Lymphoma in Ferrets

Lymphoma is a cancer of a kind of white blood cell known as a lymphocyte.  Since white blood cells are part of the immune system, they circulate in the blood to every part of the body and are in particularly high concentrations in the bone marrow and lymph nodes.  Due to the widespread occurence of lymphocytes, lymphoma can occur in every organ of the body.  Frustratingly, lymphoma is one of the more common causes of illness in ferrets.  It is also a very tricky disease to diagnose as it can mimic so many other diseases depending on where in the body it manifests.  Anytime a ferret is ill, a veterinarian has to keep lymphoma in mind, even when it is apparently a straightforward sign of some other disease.

Lymphoma diagnosis depends on blood tests and biopsies of your ferret.  Bone marrow sometimes needs to be evaluated too in order to assess if the lymphoma has spread.

If lymphoma is confirmed, some very important points need to be considered and decisions made.  Lymphoma is one of the most easily and successfully treated cancers in animals, and many patients with lymphoma outlive animals with other noncancerous diseases such as heart problems, liver disease, and so on. In other words, lymphoma is serious but far from hopeless, and the majority of ferrets with lymphoma improve significantly or completely, for months and sometimes 1 - 2 years (or more) if they are treated with anticancer medications given at home, in the hospital, or both.  It is important to recognize that while lymphoma is treatable, it is a malignant cancer and usually is not curable.

Once lymphoma has been diagnosed, it needs to be treated if it is possible for you emotionally, financially, and logistically. Without treatment, pets with lymphoma have progression of their original symptoms, and ultimately the disease begins to interfere with vital functions such as food intake and comfortable breathing. With few exceptions, most animals with lymphoma whose owners decline all treatment live days to weeks after the diagnosis has been made. In such cases, the most important factor to monitor is the beginning of suffering, and your veterinarian can help you know beforehand what some signs or symptoms of deterioration could be.

Lymphoma treatment uses a combination of chemotherapy and other drugs.  The course of treatment lasts about 3 months and provides an excellent chance of remission and improving the ferret's quality of life.  If chemotherapy is not right for your ferret there are other medications that can help improve your pet's quality of life.  If your ferret is suspected of having lymphoma, please feel free to schedule a consultation with us so we can determine what is the best option for your ferret.

Things to Think About

  • Do you want to pursue confirmatory testing to be as certain as possible if your ferret has lymphoma or not?
  • Realize that chemotherapy is different in humans versus pets and that dogs and cats rarely have any of the severe side effects that humans do.
  • Once lymphoma is confirmed, a decision on treatment is needed. Should you try it to see if it works or opt for no treatment at all? If you are going ahead with treatment, will it be complete, including chemotherapy, in order to try for the greatest chance of beating the cancer back? Or will it be minimal, in order to provide some short-term benefit? For many patients, a "try-and-see" approach is acceptable.
  • If relapse occurs and the lymphoma comes out of remission, how long do you wish to continue with treatment?

These questions are essential, and you should not hesitate to discuss them with your doctor, both initially and throughout the period of treatment if you choose to pursue one. There is simply no single right answer to any of these questions, and what is right for one family and one patient will not be right for others.

Do not give up because of one bad day, but rather, be aware of overall trends. Have there been several bad days lately? Does this one bad day make you realize that your pet has not been himself/herself for quite some time? If so, then there is reason to question whether to continue, but if it is a single "off" day, things may be totally different a short while later.

Decide in advance what standards would influence you to euthanize your pet. Stand by these standards, and try not to make emotional or fear-driven decisions in "the heat of the moment." Deciding these standards in advance can help enormously if a situation arises that requires you to make tough decisions.