Tumors of the Digestive System in Ferrets

By PetMD Editorial on Jun. 13, 2010

Neoplastic Tumors in the Digestive System

Neoplasia is the medical term for the development of a neoplasm, an abnormal cluster of cell growth that is more commonly known as a tumor. Ferrets may be more susceptible to some types of tumors at certain ages and are most likely to develop such tumors between ages four and seven. However, because the number of reports of digestive system neoplasia in ferrets is so low, information about the condition is limited.


Symptoms and Types

There are two common types of tumor growth in the digestive system. The first is insulinoma, a condition in which tumors develop from pancreatic islet cells. Islet cells are a type of cell in the pancreas, an organ that secretes various enzymes and hormones into the body. The second is lymphoma, a condition in which neoplasms originate in the lymphocytes which are a type of white blood cell. Other tumor types that have been reported include tumors in the esophagus, intestines, salivary glands, and stomach. These other forms of digestive system tumors are less common than cases of insulinoma and lymphoma.

Symptoms of digestive system neoplasia vary depending on the location, size, and number of tumors present. Symptoms of gastrointestinal tumors (in the stomach or intestines) include sluggishness, weakness, partial paralysis, or difficulty moving the hind limbs, loss of appetite (anorexia), vomiting, weight loss and diarrhea. A gastric mass may also be evident due to a distended abdomen (when the belly feels full and tight). Pancreatic tumors may be asymptomatic, meaning that no symptoms are evident. In other cases, symptoms such as weakness, anorexia, vomiting, weight loss, and abdominal distension may be evident.


The causes and risk factors that lead to the development of tumors in the digestive are largely unknown. It is believed that an infection with the bacteria Helicobacter mustalae may predispose ferrets to develop gastric adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that originates in the glandular tissues, or in this case, tissues lining the stomach.


One definitive way of diagnosing digestive system neoplasia in ferrets is via a histopathologic examination, which is the examination and analysis of bodily tissues with a microscope. There are other means of diagnosis, however. One of these is an exploratory laparotomy, a surgical procedure in which an incision is made into the abdominal wall in order to gain access to the abdominal cavity. With this procedure, a biopsy sample of tissue cells can be obtained for analysis and in some cases tumors may even be removed. Key areas to evaluate during an exploratory laparotomy are the pancreas, the lymph nodes in the abdomen, and the adrenals which are certain endocrine glands located by the kidneys. Additional diagnostic procedures may include urine analysis and X-rays to identify abnormal masses in the body.


The treatment of choice for digestive system tumors in ferrets is surgical resection, in which all or part of the tumor(s) is removed. If full removal of the tumor is impossible, the condition may not be cured. Neoplasia may also be impossible to cure via surgery if the cancer has spread, or metastasized. Chemotherapy may be another option; however, there is little information about this treatment method for ferrets.

Living and Management

Follow-up care and prognosis depend upon the diagnosis and the treatment performed. The ferret should be monitored for symptoms, and veterinary checkups will most likely be required to assess the success of treatment and progress of tumor growth. Those ferrets with benign tumors (meaning they are non-cancerous) that are fully removed have the best odds of recovery and survival.


There is no known method of preventing tumor development in the digestive system due to the fact that there are no known causes or risk factors for this form of neoplasia in ferrets.

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