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Lymphoma in Ferrets: Diagnosis & Treatment
By Kristen Onasch

Lymphoma is one of the top three medical problems that affects our ferrets, and it appears to be more prevalent now than it used to be. It is highly likely that you will encounter lymphoma among your ferret family at some point. Therefore it's important for you to know about the different forms of lymphoma, how to diagnosis it, and what treatments are available for your ferret.

What is Lymphoma?

Lymphomas are characterized by lymphocytes, or cancers of the white blood cells. White blood cells are found in the organs of the lymph system, but can also be found in the blood, skin and gastrointestinal tract. This means that if your ferret develops lymphoma, it can affect any of these things. The variety of organs it affects combined with how it can metastasize can make it difficult to properly diagnose and easily confused with other diseases.

Forms of Lymphoma

There are two basic forms of lymphoma that can occur - "classic" lymphoma and juvenile lymphoma. Juvenile lymphoma affects ferrets 2 years or younger. It is very aggressive and the prognosis is poor. The ferret's health declines rapidly as lymphocytes rapidly infiltrate the organs, causing organ failure. In these cases, usually the only thing you can do is make your ferret as comfortable as possible for the time that he has left.

Classic lymphoma generally affects older ferrets, and it moves more gradually than juvenile lymphoma. It is classified in four stages. They are as follows:

  • Stage I - Involvement of a single site or tumor
  • Stage II - Involvement of multiple sites on the same side of the diaphragm
  • Stage III - Involvement of spleen and lymph nodes on both sides of the diaphragm
  • Stage IV - Involvement of multiple sites on both sides of the diaphragm
The ferret does fairly well (with treatment) until the lymphocytes invade visceral organs (liver, kidneys, lungs & spleen). At that point organ failure and death occurs, and the ferret's time is limited. Some cases do go into remission with the proper treatment. However, the remission period can vary from several months with continuous treatment to only a few weeks.

The effectiveness of treatment depends both on the location of the lymphoma and what stage the disease has progressed to. Cutaneous lymphoma is one of the more uncommon forms of lymphoma, but is the slowest moving. Progression of the disease can take years, and it's uncommon for it to metastasize. The most common symptom of cutaneous lymphoma is redness and swelling of the feet.

Symptoms of Lymphoma

Symptoms of lymphoma include lethargy, weight loss and enlarged lymph nodes among other things. A grossly enlarged spleen can also be a sign of lymphoma, but splenomegaly is very common in ferrets, and it can mean a variety of things. Dr. Bruce Williams, a leading ferret pathologist, has estimated that only about 5% of enlarged spleens are due to cancer. Do not rely on symptoms to diagnose lymphoma.

Diagnosing Lymphoma

The only definitive way to diagnose lymphoma is with a needle aspirate (using a needle to aspirate cells from affected tissues or organs) or biopsy of an affected lymph node or organ. Blood work alone is not enough to definitively diagnose lymphoma! Treatment should never start until lymphoma has been confirmed by aspirate or surgical biopsy. Aspirating or doing a biopsy of the spleen is the most common way lymphoma is detected.

Treatment of Lymphoma

Lymphoma in ferrets is most commonly treated with prednisone, however, ferrets that have already been on prednisone for insulinoma, IBD or other diseases for long periods of time may not respond as well to it. They may have built up a resistance to the beneficial effects that steroids have on tumors. Prednisone (or whatever form you use - Prednisolone, PediaPred, etc) is not a cure. It is simply a treatment that will help to restore your ferret's quality of life for a period of time.

Other treatments include chemotherapy drugs administered intravenously, surgery, radiation, alternative medicines such as Timmy's Tonic, or a combination of a variety of treatments. Treatment with intravenous chemotherapy agents in addition to the prednisone will generally result in a longer remission period than just prednisone. No matter what treatment you choose, aggressive treatment started as soon as the diagnosis has been made will give your ferret the best chance for surviving as long as possible.

There is a relatively new treatment known as the Tufts Protocol that is working for some ferrets. The Tufts Protocol uses a variety of drugs administered orally and subcutaneously rather than intravenously. You can find information about the Tufts Protocol at at the bottom of the page.

If you are not already supplementing your ferret's diet with Duck Soup or baby food, you will want to start. A high protein, easy to digest diet supplement like Duck Soup or baby food will help to keep your ferret's weight up as the disease progresses. It may also help to switch your ferrets over to a diet that is very low in carbs (if you haven't already). Lymphoma uses simple sugars (carbs) to grow, so a diet that is low in carbs may help to effectively starve the cancer. This is not a cure, but it may give your ferret a little more time.

Survival Rate of Ferrets with Lymphoma

Even with aggressive treatment with chemotherapy, the prognosis is generally poor. How long the ferret lives after diagnosis depends on a variety of factors:

  • The age of the ferret
  • What organs are involved
  • What treatment you choose and how well the ferret responds
  • Overall health of the ferret before diagnosis
Some ferrets do very well on prednisone for a long period of time. My first ferret Rascal was diagnosed with lymphoma, and he lived just over a year after that point. Another of my ferrets succumbed to his lymphoma within a month. The most important thing to do is start treatment immediately.


Lymphoma is one of the three most common illnesses that ferrets develop. There are two types - juvenile lymphoma and classic lymphoma. Juvenile lymphoma affects ferrets under 2 years of age and has a very poor diagnosis. The progression of classic lymphoma depends on a variety of factors, and your ferret can last anywhere from a few weeks to over a year after the diagnosis is made. Diagnosis is only definitive when done with an aspirate or surgical biopsy of affected tissues or organs. Treatment is usually prednisone, but can include other treatments such as chemotherapy as well.

If your ferret is diagnosed with lymphoma, do not give up hope! It is true that no treatment has yet been shown to completely cure your ferret, but you can make your ferret as comfortable as possible for the time that he or she has left. As mentioned above, some ferrets can last up to a year after diagnosis, so cherish the time you have with your ferret!
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