Mast cell tumors are the most common skin tumor found in ferrets. They can also be found internally on the spleen. They arise from a cell type called a mast cell. In dogs and less so in cats, these tumors can vary from benign to highly malignant. Fortunately, in ferrets mast cell tumors are benign and do not metastasize or spread. The average age for ferrets to develop mast cell tumors is reported as 4 years old.
What do I look for?
"...they tend to disappear only to return again."
These tumors are often present for months and are ignored by owners because they tend to disappear only to return again. They might be mistaken for an insect bite. In the ferret, mast cell tumors tend to fluctuate in size but are often 1cm (3/8") or less. They are usually circular, flat, and slightly raised masses found anywhere on the body. Some are very itchy. They are usually found after the ferret has scratched them and they become slightly ulcerated and bleeding, leading to a round sore that may have a crusty scab with hair matted over top. If the scab falls off, the lesion is red, may ooze a little and will have no hair.
How are they diagnosed?
A mast cell tumor will be suspected if the mass has a classic appearance as described above. They can often be diagnosed by cytology, a microscopic examination of cells collected by tissue scrapings or fine needle aspiration of the tumor. A biopsy sample may be submitted to a laboratory for a definitive diagnosis.
Can they be treated?
Yes. Complete surgical removal is usually considered curative. Bear in mind that new mast cell tumors may form, but recurrence is not due to metastasis or spreading of the initial tumor. It is recommended to have histology done on the removed tissue to confirm the diagnosis.
If you detect any sore or skin lump on your ferret, you should have it examined by your veterinarian as soon as possible.
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