Ferrets can suffer from tumors in any part of their bodies, ranging from benign cancers of the skin to aggressive malignant tumors of internal organs. Many ferrets are affected by tumors of the lymphoid system (lymph nodes and lymphatic tissue of the spleen, liver, and bone marrow). This handout describes lymphoma and lymphosarcoma. These terms are typically used synonymously, however, lymphosarcoma suggests malignant lymphoma. They are used synonymously in this handout.
What is lymphoma?
Lymphomas are tumors (solid masses) of the lymphoid system and most commonly affect ferrets between the ages of two and five years, though ferrets of all ages, even as young as six months, can be affected. Lymphomas are the most common tumor seen in ferrets. They can affect the peripheral lymph nodes, liver, spleen, respiratory system, bone marrow, gastrointestinal tract, eyes, skin, nervous system, heart, and/or kidneys.
What are the clinical signs of lymphoma?
The clinical signs depend on the type of tumor, the organ involved, and the stage of the disease. Ferrets may be asymptomatic for months to years. In young ferrets, lymphomas may appear suddenly and progress rapidly. In adult ferrets, lymphomas tend to be more long-term, with survival times often longer.
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, swelling on the neck or legs, or visible masses, palpable masses (masses that can be felt by an experienced veterinarian), problems breathing, coughing and hind limb weakness. This diversity in clinical signs can make diagnosis difficult, especially because most of them are not specific.
"This diversity in clinical signs can make diagnosis difficult, especially because most of them are not specific."
There is no specific cause for lymphomas but there is a proposal suggesting a viral link. At present, there is suggested, though not scientific, documentation of a genetic base for these tumors. The sex of the ferret is not significant.
How is lymphoma diagnosed?
In adult ferrets, the enlargement of peripheral lymph nodes is an important sign, as is the enlargement of the spleen, although the spleen can enlarge without tumors being present. A surgical biopsy of an enlarged lymph node or suspected tumor can provide a definitive diagnosis. Blood tests should be reviewed to look for changes in the blood profile that might suggest organ involvement. A bone marrow biopsy may be considered with certain blood changes.
"A surgical biopsy of an enlarged lymph node or suspected tumor can provide a definitive diagnosis."
Radiographs (X-rays) may help your veterinarian identify masses or organ enlargement in certain areas of your ferret’s body but are not specifically diagnostic. Ultrasound may be recommended to further define masses or organ enlargement.
Lymphoma in ferrets may be an incidental finding, as many ferrets do not show symptoms.
What is the treatment for lymphoma?
Treatment is indicated for ferrets showing clinical signs. In-hospital supportive care should be initiated for debilitated patients. For a dedicated owner with an otherwise healthy-looking patient, treatment with chemotherapy is a very good option. Unlike human chemotherapy, hair loss and gastrointestinal upset are rarely seen in ferret chemotherapy cases. Surgery can be beneficial for removing solitary masses and is often very beneficial for removing a cancerous spleen. Adjunctive or supportive treatment with proper nutritional support, antioxidants, and immune-stimulating supplements may improve the outcome.
Treatment is not often curative, and relapse of cancer may occur. Remission may last three months to five years.