Ferrets can suffer from tumors in any part of their body, ranging from benign cancers of the skin to aggressive malignant tumors of internal organs. A large number of ferrets are affected by tumors of the lymphoid system (lymph nodes and lympatic tissue of the spleen, liver and bone marrow). This handout will discuss lymphomas and lymphosacromas. These terms are typically used synonymously, however lymphosarcoma suggests malignant lymphoma. For the purpose of this article, they are used synonomously.
What is lymphoma?
Lymphomas are tumors (solid masses) of the lymphoid system and can affect all ages of ferrets (the most common age range is 2 - 5 years) but has been seen in ferrets as young as 6 months old.
"Malignant lymphoma is the most common malignancy seen in ferrets."
Lymphomas are the most common tumor seen in ferrets. Lymphomas can affect the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, respiratory system, bone marrow, gastrointestinal tract, eyes, skin, nervous system, heart and kidneys. The clinical signs depend on the type of tumor, organ involved and the stage of the disease. Ferrets may be show no symtoms for years. In young ferrets, lymphomas may appear suddenly and progress rapidly. In adult ferrets lymphomas tend to be more chronic (long term) and survival times are often longer. There is NO documentation of a genetic base for these tumors. The sex of the animal is significant.
There is no specific cause for lyphomas but there is a proposal suggesting a viral link.
How is lymphoma diagnosed?
A ferret with lymphoma may present with any number of signs including poor or absent appetite, lethargy, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, blood in the feces, abdominal distention, bulges or visible masses, palpable masses (masses that can be felt by an experienced veterinarian), problems breathing, coughing and hind limb weakness. This diversity of signs can make diagnosis difficult as most of the symptoms are not specific.
In adult ferrets, enlargement of lymph nodes is an important sign as is enlargement of the spleen, although the spleen can enlarge without tumors being present. A biopsy of lymph node or suspected tumor (mass) provides the definitive diagnosis. Blood tests should be reviewed to look for changes in the blood profile that might suggest organ involvement. Tests such as bone marrow biopsy may be considered with certain blood changes.
X-rays will identify masses or organ enlargement in certain areas of the body but are not specifically diagnostic. Ultrasounds may be employed to further define masses or organ enlargement.
What is the treatment for lymphoma?
Lymphoma in ferrets is often an incidental finding as many ferrets show no symptoms. Treatment is indicated for ferrets showing clinical signs. In hospital supportive care should be initiated for debilitated patients. For a dedicated owner with a compliant patient, treatment with chemotherapy is an option. Surgery can be beneficial to remove solitary masses. Adjunctive or supportive treatment with proper nutritional support, antioxidants and immune stimulating supplements may improve the outcome. Treatment is not often curative and relapse occurs. Remission may last 3 months to 5 years.