Ferret Lymphoma Diagnosis and Treatment

Tumors of the lymph glands are one of the most common cancers in ferrets. Lymphoma along with adrenal gland tumors and insulinoma account for most of the cancers that veterinarians see.

Unlike the other two types of cancer, the long-term outlook for a ferret diagnosed with lymphoma is not good. There is no cure and surgical removal of the tumor is normally not an option. In fact, in most cases surgery does more to spread the disease and quicken its progress than to eliminate it. Drug treatments are available, but can only prolong the life a short time.

When lymphoma occurs in ferrets over three years of age, it is considered to be adult onset of the disease and progresses much more slowly than juvenile onset lymphoma. Not only does juvenile onset lymphoma progresses much faster, but it also produces an entirely different set of symptoms.

The symptoms you might see in a ferret with lymphoma vary greatly depending on the age of the animal and how long they have had the disease. The initial signs are often quite subtle, but progress as the disease itself progresses. The initial signs may be a pet who has become slightly more picky about what they eat and loosing weight. These signs are subtle and often easily overlooked. The next more obvious sign pet owners will notice is enlargement of the lymph nodes, especially those located under the chin between the head and neck. In younger ferrets the thymus gland is often the first focus of the disease. The enlargement of the thymus gland which occurs presses on the ferret’s heart and lungs creating coughing and difficulty breathing.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Early stages of lymphoma can be difficult to detect and diagnose. A veterinarian may want to take a biopsy sample for testing and may also suggest examination by x-ray or ultrasound to confirm enlargement of the spleen or other organs.

Once lymphoma is confirmed, treatment options will depend on the age and condition of your ferret. More options are available for the slower spreading adult onset variation of the disease than juvenile onset. Prednisone, a steroid given orally are known to help many ferrets. Chemotherapy and radiation are other options. Each of these may prolong your pet’s life but will not cure the disease.

Although a difficult decision to make, sometimes the best course of treatment is no treatment at all. It’s normal to want more time with a much loved pet and to feel that we need to do whatever we can to help them. However, sometimes letting them go and choosing not to put their tiny bodies through the unpleasant and invasive procedures necessary to prolong life is the best decision we can make.