What is Lymphosarcoma?

The classic form of Lymphosarcoma is a chronic disease that usually affects ferret between the ages of five to seven years old. This form of tumor growth often affects the peripheral nodes, affecting a ferret over a course of years and shows very few clinical signs of disease. Over a course of time, the nodal architecture if affected infiltrating vital organs including the spleen, lungs, kidneys and liver. Once the disease has spread to one or more of these organs, it usually results in organ failure and death. 

The juvenile form of lymphosarcoma, also commonly referred to as lymphoblastic, affects young ferrets between one to two years of age. In this form of disease, large immature lymphocytes rapidly infiltrate the viscera including the liver, spleen, thymus and other organs. Juvenile lymphosarcoma spreads quickly, usually diagnosed with pneumonia or cardiomyopathy. 

Lymphosarcoma is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in ferrets. This form of cancer affects the ferret’s lymphatic system in both old and young ferrets. Lymphosarcoma is often confused with lymphoma, as both forms of tumor development target the immune system. However, unlike lymphoma that targets the lymph nodes, lymphosarcoma is a diffuse malignant tumor that affects the lymphoid tissues. There are basically two forms this disease can take; the “classic” form of lymphosarcoma and juvenile lymphosarcoma. 

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Symptoms of Lymphosarcoma in Ferrets

Lymphosarcoma can cause a ferret to become suddenly lethargic and fail to be as active as he or she normally would. The pet may experience recurrent respiratory infection, display signs of anorexia and lose a noticeable amount of weight. If the lymphosarcoma is affecting the spleen, often times the tumor or enlarged organ can be felt on the outside of the ferret’s body. The symptoms a ferret displays depend on the age of the ferret and lymphosarcoma type. In general, lymphosarcoma can cause the following clinical symptoms: 

  • Irregular stools
  • Enlarged spleen
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Chronic diarrhea 
  • Poor appetite 
  • Muscle wasting 
  • Lethargy 
  • High limb weakness 
  • Mass or lumps under the skin
  • Collapse 
  • Pyrexia 
  • Sternal lymph node enlargement 
  • Dyspnea 
  • Tachypnea 
  • Exercise intolerance 
  • Localized lymphadenopathy 
  • Persistent leukocytosis 
  • Mediastinal lymph node enlargement 

Causes of Lymphosarcoma in Ferrets

Lymphosarcoma is the most common hematopoietic neoplasm known to ferrets, but despite the high report rate, very little is actually known about the disease itself. Cases of lymphosarcoma in ferrets has elevated over the past few years, which leads practitioners to believe the disease could be linked to viral disease. Viral causes of lymphosarcoma in ferrets have not been proven as of yet. Tumors forms due to a rapid replacement of cells, but the underlying cause that has triggered the cells to replenish rapidly is unknown. A ferret’s lifestyle can put the pet at risk, such as improper diet and exercise, but even the healthiest of ferrets acquire this life-threatening disease.  

Diagnosis of Lymphosarcoma in Ferrets

Lymphosarcoma in ferrets, in many cases, is not a simple diagnosis for veterinarians to make. Taking a CBC, or complete blood cell count, will reveal lymphocytosis, which can be interpreted as an elevated count of lymphocytes. Similar changes in a differential diagnosis can affect ferrets; chronic infections, especially gastric Helicobacter mustelae infection, also raise the lymphocytes in a ferret’s blood. To definitively diagnose a ferret with lymphosarcoma, the veterinarian will be required to perform a surgical or aspirate biopsy of the affected area before any treatment can be started. 

  • Splenic aspirate 
  • Mass biopsy 
  • Bone marrow aspirate 
  • Thoracic fluid aspirate 
  • Fluid cytology 
  • Lymph node removal 
  • CBC (complete blood cell count) 

Treatment of Lymphosarcoma in Ferrets

A veterinarian oncologist can treat ferret lymphosarcoma based on his or her personal preference and expertise, as there is more than one protocol for treating lymphosarcoma. The most popular protocol used to treat lymphosarcoma in ferrets is an aggressive combination of intravenously administered chemotherapeutic agents delivered over a 14-week period. Common chemotherapy drugs used to treat ferret lymphosarcoma include doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, asparaginase, and vincristine administered via an IV, paired with daily prednisone given orally. Patients usually begin to show improvement with four to six weeks with prednisone therapy, but disseminated disease requires further treatment. 

Recovery of Lymphosarcoma in Ferrets

Lymphosarcoma has a less favorable prognosis for younger ferrets, as the form of lymph tissue targeting cancer is more aggressive in juveniles than in mature ferrets. Young ferrets often present signs of respiratory disease or heart failure due to rapid thymic mass growth. If this is the case, the recovery process will be much longer than the average case and the prognosis may be grim due to the strain on vital organs. Ferrets diagnosed with lymphosarcoma are given a poor prognosis even before treatment is attempted, due to the aggressive nature of this life-threatening disease.