Insulinoma involves the beta cells in the
pancreas of the ferret that develop into tumor(s), and
is unfortunately fairly common in ferrets aged 2-4 and
up. It is this tumor(s) that causes the excess production
of insulin (a hormone which allows cells in the body to
use glucose in the blood), causing a dangerously low blood
glucose level (due to the high absorption), also known
as hypoglycemia (opposite of diabetes). The nodules (tumors)
can typically range in size from 2mm - 1cm, may occur singularly
or as a group of small nodules, and are a recurring problem.
There are also many cases of diffuse hyper beta cell proliferation,
where there are no visible nodules or tumors. In this case,
treatment would be removal of part of the pancreas.
Once your ferret reaches the age of 2, it is
a good idea to get a "Fasting" Blood
Glucose test to have as a baseline and repeat every
6 months - 1 year. Sometimes you can catch the
disease before any symptoms even begin to
Many veterinarian's feel that as a strict carnivore
the pancreas are very sensitive
to sugar, that giving sugar may even cause insulinoma's
(perhaps for genetic reasons, some are more sensitive than
others). It is important to NEVER provide
any sugary treats or snacks which includes: raisins, Pedialyte,
Ensure, fruit, honey, etc., whether or not your ferret
has insulinoma, and limit the amount of Petromalt and Nutrical.
Sugars rapidly convert into glucose providing
major energy sources for the bodies cells. High glucose
levels in the bloodstream create high demand on the pancreas
to produce insulin allowing the cells to use glucose. The
chronic high levels of blood sugar and stimulation of the
pancreas to produce and release insulin (caused by high
carb diets) is strongly believed to contribute to the development
of this disease. The islet cells tumors then produce excess
amounts of insulin leading to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
The best and most healthiest treats you can offer are
those that are animal protein based. Unfortunately, there
is no absolute cure for this disease, however with carefully
supervised treatments consisting of surgery, diet control
and medicines, a ferrets life span can be increased by
3 years or more.
The most common early sign
of insulinoma is "staring into space",
blank expressions, etc. Other signs and symptoms include:
depression, weight loss, foaming and pawing at the mouth,
lack of appetite, lethargy, salivation, difficulty in
using hind legs, vocalization, and in severe cases seizures
and/or coma. As the disease progresses, the signs and
symptoms will also increase and become more and more
If you ferret goes into
a seizure, it can be a very frightening experience.
It is important for you to stay calm, focused, and
see to it's medical needs immediately!
If your ferret goes into a seizure, it
can be a very frightening experience, and it will be
important that you do not panic. Your ferret can be stretched
on its side, have excessive drooling to foaming at the
mouth, twitching, shaking, and be unresponsive. During
this time, you will need to apply a small amount of honey
or karo syrup (should always have on hand) on their gums
and inner lips with a Q-tip (to avoid accidental biting).
You might have to repeat this every few minutes for up
to 20-30 minutes, at which time your ferret should start
becoming alert again. At this point you will need to
provide a high protein snack (ie; meat based baby food,
softened kibble, etc.), as the protein will act to stabilize
the glucose levels. You should NOT provide
honey or karo syrup to your ferret at any other time!
At one time, it had been suggested that
supplementing their food with Brewers Yeast helps regulate
their insulin and glucose levels; it has now been proven not useful
and should be avoided. Brewer's Yeast contains chromium,
which will actually lower (not raise as originally thought)
the glucose level, which is the last thing you want to
do for a ferret that is suffering from insulinoma. It
is strongly recommended that you have routine blood glucose
tests for your ferret. This will provide you with the
needed information to stabilize (with drug), a ferret
already diagnosed, as well as those in the early stages
of the disease for monitoring and preventive measures.
You can try performing the blood
glucose tests at home after discussing it with your
For ferrets with hind-end weakness, you
can help them get around by providing a ferret specific
wheelchair, which will assist them while they can still
use they back legs some as well as when they no longer
can. I personally recommend the Ferret
Flyer, which is individually made by very dedicated
The most accurate test to diagnose confirm Insulinoma
is to measure the "FASTING" blood
glucose levels by a lab, which is accomplished by a blood
test. The normal range for a ferret is 80-120 mg/dl,
with anything under 70 (by lab test) strongly indicating
the possible presence of one or more tumors, and surgery
should be scheduled as quickly as possible providing
your ferret has no other health concerns.
Your veterinarian might request several
tests to obtain a mean average, as the the values can
fluctuate. Prior to each test you will need to fast your
ferret between 4 - 6 hours. Once Insulinoma has been
confirmed, the "FASTING" blood glucose
test should be repeated every 4-12 weeks. You can also test
at home after consulting with your veterinarian.
Surgery as early as possible is the treatment of choice.
A partial Pancreatectomy often provides increased survival
and often no additional medicine is need for a time (can
be years). A partial Pancreatectomy consists of the removal
of the tumor(s) and part of the pancreas (no more than
50-70% can safely be removed). The earlier the procedure
is performed, the better the results, so you should NOT put
If you decide to wait on the surgery and
go with the drug treatment until it's no longer beneficial,
chances are it may not help your ferret that much, as
during this time the tumors are continually growing.
The drugs have no effect on the cause of the problem
which are the growing tumors.
A large majority of vets, including Dr. Bruce Williams,
DVM, feel it is important to consider that drug therapy
is only a temporary remedy and rarely effective
in controlling the hypoglycemia for a long period of
time. It is important at this time, that you ensure your
ferret is receiving a high quality/protein diet such
as Duck Soup,
Gerber's chicken stage 2 baby food or Prescription Diet
If surgery is not an option, or until it
is viable, the drugs of choice are Prednisone, which
raises the blood glucose levels by mobilizing carbohydrates
and/or Proglycem, which is an antihypertensive drug which
decreases the secretion of insulin.
Prednisone is usually the first drug used
(and is relatively inexpensive), with a typical dosage
range of 0.5 - 2.5 mg/kg twice a day. Prednisone can
produce what is known as Pred Belly (weight is gained)
and over time of usage can cause liver damage. It is
important when using this drug to give with food as ulcers
When using liquid Prednisone, it is extremely
important that you don't use a generic substitution,
as some contain alcohol and a large majority
are compounded with sugar.
is usually prescribed when Prednisone is no longer working
and usually added to the treatment regimen, lowering
the Prednisone dosage. Dosages range from 5 - 10 mg/kg
twice a day. Side effects can include anorexia and vomiting.
The drawback to this regimen is the costly price of Proglycem,
with a one month supply costing approximately $130 per