What is Insulinoma?

Most ferrets reported to have developed an insulinoma are about five years of age, but this disease can affect a pet as young as two years old. Some ferrets show obvious signs of disease, whereas others won’t show any clinical signs of illness at all-- or the symptoms may be intermittent. A ferret may become weak, stagger, and suddenly collapse when affected by the pancreatic tumor. These symptoms can worsen depending on how low the blood glucose levels have dropped. Ferrets often show a small period of improvement shortly after eating, due to the ready supply of glucose within food, but soon return to an ill state. 

Insulinoma in ferrets is a type of tumor that arise from the beta cells of the pancreas. The beta cells are specialized cells inside the pancreatic organ responsible for producing the insulin hormone. Insulin is a chemical that regulates a ferret’s blood sugars by decreasing the level of glucose circulating the blood. Since insulinomas produce insulin, the excessive amount of this special chemical decreases the body’s energy source, glucose, to dangerously low levels. An insulinoma can be either an insulin producing adenocarcinoma or an insulin producing adenoma. An adenocarcinoma is malignant, whereas an adenoma tumor is benign. Both cause ferrets to display similar symptoms, so a proper diagnosis is key. 

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Symptoms of Insulinoma in Ferrets

The severity of clinical signs associated with insulinoma depends on how the insulin-producing tumor has affected the ferret’s blood glucose. If the tumor has made the glucose drop extremely low, the symptoms will be severe, but if the glucose has not been affected greatly a ferret could display very minimal signs of disease. If a ferret is suffering from an insulinoma, pet owners should watch for clinical signs including: 

  • Intermittent episodes of hypoglycemia 
  • Irritability 
  • Tremors 
  • Rapid heart rate 
  • Hypoglycemic coma (low blood sugar) 
  • Seizures 
  • Confusion 
  • Lethargy 
  • Depression 
  • Abnormal behavior 
  • Collapse 
  • Weight loss 
  • Weakness 
  • Pawing at the mouth 

Causes of Insulinoma in Ferrets

Insulinoma, like all forms of abnormal cellular growth, occurs for unknown reasons. Experts are still researching the cause of tumor development and many theories have been made in regards to insulinoma in ferrets. The food, medications, and lifestyle your ferret is exposed to are believed to be the main factor in abnormal cellular growth. Providing a healthy lifestyle for your ferret, engaging in physical activity at least 30 minutes a day, and feeding a balanced diet is best for preventing insulinoma in ferrets. 

Diagnosis of Insulinoma in Ferrets

In order for ferret insulinoma to be diagnosed correctly, pet owners must consult an experienced, licensed veterinarian. During the appointment, the veterinarian will ask the pet owner what type of symptoms the ferret has been displaying at home. Reporting any unusual behavior will be helpful for the veterinarian to determine what path of diagnostic examinations he/she should take. A blood count and chemistry profile will be required to conduct the blood analysis. The veterinarian can measure the ferret’s blood insulin levels to determine whether or not the levels are higher than usual. Blood glucose can also be analyzed via a simple blood sample, which can clue the veterinarian in to what is happening inside the ferret’s body. To back up the veterinarian’s hypothesis, a radiograph of the ferret’s abdomen may be done, but pancreatic tumors are usually too small to be seen via x-ray. The spleen, however, is often enlarged due to the effects of the tumor. 

Treatment of Insulinoma in Ferrets

Insulinoma in ferrets can be treated medically or surgically, but surgical treatment remains the top choice of most veterinarians. Drugs like diazoxide to increase blood glucose levels, prednisone or other corticosteroids are used to minimize the clinical signs of insulinoma, but will not stop the growth of the tumor from progressing. If the ferret is young and the disease has not progressed to other areas of the body, your veterinarian will likely recommend surgical removal. Any visible pancreatic tumor nodules will be dissected from the pancreas, paying close attention to the pancreatic organ itself. Damage to the pancreas during surgery could complicate the ferret’s recovery time.  

Recovery of Insulinoma in Ferrets

Insulinoma in ferrets requires a great deal of dietary management following surgery. Your veterinarian will likely recommend four to six small meals a day to prevent stressing the pancreas. Follow-up exams will be required to evaluate the ferret’s blood glucose levels and ensure the insulin is not increasing in the blood. Most ferrets have a positive prognosis following surgical removal of the nodules on the pancreatic organ. As with all forms of tumors, the prognosis varies from patient to patient, so a proper veterinary consultation is essential.