What are Cutaneous Mast Cell Tumors?

Cutaneous mast cell tumors are the second most common growths to affect ferrets. This type of tumor differs from other types of growths because a mast cell tumor contains the chemical known as histamine. Part of the immune system, histamine causes a reaction as if to an allergen, leading to itching and redness of the skin. The ferrets reacts to this histamine by scratching at the tumor, causing the area to crust, open, and ooze. Cutaneous mast cell tumors are usually benign in nature and do not pose a great health risk to ferrets, unless the area is manipulated. Secondary skin infections and discomfort are common reasons ferret owners seek treatment. 

If your ferret that has an irregularly shaped lump or bump on the skin, or a strange skin sore that takes several month to heal, it could be a clinical sign of a cutaneous mast cell tumor. The term, “cutaneous” is the medical word veterinarians use when referring to the skin. The skin is the body’s largest organ, therefore, a tumor can emerge from just about anywhere on the ferret’s body. The tail, eyelids and toes are common places a cutaneous mast cell tumor can emerge, but most pet owners have reported seeing these abnormally growths on the thicker body regions. A cutaneous mast cell tumor first appears as a small, button-shaped tumor that is flat and tan in color. 

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Symptoms of Cutaneous Mast Cell Tumors in Ferrets

The initial symptoms your ferret may display are the beginning stages of a cutaneous mast cell tumor; a small, button-shaped tumor that is flat and tan in color. These growths can be found anywhere on a ferret’s body, but the tail, eyelids and toes are commonly affected. Due to the histamine present in cutaneous mast cell tumors, the localized area may become reddened and crust over as the ferret scratches the area. 

The symptoms related to a cutaneous mast cell tumor in ferrets can include: 

  • Decreased grooming 
  • Pain 
  • Swelling 
  • Licking 
  • Localized bleeding 
  • Localized discharge 
  • Delayed healing time 
  • Skin discoloration 
  • Located alopecia 

Causes of Cutaneous Mast Cell Tumors in Ferrets

The exact reason a ferret may develop a cutaneous mast cell tumor is not fully understood, but is often a result of culminate circumstances that affect one individual greater than another. Tumors are an overproduction of cells, an abnormality of the body’s response to cell production. The common link veterinarians find between skin tumors and this cell growth abnormality, is an overexposure to sunlight. Sunlight exposes ferrets to UVA and UVB radiation, resulting in cellular damage if high levels of exposure is present. This non-lethal mutation of the cells is unrepairable, as the DNA nucleic acid genome has been altered and the cells in that located area can no longer function properly. Experts believe that when the cells then rapidly replenish themselves, cutaneous mast cell tumor. 

Diagnosis of Cutaneous Mast Cell Tumors in Ferrets

Cutaneous mast cell tumors are often found during a routine check-up at the veterinary clinic, as lumps and bumps are often felt on the skin during a physical examination. The clinical appearance of the tumor often clues the veterinarian that the lump is likely a tumor and will require a biopsy. A small sample of skin cells are often taken from the affected tissue to perform the biopsy, which will pinpoint the cancerous nature of said mass. Once the cutaneous mast cell tumor has been identified, the veterinarian will likely conduct a health screening to assess the ferret’s ability to handle treatment. Health screening exams usually include a urinalysis, blood work, and x-rays to determine if cancer has spread to other areas in the body.

Treatment of Cutaneous Mast Cell Tumors in Ferrets

The treatment of choice for the majority of ferrets with a cutaneous mast cell tumor is surgical removal. Surgery is often completed early in a ferret’s treatment plan to prevent the tumor from maturing or spreading to other areas of the body. Your veterinarian may choose to postpone surgical removal of the affected area if the tumor is in a difficult location, or is rather large. Following surgery, or if surgical removal is not possible, the veterinarian may choose a course of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. 

Recovery of Cutaneous Mast Cell Tumors in Ferrets

The prognosis of a cutaneous mast cell tumor following therapy is excellent for most ferrets. The biological behavior of the tumor and location of the growth often compromises the treatment option for some ferrets, resulting in a less optimistic outcome. In this case, supportive care can be given to the ferret to provide comfort and stability for the duration of the pet’s short-term prognosis. The key to a positive prognosis of a cutaneous mast cell tumor in ferrets is early detection and prompt treatment.