What is Lymphoma?

Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cells, associated with the immune process and formed in lymphatic tissues throughout the body. Lymphoma is a form of cancer of the lymphocytes that involves the lymph nodes and other lymphatic tissues of the body. The lymphatic system is a complex system found throughout the body, therefore, lymphoma can affect a ferret in any organ or area of the body. The symptoms of this disease depend on the area occupied by the tumor and are related to a weakened immune system.

Lymphoma in ferrets is characterized by a solid mass of the lymphoid system. As lymph nodes are found throughout the body, a ferret can develop one of these masses near the kidneys, heart, nervous system, skin, eyes, gastrointestinal tract, bone marrow, respiratory system, spleen, liver, or on the brain. A ferret may develop a noticeable mass under the skin or show no clinical signs of a tumor growth at all. A ferret could have lymphoma for years without any symptoms and develop clinical signs of tiredness, weight loss and change in appetite. Lymphoma is the most common tumor seen in ferrets, affecting ferrets of all ages and gender. 

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Symptoms of Lymphoma in Ferrets

Lymphoma in Ferrets causes symptoms associated with the organ affected by the abnormal tumor growth. Below is an outline of symptoms a ferret may develop based on the organ affected by the tumor growth: 

Cutaneous 

  • Skin masses
  • Alopecia 
  • Hemorrhage
  • Pruritus 

Spinal Cord

  • Paralysis 
  • Rear limb weakness 

Periorbital

  • Facial deformity 
  • Protrusion of the eye

Kidney 

  • Kidney failure 
  • Vomiting 
  • Anorexia 
  • Polydipsia 
  • Polyuria 
  • Lethargy 
  • Large kidneys 

Alimentary 

  • Anorexia 
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy 
  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Black, tarry stools 
  • Melena 
  • Thickness of the intestines 
  • Abdominal mass

Mediastinal 

  • Open-mouthed breathing 
  • Coughing 
  • Anorexia 
  • Weight loss 

Other forms 

  • Fever 
  • Cachexia 
  • Extreme weight loss 
  • Depression 
  • Dehydration 

Causes of Lymphoma in Ferrets

Lymphoma in ferrets has no known cause. Veterinarians do suspect that this disease is related to a viral disease such as Helicobacter infection of the stomach. 

Diagnosis of Lymphoma in Ferrets

The diagnosis of lymphoma will begin with a physical examination of the affected ferret and a review of the pet’s medical history. The veterinarian may ask pet owners questions about current medications, diet and a time frame of the presenting symptoms. Be prepared to answer the following questions upon arrival:

  • Why did you bring your ferret in to see the veterinarian? What is your main concern? 
  • What symptoms has your ferret been displaying?
  • How long have the symptoms been going on? 

The veterinarian may then request specialized screening imaging such as an ultrasound or radiograph to confirm the presence of a tumor. However, lymphoma tumors are not always easily seen on an x-ray, therefore, advanced imaging techniques such as an MRI or CT are better diagnostic tools. Further testing may include a blood chemistry profile and cytology (examination of the cancerous nature of a tumor). 

The following routine diagnostic tests will likely follow the physical exam: 

  • CBC (complete blood cell count)
  • Biochemistry blood profile 
  • Urinalysis 
  • Chest ultrasound 
  • Radiograph 
  • CT scan 
  • Fine needle aspiration
  • Biopsy 
  • Fecal analysis 
  • Blood analysis 

Treatment of Lymphoma in Ferrets

Lymphoma in ferrets is usually treatable and some pets can be treated as an outpatient. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are highly effective forms of treatment for lymphoma in ferrets, but cases of intestinal lymphoma that has obstructed the intestinal tract may require surgical correction. Chemotherapy is commonly used in combination or as a sequential protocol, given intravenously. The ferret’s therapy plan may also include medications given orally, such as prednisone, to decrease clinical signs and improve the ferret’s state. Radiation therapy is given over a course of days or weeks at a time, depending on the veterinarian’s treatment plans. 

Recovery of Lymphoma in Ferrets

Although lymphoma in ferrets is treatable, it is not always curable. Ferret owners should expect follow-up appointments every four to six months after the treatment period has ended and continuous re-examinations for the remaining year. Many ferrets have dietary changes to aid in the recovery process, as a well-balanced diet can help a ferret gain the weight he or she lost during treatments. Your vet may prescribe compliments and antioxidants to be taken daily with each meal. Antioxidants have proven to be helpful in reducing the chances of reoccurrence and many vets advise taking these after treatments of cancer. Lymphoma in ferrets has a high recurrence rate and ferret owners should be aware of this possibility.