By Karen Rosenthal, DVM, MS
How much shorter is the life span of a gerbil with a scent-gland tumor that is benign? My gerbil is 2 years old and has had this tumor three months. I am told surgery is very successful, but I want to know how much shorter his life span will be without it. Do you think it’s worth the surgery (expensive) on a gerbil that’s a little more than 2 years old? We love him to death. Should we send him over the Rainbow Bridge?
What you are asking is sometimes called “crystal ball medicine.” If I had a crystal ball and could tell the future, I would easily be able to answer your question about gerbils and tumors.
Benign tumors are defined by their behavior. The cells in a benign tumor stay in the tumor and, even though the tumor may grow, it does not invade distant sites as a metastatic tumor would.
But benign tumors cause problems for our pets in ways other than spreading to lymph nodes or other organs. If a benign tumor becomes large enough, it can impinge on other organs or, if on the skin, be abraded by the ground or cage and start to ulcerate.
A scent-gland tumor may not cause any change in the quality of life of your gerbil, and he may live out a very normal life with this benign tumor. It is also possible that the tumor can get large enough to scrape along the ground and start to ulcerate. This can lead to blood loss, infection and pain. At that point, the quality of life needs to be re-assessed. And it is possible for the tumor to get so large that it impinges on organs in the abdomen, causing your gerbil to have difficulty eating or defecating.
Many people would tell you that if this is benign and your gerbil does not have any change in his quality of life, there is no need to consider euthanasia at this point. But what you really want to know is this: what are the chances that this mass, at some time in the future, will change my gerbil’s quality of life? If I had the crystal ball, I could tell you. Your gerbil may have one month before the tumor causes a decrease in the quality of life or it could be a year before that happens. Since we cannot tell from the tumor how long it will be before it affects your gerbil, only you can decide what to do and take the risk of not doing surgery.
If the surgery is more than you can afford right now, then I would not recommend euthanasia until your gerbil is showing a poor quality of life, then you can make that decision. That decision could happen in a month or in a year. As long as you are aware of the signs of a poor quality of life, I suggest making your gerbil as comfortable as possible.