Destiny, one of my ferrets, was diagnosed with insulinoma 2 weeks ago. She’s not my first ferret to have insulinoma and I’m sure she won’t be the last, unfortunately it’s a very common disorder in ferrets.
What is Insulinoma?
Insulinoma is a cancer that develops in the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. The tumor causes these cells to release excessive amounts of insulin which then cause low blood sugar. It can occur in other mammals including humans and dogs, but is much more common in ferrets with an estimate of about 25% of ferrets developing it. Older ferrets are more likely to develop it, but it has been found in younger ferrets.
Symptoms of Insulinoma
Some of the common symptoms are:
- weight loss
- rear leg weakness
- excessive salivation
This symptoms may come on gradually or sudden. Destiny showed signs of weight loss, lethargy and rear leg weakness that appeared gradually. I’ve had other ferrets where it appeared suddenly as a seizure.
Diagnosis of Insulinoma
Blood work is usually done to diagnosis insulinoma, in particular blood glucose(BG). Normal BG in ferrets is between 80 and 120 mg/dL. Insulinoma is usually diagnosed when the BG is below 60 mg/dL and other disorders that could cause low BG are ruled out.
Treatment of Insulinoma
Sadly, insulinoma isn’t curable but it can be managed in ferrets through surgery, medicine or a combination.
- Surgery can be done to remove the tumor nodule or part of the pancreas if there are multiple tumors. Doing surgery can provide a medication-free period and is said to provide the longest survival time.
- Medications used to manage insulinoma includes prednisolone and diazoxide. Prednisolone raises the BG and is usually the first medication used. The dose is adjusted when needed in order to keep the BG level up. Diazoxide reduces the amount of insulin excreted by the cells and is usually added when the pred doesn’t continue to have the needed effects.
- As carnivores, it’s important to feed a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. It’s even more important to feed this diet to a ferret with insulinoma. Sugary treats should be replaced with meat-based treats and a high protein low carb kibble should be fed ( a good comparison chart like the MD Ferret Paws Food & Treat Chart can help you find a food to feed your ferret).
Emergency Treatment of Insulinoma
Even with treatment, there may be times that your ferret’s BG drops very low and they go into hypoglycemic shock.
- being unresponsive
A veterinarian can give IV dextrose to bring the BG back up, but if a vet isn’t available you need to be prepared at home. Keep Karo Syrup on hand. Don’t force Karo syrup down your ferret’s throat, but apply it to your ferret’s gums where it will be absorbed (I recommend applying it with a Q-tip rather than your fingers. I have had a ferret clench down and bite through my thumb while having a seizure. It took a few minutes before she opened her mouth so I could get my thumb out. The first rule of any emergency is keep yourself safe.).
Once your ferret is coherent, give them a high protein meal to help get that BG up. Chicken baby food or Duck Soup
are good to offer as they are easy for the ferret to eat.
You can check a ferret’s BG using a glucometer which can help you monitor their BG level during the hypoglycemic episode. To learn how to check your ferret’s BG, visit here
Let your vet know about these episodes of hypoglycemia because an adjustment might need to be made to your ferret’s medicine.
Prevention of Insulinoma
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent insulinoma as it’s cause isn’t known. Some feel it may be inherited and the reason it’s so common in ferrets in the US is because of the small gene pool. Others feel it is due to diet especially the kibble diets that make up the diets of most ferrets in the US. The best you can do is keep your ferret on a good quality high protein diet and be aware of the symptoms of insulinoma so your ferret can start treatment as early as possible.
Destiny is doing okay. I separated her from the rest of her ferret busyness so I could get her started on her pred and make sure she was eating. She is getting back to normal. Her hind end weakness is gone and she is gaining her weight back. As we get into the routine of treatment she’ll be able to go back with her ferret buddies.
Looking for more information on insulinoma in ferrets?
These are some good sources-
Ferret Insulinoma FAQs
Miami Ferret- Ferret Health Care