Several tumors are easy to see on a ferret’s skin, but many more lumps and bumps can develop under a ferret’s skin. A few of these abnormal masses are common and easy to treat; however, some of them are malignant and potentially fatal.
One of the most commonly seen tumors under a ferret’s skin is called a chordoma. Chordomas are very common in ferrets, but they are rare in most other animal species. They typically resemble a clublike swelling at the tip of the tail. Chordomas can also develop anywhere along the tail and even along the spinal column of the neck or back. Chordomas at the tip of the tail are easily treated by simply amputating the distal portion of the tail. Likewise, chordomas located in the rest of the tail can be treated by amputating the tail close to the base of the tail. Unfortunately chordomas in the neck or back are difficult to treat because amputation of this portion of the spinal column is just not possible. Most of those cases will continue to get worse with time and, eventually, require humane euthanasia.
Lymphoma is an all-too-common cancer for ferrets of all ages. Lymphoma can involve the lymph nodes and most of the organs such as the spleen, liver, kidneys, lungs and GI tract. Enlarged lymph nodes, such as the ones below the jaw, can be seen easily and felt under the skin. Sometimes the spleen and liver are large enough to be palpated in the abdomen. Occasionally the liver can be large enough to be seen as a bulge at the end of the rib cage, and the spleen can be seen as a bulge on the left side of the abdomen. An enlarged spleen is also common in older ferrets with adrenal gland disease, insulinoma and other chronic diseases. Many options exist for treating lymphoma in ferrets, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and palliative therapy.
Ferrets are prone to gaining weight during the fall and winter. This often leads to fat accumulation and fat pads on the sides of the neck. This is a normal, seasonal change and needs no treatment. Fat pads can also develop with the use of some medications, such as melatonin and pred. Ferrets can also have benign tumors of the fat cells. These are called lipomas and usually occur over the back or on the sides. Lipomas are easily treated by removing them surgically.
An uncommon cancer can form in the mouth of ferrets. This is usually seen as a firm, reddish mass on the gums and/or jaw. This is a malignant cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinomas can be fatal and are difficult to treat. Treatment is to surgically remove as much of the cancer as possible. In most cases, this requires removing part of the jaw. Radiation therapy may also be helpful.
Adrenal gland disease is very common in middle-aged to older ferrets. Occasionally the adrenal gland can become so big that it can be seen as a bump in the abdomen. This can be either on the right side of the abdomen or on the left side of the abdomen, depending on which adrenal gland is involved. Adrenal gland disease can be treated either surgically or medically; however, a giant adrenal gland can be difficult to remove surgically.
The nervous system can also have tumors. The peripheral nerves can develop both benign and malignant tumors. These can spread into the local tissue and cause a very large mass. They are more common on the head, eyelids and paws, but they can occur anywhere on the body where nerves are located. Treatment is to remove the tumor as soon as possible. In cases involving a paw, amputation of the leg is usually needed. Ferrets adjust remarkably well to having just three limbs, so there is no need to be afraid to amputate a limb when needed. Some cases may benefit from radiation therapy if all of the tumor cannot be removed.
Ferrets sometimes have tumors of their bones. Some of these tumors are benign osteomas, but some are malignant osteosarcomas. Osteomas are usually on the flat bones like the skull and ribs, but osteosarcomas are typically on the long bones of the arm and legs. Both of these tumors can form rather large, hard lumps under the skin. Treatment is to remove the tumors surgically. With osteosarcomas of the arms or legs, amputation of the limb is usually required.
Ferrets have five pairs of salivary glands. Trauma to a salivary gland or duct can lead to the development of a mucocele. Mucoceles are basically cysts that are filled with saliva, mucus and a small amount of red blood cells, and they can form some rather large and unusual lumps on the face and top of the head. Mucoceles are best treated surgically, even though it can be difficult to completely remove them.
Mammary tumors are uncommon in ferrets, but they can occur in intact ferrets and in ferrets with adrenal gland disease. This can affect one or more of the mammary glands, and they can be benign or malignant. Treatment is to surgically remove the mammary tumor and to treat the adrenal gland disease. In cases with intact ferrets, spaying or neutering the ferret is also recommended.
Lumps and bumps under the skin are common in ferrets, especially as they get older. Some are normal, seasonal changes like fat pads, and some are benign tumors like lipomas. Most of the benign tumors can be treated by surgically removing them. Unfortunately some of the tumors under the skin are malignant. These cancers in ferrets can be treated surgically, medically or with radiation therapy depending on what type of cancer is involved and where it is located.