If your ferret is diagnosed with lymphoma, also known as lymphosarcoma, don't despair. Treatment can keep him around for a considerable time. Lymphoma is the most common type of cancer in ferrets; it can affect animals of any age, including the young. The tumors can affect any part of the body.
Lymphoma affect lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. Because the lymphatic system affects virtually every part of the body, lymphoma may exist in many of your ferret's organs. That said, it primarily affects his gastrointestinal and respiratory systems, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver and spleen.
It's not uncommon for ferrets with lymphoma to remain asymptomatic for a long time. As the disease progresses, symptoms begin to appear, including weight loss, lethargy, coughing, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea, and hind leg weakness. You might see blood in his feces or see and feel the tumors in his lymph nodes. These are in his neck, arm pits and the back of his hind legs. If your ferret begins grinding his teeth, he's in some sort of pain, whether related to lymphoma or not. Much depends on the level of the cancer's aggressiveness.
After physically examining your ferret, the vet takes blood samples for testing for high lympocyte numbers. She might perform an X-ray or ultrasound to look for tumors. Your vet puts your ferret under anesthesia to take a bone marrow sample, which is tested for lymphoma. If there's an obvious mass, she may biopsy that, instead.
Chemotherapy is the most effective treatment for lymphoma. For ferrets, it generally consists of a three- to six-month course of treatment. Chemotherapy is not a cure, but there's hope for remission of the disease and a good quality of life. Most ferrets tolerate chemo well, but it is expensive and time-consuming. An alternative is treatment with steroids such as prednisone or prednisolone along with supplements to enhance his immune system. Your vet might recommend surgery to remove a solid tumor.
If you decide against chemo or other treatment, your ferret will likely live for only a few weeks after his lymphoma diagnosis. If treated conservatively, with steroids, your ferret might live six months or more. With chemo, he can live two years or longer. If he responds well to chemo, he should improve rapidly within the first two weeks of treatment.
- ferret image by Olga Barbakadze from Fotolia.com