Image for the banner courtesy of Morgan.
What are Vitamins?
Vitamins are organic compounds which your ferret requires in certain quantities in order to sustain life, thrive and be healthy. There are many different vitamins and they all play their own roles in the ferret body to maintain health and promote longevity. There are currently 13 recognized vitamins. These important nutrients can be found in natural foodstuffs, and some sourced from a balanced diet or some produced within the body of the ferret. Vitamins are essential for normal metabolism.
Each organism has different vitamin requirements. Vitamin Requirements also differ based on the life stage of the animal. Growing and reproducing ferrets are making new tissues and therefore require higher levels of vitamins, minerals, protein, and energy for optimal performance. As the ferret ages, metabolic and physiologic changes may also increase the requirements for vitamins. Various disease conditions, general health status and potentially some medications may affect vitamin status.
You will find that some species may require certain vitamins from their diet in different amounts, others may not necessarily need vitamins from diet as their body produces sufficient quantities needed according to their own body requirements. There isn’t really any data available documenting the vitamin requirements for the ferret, so since the cat is the closest comparison it is same to assume that they would hold similar requirements or needs vitamin wise.
Vitamins and nutrients tend to be classified as either Fat-soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K) or Water-soluble (vitamins B and C) vitamins. These are categorized according to what causes them to break down within the body. Some vitamins and nutrients are considered Essential and may not necessarily be able to be produced inside the ferret’s body. Essential Vitamins or Nutrients MUST be supplied VIA the diet. Example: Vitamin E. Many vitamins are destroyed significantly when exposed to excessive heat. This is why it is essential to feed meats 100% raw and why many commercial pet foods are supplemented with added synthetic vitamins after they undergo the cooking process.
The Fat-soluble vitamins / nutrients are soluble in lipids (fats). Fat-soluble vitamins, especially vitamins A and E, are stored in body tissues. They are stored primarily in the liver and in fatty (adipose) tissues until they are needed. When needed they will be absorbed into the bloodstream of the ferret body. Extra care must be taken to not consume these vitamins in excess amounts because they WILL stay in the body longer and can more easily lead to toxicity.
If the food you feed to your ferret contains Fat-Soluble Vitamins in sufficient amounts, then you have no need for unnecessary supplementation. Raw feeders and Kibble feeders, do your research and balance out your ferrets diet and/or check ingredient panels to insure the products that you use contain these vitamins in sufficient amounts. If you find that the diet is lacking in Fat Soluble Vitamins, You could supplement either with fresh raw meats or using powder under licensed veterinary guidance or a pet/ferret nutritionist.
An example of a Fat-soluble nutrient is Vitamin A. Vitamin A can be found in high concentrated amounts in the Liver. Also can be found in eggs in small amounts, and in trace amounts in other meats.) This is why we discourage any unnecessary treats of liver or supplementation that contain high levels of Vitamin A, due to the high risk of Toxicity. Good examples of treats or supplements which contain Vitamin A in large amounts are: Liver (raw or freeze dried), Ferretone, Cod Liver Oil. Vitamin A is an anti oxidant that protects the body against disease and helps the immune system stay healthy. Vitamin A is absorbed almost exclusively as retinol into the lymphatic system with low-density lipoproteins and transported to the liver where it is deposited mainly in the hepatocytes and parenchymal cells. A special transport protein called retinol-binding protein is responsible for picking up Vitamin A from the liver and transporting it throughout the body. Vitamin A is necessary for normal functioning in vision, bone growth, reproduction, tooth development and maintenance of epithelial tissue including the mucous membrane lining the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.
Vitamin D consists of a group of compounds that regulate calcium and phosphorus metabolism in the body. The one of interest is Vitamin D3 — Cholecalciferol.Ferret bodies can synthesize their own vitamin D3 from dietary lipids of animal origin. When Vitamin D3 is ingested it is stored in the liver, muscle and fat tissue until it is transported. Cholecalciferol Is the inactive storage form of vitamin D: It is converted to its active form by two hydroxylations: First in the liver, the second in the kidney. Vitamin D is important as it helps to regulate important blood calcium levels, this can help aid the production of bone, bone density, bone growth, and strong healthy teeth. Vitamin D increases the absorption of nutrients such as iron, magnesium, phosphate, and zinc running through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Too little vitamin D, the wrong kind of it, not enough natural sunlight, inadequate calcium or inappropriate calcium to phosphorus ratio in the diet can cause a disease called rickets / swimmers syndrome in rapidly growing ferrets. Diets high in calcium and vitamin D may be associated with signs of renal impairment. Ferrets with kidney or liver damage may need a slightly higher than normal dose of vitamin D as the liver and kidneys are needed to activate this vitamin within the ferret’s body. (Always seek Veterinary Advice when dealing with Fat Soluble Vitamins.)
Vitamin E is an essential Fat-Soluble vitamin which can be found naturally in the liver of prey animals. Vitamin E helps to protect the body from pollutants and prevents clots from forming in the body. It is very good for skin and coats. Using oils rich in Vitamin E on the skin can help assist healing and/or improve dry or flaky skin. There has been anecdotal evidence that it improves Jill’s ability to produce kits and for preventing mastitis in nursing Jills. “There has been studies done using the ferret as a model for lung cancer, and have found that the addition of beta-carotene, alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E), and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) have effectively blocked the formation of preneoplastic lung lesions and lung cancer tumour formation. (Ferret Medicine And Surgery, 2016)”
Vitamin K metabolic need has not been established in the ferret. Vitamin K is required for normal blood clotting. Vitamin K is involved in osteocalcin, a protein that regulates the incorporation of calcium phosphates in growing bones. Vitamin K is mainly sourced in plant proteins, and is found in lower amounts in animal sources like liver, fish and egg.
Water-soluble vitamins, which include all of the B vitamins, are easily absorbed into the body. If your ferret was to consume more of a water-soluble vitamin than it needs, the excess will be excreted VIA urine, rather than stored within the body. This means the risk of an overdose when fed in excess is relatively low, but you will have to constantly replenish your stock through the diet.
The B vitamins are often grouped together and called B-Complex Vitamins. The B-Complex Vitamins include the eight B vitamins — B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, & B12. B-vitamins can be found in a variety of foods, especially animal proteins. These are used by the ferret’s body to metabolize foods, they are crucial for processes such as red blood cell formation and nerve cell repair. B-vitamins also contribute to the skin’s ability to protect the ferret and the nervous system’s general ability to function. B-vitamins are water soluble and are not stored in the body. It is important that you ensure the ferret is provided with adequate B-Complex vitamins from diet.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine):
Vitamin B1 (which can be mainly found in liver, pork and egg yolk), has many uses some of which are help in the making of healthy blood, and promotes healthy brain tissue. It has been known to help digestion and growth in young ferrets, and promotes good health for senior ferrets by preventing arthritis or aids those who suffer from it. When given in adequate amounts, it has shown to improve reproduction in breeding ferrets and may also be good for fertility.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin):
Vitamin B2 can be found in eggs, organ meats (especially kidneys and liver), & lean meats. It helps aid the function of the adrenal gland as well as help the body with oxygen. B2 metabolizes fatty acids, carbohydrates and amino acids. Vitamin B2 is used for the production of red blood cells and antibodies that help fight disease. It helps prevent cataracts and aids in energy production by cells of the body. Riboflavin works with vitamin A to maintain mucous membranes and helps the absorption of iron and vitamin B6 in the intestines. Riboflavin is needed for metabolism of the amino acid tryptophan, which is then turned into niacin.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin):
Vitamin B3, which can be found in meat products and fish, is required for proper function of more than 50 enzymes. It is needed for healthy skin and proper circulation of the blood throughout the body. The secretion of bile and stomach acids requires niacin. Niacin lowers cholesterol and helps with the synthesis of hormones, including estrogen and testosterone. Tryptophan metabolism is intrinsically linked to niacin (niacin may also be synthesized from dietary tryptophan if the diet is low in niacin and adequate tryptophan is available). Cats cannot convert tryptophan to niacin and have a strict dietary requirement for niacin. For ferrets however, Conversion of tryptophan to niacin has not been systematically studied in the ferret. Mink have been shown to be unable to effectively metabolize enough to meet their requirements. If a ferret has a balanced diet, Vitamin B3 can be produced by the body.
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid):
Vitamin B5, can be created in the body and sourced from foods like beef, eggs, organ meats (especially liver and heart), & saltwater fish. This vitamin occurs in all body tissues and in all forms of living tissue. It is involved in the production of adrenal hormones and antibodies produced by the body’s white blood cells. It is an essential part of acetyl coenzyme A, also called coenzyme A (by acetylating acetic acid in the cell). Acetyl coenzyme A is involved in energy production for the cell via the production of ATP. Vitamin B5 enhances stamina, and is involved in the production of neurotransmitters. It may help prevent and treat depression and anxiety and is useful for normal function of the intestinal tract. Pantothenic acid deficiencies in cats (and potentially ferrets) are at risk of fatty livers.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine):
Vitamin B6 can be found in meat, fish and eggs. It plays a major role in making proteins, hormones, and neurotransmitters (chemicals that carry signals between nerve cells). Cats (and potentially ferrets) have a higher requirement for vitamin B6 due to high transmitter activity from their high protein requirement. Pyridoxine affects physical and mental health and is needed for most body functions. It maintains sodium and potassium balance and is necessary in water regulation by the body. It is needed for fat and protein absorption. Vitamin B6 is a coenzyme to over 50 different reactions in the body’s cells transamination (where nitrogen is added to a fatty acid to form an amino acid) and decarboxylation (where a carbon is removed to shorten an amino acid chain). Pyridoxine promotes red cell production, is needed for normal brain function, and also is needed for DNA and RNA synthesis. Vitamin B6 is needed for the absorption of vitamin B12 and is also used for antibody formations and immune system functioning. Without vitamin B6 the body can not produce its own vitamin B3.
Vitamin B7 (Biotin):
Biotin, also known as vitamin B7 and vitamin H, is a water soluble B-complex vitamin that plays an important role in helping the body metabolize proteins and process glucose. It helps maintain sugar levels in the body. The body does not store biotin and biotin deficiency is rare – it is made by bacteria in the intestinal tract and minimal is needed through the diet. Ferrets needs sufficient biotin for a healthy coat and claws. Biotin travels in the bloodstream and excess or unused quantities are eliminated in urine. In addition to converting food into energy, biotin also helps the body get rid of by-products from proteins. It aids cell growth and the production of fatty acids. As obligate carnivores, the ferret’s diet is high in protein, and they need sufficient biotin to process and excrete it. Biotin supports the thyroid and adrenal glands and the reproductive and nervous systems. Biotin also helps the body use other B-complex vitamins and maintains healthy skin, coat, claws, nerve tissue and bone marrow. Not only does biotin help in several metabolic reactions, but it also helps to transfer CO2 (carbon dioxide). Raw egg yolk is a rich source for biotin. Raw egg whites contain an enzyme, called avidin. This enzyme sequesters biotin and makes it unavailable. If Egg whites were fed alone, ferrets would likely suffer biotin deficiency. This can be avoided by feeding whole eggs (whites + yolk) or simply yolk on it’s own. Biotin can also be found in the following foods: Liver, Pork, Salmon, etc.
Vitamin B9 (Folic acid):
Folic Acid is used as a cofactor and serves as a donor and acceptor in a variety of reactions involving amino acids and nucleotide metabolism. It is needed for cell growth and the production of blood cells. Folic acid provides a variety of benefits to ferrets, including elevation of blood oxygen levels, production of oxygen, synthesis of DNA, assistance in the metabolism of fat, and promotion of proper growth and development. It is also extremely important for the transportation of oxygen around a ferret’s body. Neither dietary requirements, nor intestinal bacterial synthesis, of folic acid have been studied in the ferret. The risk of toxicity from folic acid is supposedly relatively low, because folic acid is a water-soluble vitamin and is regularly removed from the body through urine.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin):
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is the only vitamin that contains a trace element, cobalt. Cobalamin is the largest and most complex of the B vitamins. The function of vitamin B12 is closely linked to that of folate. It aids in the building of genetic material, health of nerve tissue, brain function, production of normal red blood cells, and maintenance of the nervous system. It also helps break down fats in the body and is an appetite stimulant. Cobalamin absorption depends on dietary intake and adequate gastrointestinal tract function. Most B12 deficiencies, even though are rare, are not due to poor intake but rather poor absorption. B12 can only be sourced from animal proteins so a vegetarian diet may cause deficiencies. Excess amounts of B12 are stored in the body, primarily the liver. The body is so efficient at storing and recycling B12 that deficiencies may take years to develop. Deficiency has not actually been described in the ferret. Microwave heating inactivated B12. Recent evidence from studies has shown that supplementation of cobalamin is important to get the best response to therapy for gastrointestinal disease. Ferrets can source Vitamin B12 from foods of animal origin such as meats, liver, kidney, fish, & eggs.
Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid):
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin which ferrets, like cats, are able to synthesize from normal glucosemetabolism in the liver. Vitamin C is mainly found in plant proteins (eg. Citrus Fruits), but ferrets don’t necessarily require it from the diet. They may on occasion, receive some from prey animals that had eaten and partially digested fruit matter in its digestive tract. The primary role of ascorbic acid is as an antioxidant and free radical scavenger. Vitamin C is necessary for the growth, development and repair of all body tissues. It’s involved in many body functions, including formation of collagen, absorption of iron, the immune system, wound healing, and the maintenance of cartilage, bones, and teeth.
Vitamins are one of the many building blocks to life. Having an understanding of the roles of vitamins can help you to make informed decisions nutrition and diet wise so that your ferret has optimal health now and in the future. Having a large variety of nutrients available for your ferret will aid long term health and longevity. Expect the next lesson to cover Minerals. Minerals work hand in hand with Vitamins to promote good health and nutrition for your ferret. While deficiency is a HUGE topic to cover and is indeed related to this lesson, I will be doing an entirely different lesson specifically for that topic. I believe that having an understanding for vitamins, minerals, all those essential nutrients, can help ferret owners to feed their ferrets better to avoid deficiencies.