Malignant Tumor of the Lymphocytes (Lymphoma) in Ferrets

Jun 13, 2010
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Lymphosarcoma in Ferrets

A type of white blood cell, lymphocytes play an important and integral role in the body's defenses. When a cancer develops in the lympocyte cells of the immune system, it is referred to as lymphoma, or lymphosarcoma. This can eventually affect the blood, lymph and immune systems, as well as the gastrointestinal and respiratory systems.

Lymphoma is one of the most common diseases seen in pet ferrets. In fact, it is the third most common tumor affecting ferrets, often occurring between the ages of two and five. However, middle-aged ferrets may be asymptomatic (sometimes for years), or have nonspecific signs that wax and wane.

Symptoms and Types

Symptoms are variable depending upon the location and stage of tumor, but generally, they include loss of appetite (anorexia), weakness, lethargy, and weight loss. For example:

  • Multicentric—possibly no signs in early stages; generalized, painless enlarged lymphs most common; may note distended abdomen; anorexia, weight loss, and depression with progression of disease.
  • Gastrointestinal—anorexia, weight loss, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, tarry stools, urgent desire to defecate.
  • Mediastinal (mid-chest)—seen most often in younger ferrets—anorexia; weight loss; drooling; labored breathing; regurgitation; exercise intolerance; coughing; difficulty swallowing.
  • Cutaneous (skin)—solitary or multiple masses; lesions may be pustular with thickening and crusting or ulcerating.
  • Solitary form—depends on location; spleen: abdominal distention, discomfort; cancer in the area of the eyes: facial deformity, protrusion of the eyeball; spinal cord cancer: quickly progressing posterior partial paralysis may be seen; kidney: signs of kidney failure.


Although the cause is still unknown, some suspect viruses to be a factor. Exposure to other ferrets with the disease may be another risk factor.


You will need to give your veterinarian a thorough history of your ferret's health and onset of symptoms. The history and details you provide may give your veterinarian clues as to which organs are being primarily affected. Knowing the starting point can make diagnosis that much easier to pinpoint. Once the initial history has been taken, your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination on your ferret. Routine laboratory testing includes a complete blood count and urinalysis.

Diagnostic imaging, including X-rays and ultrasound, are often used to evaluate the size of regional lymph nodes. Your veterinarian may even recommend taking bone marrow samples, so that they can be sent to a veterinary pathologist for further evaluation and to determine the extent of disease.

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