Unfortunately, ferrets are very prone to a variety of cancers. In fact, the majority of pet ferrets will have some sort of tumor or cancer during their lifetime.
Mast Cell Tumor
Cutaneous mast cell tumors are probably the most common skin tumors in ferrets, often seen in animals over 3 years of age. These tumors can appear anywhere on the body, but typically affect the trunk and neck. The tumor appears as a raised, irregular, and often scabbed mass. Other signs are rare, but the tumors may bleed when scratched. Tumors are diagnosed by biopsy, and they should be surgically removed.
Lymphoma is common in ferrets and can affect many organ systems, including the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, heart, thymus, and kidneys. Less commonly, lymphoma may affect the spine and central nervous system. Lymphoma can progress rapidly in young ferrets. In adults it is often a chronic disease. Clusters of lymphoma have been seen in ferrets that are related to one another and in ferrets that live together.
To diagnose lymphoma, a veterinarian will use a complete blood count, chemistry panel, x-rays, ultrasonography, and samples of any suspected tissues. Treatment for ferrets has not been standardized but may include removal of the abnormal tissue, chemotherapy, or radiation. Because chemotherapy suppresses the animal's normal immune response, careful monitoring by an experienced veterinarian is necessary.
Chordomas and Chondrosarcomas
Chordomas and chondrosarcomas have been reported in ferrets. Chordomas are tumors that typically appear as firm masses on the tail. They may form an ulcer from dragging on the ground, but otherwise they cause few problems. These tumors may also occur on the neck. Surgical removal is suggested when possible. Chondrosarcomas are tumors that can occur anywhere along the spine, ribs, or breast bone and tend to cause spinal cord compression and associated problems. They should be removed surgically, if possible.
An enlarged spleen is common in adult ferrets and is usually caused by an increased production of developing red blood cells. In most ferrets this is a benign condition. However, lymphoma and hemangiosarcoma, which are highly invasive, rapidly growing types of cancer, can occur in the spleen. Ultrasonography and needle aspiration of the spleen can be used to determine the cause of an enlarged spleen.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by James K. Morrisey, DVM, DABVP (Avian)