Insulinomas are unfortunately common in ferrets and account for a quarter of all tumours diagnosed in this species.
Insulinomas are tumours that are usually discovered in ferrets at 4 to 6 years of age, however, they have been reported in kits as young as 2 weeks old. The cause of insulinomas is subject to debate but is primarily thought to be related to diet.
What is an insulinoma
An insulinoma is a tumour of the beta cells of the pancreas, cells that are responsible for the production of insulin. The tumour produces so much insulin that the ferret suffers from chronic hypoglycaemia.
What causes an insulinoma
The true cause for an insulinoma is not known but in countries where ferrets are not fed highly processed high carbohydrate foods such as cat food, there is a lower prevalence of insulinomas.
The theory is that constant high spikes of glucose in the blood stream from carbohydrate-rich diets, leads to overstimulation and hypertrophy of the beta cells in the pancreas, which could lead to cancerous change. As we find out more about how to feed ferrets properly, perhaps we will be able to reduce the prevalence of this disease.
Sometimes the clinical signs of insulinomas are very subtle; your ferret may be lethargic and a little weak in the back legs. Many have very mild signs and just seem a bit quieter and sleep more than usual. In more extreme cases your ferret may have vomiting and diarrhoea, seizures, collapse, drooling or may paw at the mouth.
Some ferrets develop the condition as they grow older, so may have concurrent diseases which hide the disorder. Subsequently, any change in your ferret’s behaviour or health, such as drinking more water, lethargy, respiratory signs, pale gums or behavioural changes should warrant a trip to your Veterinarian.
Because ferrets age quickly and for most of their diseases early diagnosis is extremely important
Your Veterinarian will recommend some blood tests to check overall health and to check for hypoglycaemia. Other diseases and multiple problems can occur that present with similar signs so your Veterinarian will recommend a selection of tests to fit in with your budget.
There are a few options for treatment. Medical management is the cheapest option and involves corticosteroids and frequent feeding. There is also an oral medication that can be used to raise blood glucose. Surgery to remove affected areas of the pancreas has the best prognosis.
Due to the importance of the pancreas for digestive functions and the production of other hormones, a total removal of the gland is not possible, so surgery aims to remove the affected nodules and check other organs for disease. Despite their small size, ferrets are generally great surgical patients.
What should I do if I suspect my ferret has an insulinoma?
If you suspect your ferret could be unwell, particularly if they are not eating, make sure you get them to the Vet quickly.
If you see signs of weakness, collapse or seizures some Nutrigel, corn syrup or honey rubbed on your ferret’s gums is a quick and easy way to increase his blood sugar levels. Just be careful if your ferret is seizuring not to get bitten.
Insulinomas are unfortunately common in Australian ferrets, particularly if they are fed highly processed high carbohydrate foods not designed for ferrets. So naturally, provision of a balanced raw diet only (and avoidance of fruits, vegetables and high carbohydrate foods) is best to reduce the risk of the disease. This disease can be fatal if not treated, but many ferrets can go onto live for months to years with the disease if they are managed correctly.
Early diagnosis and treatment is very important, so visit your Vet regularly to keep your pet in optimum health