complex carbohydrates, while the sugar is a simple carbohydrate. Simple carbs are more easily digested and absorbed compared to the complex carbs. With complex carbohydrates, the sugar molecules are strung together to form longer, and more complex chains.
Ferrets can evidently digest some simple carbs, but they cannot efficiently digest and utilize complex carbs or fibre due to their shorter digestive tracts, lack of a cecum and a less diverse gut microbial flora.
Carbs in general should never be the entire, or a majority diet as they are true carnivores that need Protein and Fats for energy. It is best to avoid commercial foods high in carbs and choose one that has at least under 8–15% and between (or less than) 1-3% fibre.
Simple carbohydrates may contain one or two sugars. Carbs containing single sugars are known as monosaccharides: Glucose, Fructose and Galactose. Carbs containing two sugars are known as disaccharides: Sucrose, Lactose and Maltose. A disaccharide can be formed when two monosaccharides are joined by glycosidic linkage. Simple carbs are basically sugars and starches that have been refined and stripped of their natural fibre and nutrients. Imagine syrups, etc. Glucose is the major kind of simple sugar and is the basic source of energy for all living things. It occurs naturally in some fruits and vegetables. It can also be produced in the body by breaking down other foods into glucose, for ferrets they do this through gluconeogenesis which takes place mainly in the liver.
Complex Carbohydrates may contain three or more sugars (e.g. starch, cellulose, or glycogen) and are known as polysaccharides. These carbs are found in whole, unprocessed foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. These much harder for ferret bodies to process, break down and are the one which are the most concerning, especially if the diet is long term and has excessive amounts. These types are best kept to the absolute minimum in whole form and in excessive amounts. Starches can be found in: legumes, nuts, potatoes, corn, rice, wheat, grains. They may also be found in cereal products such: pasta, breakfast cereals, flour, polenta, couscous, quinoa, etc.
Carbs are digested by the enzyme called amylase. This enzyme can be produced in the salivary glands and pancreas. Most mammals, including humans, produce amylase in their salivary glands and it aids the pre-digestion of the food they ingest. Like dogs and cats, Ferrets lack saliva amylase. Ferrets tend to ingest their food relatively quickly so salivary enzymes do not play a significant role in the digestion of foods, however it does provide a good lubrication. Digestion of the carbohydrates happens in the small intestine, this is where the amylase is released after being produced by the pancreas. When the carbohydrate molecule is digested, they it’s broken down into simple sugars (eg. glucose and fructose.) These are then absorbed into the bloodstream, travel to the liver and then are converted into glucose. The glucose is then carried through the bloodstream accompanied by insulin, converted and used as energy. Unused glucose can be stored for later use within the liver and skeletal muscles in the form of glycogen. If the storage of glycogen become full, carbs are then stored in the fat cells of the body.
Fibre is the indigestible portion of food (usually those derived from plants.) It is made up of several different carbohydrate compounds such as cellulose, hemicellulose, pectin, lignin, and gums. It is considered essential to digestion and helps to promote healthy bowel movement. For ferrets fed a natural wholeprey diet, fibre comes in forms of Hair, Fur, & Feathers. Feral Ferrets and Wild Polecats receive little fibre in forms of their prey. In kibble and commercial pet foods, fibre comes primarily from the cell walls of plants and grains. Ferrets appear to have little ability to utilize fibrous substrates as they lack a cecum and so in general, ferrets should be fed minimal fibre in the diet. Fibre content should preferably never be over 2% in ferret foods as it may be possible that a high fibre diet of 3% or more may cause digestive upsets, stool issues, and potentially irritation of the bowel.
Common sources of fibre in commercial petfoods include rice hulls, soybean hulls, beet pulp, bran, peanut hulls, and pectin. Even though ferrets should have minimal fibre, having some can be beneficial for the gastrointestinal tract. Ferrets fed home made raw may not be getting appropriate amounts of fibre, if any at all. Commercial petfoods may contain added fibre, example Rad Cat uses psyllium husk as a source of fibre.
The fibre isn’t known for having the best nutritional value and isn’t easily absorbed in the small intestines, however the fibre increases bulk and water content in the intestinal contents.
Some forms of fibre may be broken down in the intestines as fatty acids and will aid preventing overgrowth of harmful bacteria, as well as help colon cells recover from injury. Fibre is known to lengthen the intestinal transit time, (slow down the rate in which food moves through the digestive tract) in animals that have fast digestive tracts, and speed up those with slow digestive tracts. This makes fibre useful for treating both diarrhea and constipation. It will hold onto water which prevents constipation and absorb the extra water from diarrheic stools. Ever wondered why pumpkin is used as a blockage protocol? Well now you do! Providing a small percentage of fibre as part of the diet is really recommend if you feed a homemade raw diet, preferably from an animal source such as a meal of whole prey weekly. Fibre can also be found in digestive support supplements. For those feeding a commercial petfood, that should already provide adequate fibre and no supplementation is necessary.
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- Johnson-Delaney, Cathy A. Ferret Medicine And Surgery. 1st ed. CRC Press, 2016. Print.
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