Ferrets and Insulinomas


David McCluggage, D.V.M., C.V.A.

Ferrets commonly develop low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) due to a tumor of the pancreas called an insulinoma. The low blood sugar levels can produce signs in ferrets that include:
    Muscle weakness
    Lethargy
    Rubbing or pawing at the face
    Loss of appetite (or increased appetite)
    Stumbling, drunk appearance
    Head thrown over shoulders or sideways
    Coma and death

Insulinomas are malignant cancers of the pancreas, specifically involving a cell type in the pancreas called Islet Cells (more specifically, the Beta Cells). They can be seen in ferrets of any adult age, but are most common in ferrets over 3 years of age.

The cause is unknown, but we believe poor diets have a major role in the development of these common cancers. Ferrets are pure carnivores and should be eating meat. Most ferret diets include large amounts of grain, which can not be healthy for the ferret.

We also believe that irresponsible inbreeding, so commonly practiced with ferrets, is another cause. Finally, ferrets are neutered at absurdly young ages, which must play an adverse role in a ferret's general health. It is simply not normal to have so little hormonal activity from such a young age.

Traditional Therapies

Diets

Routine diet recommendations for ferrets with insulinomas include the use of commercial diets with the addition of Ensure or other similar liquid diet when the ferret does not eat.

We believe that it is very helpful to feed your ferret small meals, several times a day.

We also recommend placing the ferret on a diet very high in meat. Cut up chicken wings, chicken legs, and chicken necks are excellent additions to the diet. Any meat the ferret will eat that does not come from a can is acceptable. The meat can be fed raw or cooked lightly.

If your ferret refuses to eat for any reason, try taking ground beef, cook well, add extra water and place in a food processor or blender until liquefied. This is a much better liquid diet than the above-mentioned Ensure.

We recommend Sport Geriatric Vitamin by Thorne as an excellent addition to their diet as well.

Feeding many small meals is essential as the disease progresses. Keep some form of a simple sugar source such as honey or Karo Syrup on hand if the ferret goes into a hypoglycemic shock or coma. Feed these simple sugars only when absolutely necessary.

Medical Therapy

Traditional Western medical care includes giving prednisone or prednisolone from the earliest signs of hypoglycemia. Prednisone is often given in extremely high doses.

We do not use Prednisone as early in the disease course as many veterinarians, believing that there are other therapies in the earlier stages of disease.

We usually use much lower doses of prednisone as well.

Another drug, Diazoxide (Proglycem), has anti-insulin effects and may also be helpful at times.

Surgery

Surgery is often not the answer.

Surgery cannot remove all the tumors in your ferret. It can help some severely hypoglycemic ferrets for a time.

Insulinomas are usually small tumors of the pancreas, with many present at the same time. Surgery rarely removes all the tumors, and thus you only buy a little time at best.

We think that medical care is far superior to surgery, when combined with appropriate supplements.

Before any surgery, an ultrasound should be performed. This might tell you how advanced the disease is and if there are other issues, such as adrenal tumors. If there are, and the adrenal gland tumor is only on one side, it can be surgically treated. The best treatment for adrenal gland tumors appears to be cryosurgery (freezing the adrenal gland).

Complementary Therapy

We often recommend a product that regulates insulin metabolism, called Diabenil (Thorne Research). It has been very helpful in many cases.

Treating to slow the development of the cancer is also very important.

For ferrets, we would recommend:

Power Mushrooms

Super EPA/DHA

Diabenil

Immugen

We strongly recommend against the use of Brewer's yeast, something that is commonly recommended in some other discussions on insulinomas of ferrets. Brewer's yeast has chromium, which might help slightly, but the amount of carbohydrates in the product makes its use contraindicated.

For further information, see our product information articles for Diabenil.