What is Ferret Insulinoma?
Insulinoma is the most common of several fatal illnesses which can afflict the Domestic Ferret. It is a disease in which malignant changes in the islets of Langerhans (insulin-producing mechanisms in the pancreas) cause the pancreas to produce too much insulin, thus reducing blood glucose to potentially lethal levels. Low blood glucose levels can cause the brain to swell, which in turn can cause seizures and brain damage. Death can and does occur if the brain swelling is not reduced.
The onset of this disease usually occurs after the age of three years. It is rare but possible for it to occur at a younger age. Symptoms include hind-end weakness, drooling, lethargy, staring, swaying, glazed eyes, loss of appetite, retching while clawing at the mouth, collapse, seizure and screaming. Some of these signs can occur due to other diseases or issues, such as post-operative pain, cardiomyopathy, heat stress, arthritis, lymphoma, ulcers, and a stressful situation, such as moving or losing a member of the ferret’s human or ferret family.
This means that the symptoms can be easily missed, especially if your ferret has only one of these signs. It is vital that you consult a ferret-knowledgeable veterinarian if you notice any of these signs. Only by performing a blood glucose test can insulinoma be ruled in or out.
Early detection of insulinoma is critical. While this disease is considered a form of cancer and is both terminal and incurable, if the ferret is diagnosed early, in many cases the disease can be managed for several years with diet, medication, surgery, or a combination of two or more of these methods. In this scenario, the quality of life for both animal and human is generally good.
Living with Insulinoma
Insulinemic ferrets need to eat very regularly in order to maintain passable blood glucose levels. This usually means that they need duck soup at least twice daily. It is vital that good food be available to an insulinomic ferret at all times. This means a high quality, high protein diet, along with high quality, high protein snacks (e.g. duck soup) as needed.
Sugary items, including popular malt-based supplements, should not be given except in emergencies. It is currently thought that sugar can exacerbate insulinoma and shorten life expectancy. Even if your ferret is on medication or has undergone surgery to remove nodules on the pancreas, it is very important to feed very regularly in order to maintain both the blood glucose and the disease at a manageable level for as long as possible.
Avoidance and management of seizures are crucial. The brain is damaged every time a seizure occurs, and the ferret’s health can be compromised as a result. Knowing your ferret intimately and monitoring your animal closely is the best way to help prevent seizures, along with adequate diet and regular feeding.
Even under the best of circumstances, and with the best of care, ferrets with full-blown insulinoma are going to have seizures at some point. While it is best to enlist the help of a qualified veterinarian when your ferret has a seizure, it is often the case that emergencies like this occur at odd hours, or when your vet is busy with another emergency. In any event, unless you live within five minutes of your animal hospital, you will need to take the initial steps to bring your ferret out of her seizure and stabilize her.
Anyone or more of these signs in a ferret should be treated as a seizure unless otherwise explicable by proximate cause: generalized stiffness in the face and/or body, uncontrollable retching or vomiting, tremors, hyper-extended spine, clenched teeth and screaming. The ferret is generally unresponsive and unable to lick or swallow. If your ferret has a seizure, you will need to rub a drop of dextrose solution, Karo syrup or honey on her gums.
Note: Do not, under any circumstances, force feed an animal who is currently in a seizure! She cannot swallow, and she can choke to death or die of aspiration pneumonia.
Monitor the ferret for signs of improvement or worsening of the symptoms. It can take anywhere from seconds to hours to bring a ferret out of an insulinoma seizure, and you need to be careful not to overdo the syrup. If there is no improvement within about a minute, another drop can be rubbed on the gums. Keep monitoring, and rub another drop on about every five minutes, as needed, until the ferret improves. You should then be prepared to feed a serving of liquidy duck soup immediately when the seizure diminishes. This step is important, as the sugar is an emergency fix only, and will not stabilize the ferret over the long term.
If you cannot bring your ferret out of her seizure within about 15 minutes, or if you feel that the situation is out of control, you should get her to a vet right away. In any event, your vet should be notified of the seizure once the ferret is more stable, just in case he wants you to bring your animal in for a visit.
Seizures are hard on the body, so your ferret will be low for a while afterward. It may take a day or two for her to return to normal, although some recover much faster. In any case, you must monitor your friend even more closely for several days to make sure she is stable.
Every symptom of insulinoma is actually a component of a seizure, so when you see the onset of a sign, you should offer duck soup right away, and be prepared to rub syrup on the gums if necessary. If you catch it early enough, you will save your ferret’s life, and you may avoid a trip to the doctor!
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