Insulinoma in ferrets - what does it mean for your ferret?

What is Insulinoma in ferrets?

Insulinoma is a very common form of cancer in middle aged and older ferrets. It’s an abnormal growth of the pancreas that secretes excess amounts of insulin. As insulin rises, blood sugar/blood glucose levels begin to drop.

Blood sugar is needed for the brain to function and for the muscles to work normally. For the ferrent experiencing an episode or seizure for the first time, it’s a truly frightening experience!

The more you know about this disease, the better equipped you will be to handle it. 

What are the signs of Insulinoma in ferrets?

Sometimes the signs of insulinoma can be very subtle, attributable to different factors.

Signs can be something as small as drooling, up to a full-blown screaming seizure. 

Other signs include (but not limited to):

  • screaming seizure
  • stargazing (unable to focus visually), 
  • hind-end weakness, 
  • lethargy, 
  • drop in body temperature, 
  • pawing at the mouth, 
  • drooling, 
  • dehydration. 
  • Some ferrets in the middle of an insulinoma episode will also “lock” their jaws. 

(This video shows a ferret having a 'screaming seizure')

What should you do if your ferret showcases any of these signs?

Get your ferret to a vet immediately

Time is of the essence in getting help for your ferret. A trip to the vet is sometimes immediately needed, depending on the severity of the symptoms. Your vet will get a small sample of blood and test your ferret’s glucose level. Any number under 70 is considered indicative of insulinoma.

Invest in a Alpha Trak Glucometer

I would suggest, if you have older ferrets, investing in the Alpha Trak glucometer to monitor your ferret’s blood sugar. This is the one that’s most widely used. You’ll want to calibrate it with your vet to make sure you get accurate readings. 

Administer medications according to your vets prescriptions

There are medications that are currently used to control symptoms. This is a terminal disease, for which there is no cure. Two medications that are very common in the treatment of insulinoma are prednisolone and diazoxide. It’s important to give your ferret their dose around the same time daily, to keep the medication in their system. 

Generally a ferrets life expectancy after being put on medication is about 6 months unfortunately (and yes, you will need to have the ferret on medication to help stabilise the blood sugar levels). 

Your ferret may need to have surgery on it pancreas

Sometimes vets recommend for a ferret to have surgery to remove part of the pancreas that contains abnormal growth. This really depends on the location of the abnormal growth in each ferrets individual case. Not all ferrets will be able to have surgery. 

Surgery may prolong a ferrets life by a few months. 

(In this video I talk about Sammy's surgery)

(update on Sammy's progress)

Have Karo syrup (or honey if you can't get your hands on the syrup) on hand.

It’s also good to have dark Karo syrup on-hand in case your ferret suffers a “crash” and needs instant sugar in the body. You simply put some syrup on your finger and rub it on your ferrets gums. This will absorb very quickly into the blood stream. However, you do not want to overdo this as you can send the sugar skyrocketing way too quickly, and that has medical repercussions as well. 

Feed the ferret a healthy, high quality diet every few hours

Nutrition is extremely important in the insulinomic ferret. They have to eat every few hours, and they need a diet high in protein. Their kibble should not contain any grains, fruits, vegetables or plant-based ingredients. This is harder for their body to process and can wreak havoc on a ferret with insulinoma and adrenal disease. 

***Generally we recommend feeding ferrets a whole raw diet, which can prevent ferrets from getting insulinoma in the first place. Unfortunately kibbles tend to be high in carbohydrates and sugars which contribute to the development of insulinoma. 

(In this video I talk about the importance of transitioning your ferrets to a whole, raw diet and the benefits I've seen in my own ferrets)

(Here is a guide of the type of meal plan to have your ferrets on if you choose to transition them to a whole, raw diet)

Ask your vet about getting the ferret the Suprelorin implant

As a side note, if your ferret has adrenal disease and you elect to get them an implant (deslorelin/Suprelorin) be aware you will need to be even more diligent in watching for an insulinomic crash as the implant can mask and subdue symptoms. 

Insulinoma is a tough disease to control. The timeframe can be better judged by your vet as they will see your fuzzy up close. You can expect periodic crashes with increases in their medication dose as the disease progresses. 

Unfortunately at this point in time there are no cures for insulinoma and as the disease progresses the worse the ferret tends to suffer. It can be absolutely heartbreaking watching your ferret go through such torture. I documented our journey with Sammy throughout his insulinoma journey to hopefully help and educate others who maybe going through the same thing...

(Update on Sammy's progress - his wellbeing is definitely declining)

(Update on Sammy's progress after about 4 months on prednisone and after the surgery)

(Sammy is starting to experience kidney failure)

(In this video I discuss the pressure I received to put Sammy down and how I handled it. This is a very sensitive topic and there is no black and white answers. Euthanising should be done on a case by case basis). 

(Sammy died a beautiful death in the end. It was an experience we will never forget. R.I.P Sammy)