Unfortunately when it comes to cancer, ferrets get the raw end of the deal. I’ve heard the figure that 80% of ferrets will develop cancer. Looking back on all the ferrets I’ve had I think my crew has run pretty close to that number.
Ferrets can get a variety of cancers but the 3 most common cancers are insulinoma, adrenal tumors and lymphoma.
Insulinoma in Ferrets
Insulinoma is a cancer that develops in the cells of the pancreas that make insulin. The tumors make the cells secrete more insulin than normal causing the ferret’s blood glucose level to drop. The ferret then goes into a hypoglycemic episode which can progress to seizures, coma and death.
Symptoms: lethargic, weight loss, wobbly back legs, seizure, coma
Treatment: If your ferret is having a seizure or in a coma, this is an emergency. Use a q-tip to rub Karo syrup on his gums to help get his blood sugar up. Then feed a high protein meal. If your ferret is not responding to the Karo syrup, they need to see a vet quickly.
For the long term insulinoma can be managed medically by giving prednisone twice a day (pred elevates the blood glucose) and feeding high protein meals. Some people opt for surgery which removes the some of the tumors or part of the pancreas.
Adrenal Tumors in Ferrets
If you see a bald ferret most likely that ferret is suffering from adrenal tumors. These tumors cause a hormone imbalance that cause the hair loss as well as other changes. They tend to occur on older ferrets but younger ferrets have been known to develop them.
Symptoms: Hair loss, aggression, loss of muscle, in females an enlarged vulva, in males an enlarged prostate which can cause problems with urinating.
Treatment: Surgery to remove the diseased adrenal gland is the recommended treatment, but there are systemic medications- Lupron, melatonin and deslorelin that help control the symptoms.
Lymphoma in Ferrets
Lymphoma is considered the most common cancer in ferrets. It’s extent can vary from appearing in 1 lymph node to multiple organs to involving bone marrow.
Symptoms: Lethargic, no appetite, weakness, some ferrets will show no symptoms
Treatment: The extent of disease and ferret’s health condition will determine treatment which can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and/or surgery.
Cancer is a horrible disease and in many cases a cure might not be possible for our ferrets. But knowing what the symptoms are can help us get veterinary care early in the disease and allow us to manage their disease and lead a comfortable life.