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Ferret With Inoperable, Enlarged Spleen

What is going on when a ferret with an enlarged spleen suddenly loses weight?

Karen Rosenthal, DVM, MS
Posted: October 13, 2014, 9 p.m. EDT

ferret playing on floor
© Courtesy Lisa Schuster
Quality of life is easy to judge when ferrets are young and/or healthy; it becomes more difficult when ferrets are ill.

Q: I have a senior ferret with an enlarged spleen who suddenly lost a lot of weight. We went to the vet about six months ago, got X-rays and determined his spleen was not cancerous. Due to age, surgery complications/side effects, lack of healthy ferret blood donors in the area and cost, we decided to opt out of surgery and watch for quality of life. He is still active, alert, playful, eats/drinks normally, defecates and urinates well, no real concerns until about a couple weeks ago when he turned to skin and bones (and his giant spleen). He was just getting a normal dry chow, but I have now started giving poultry baby food, duck soup, Pedialyte (just in case), and mix a moist higher protein food in with his normal chow. He eats great, but I don't know if this is consistent with a normal spring/summer weight loss (just gone overboard) and I should give the duck soup/baby food a chance to kick in, or if it's a result of the spleen, or something else. I hesitate getting the high veterinary bill to be told all the same things as the last time we went in, but I want to do what I can to help him out. Any advice would be appreciated.

A: Thank you for all of that information and, clearly, you are very versed in ferret medicine. After all these years of treating ferrets, we still do not understand the process that causes ferret spleens to enlarge, especially as ferrets get older. The spleens, in most ferrets, enlarge because of an increase in cells that produce more blood cells; it is technically called extramedullary hematopoiesis (EMH). But what we do not understand is why EMH occurs in these spleens, as these ferrets are not lacking in blood cells and do not need the extra production that is occurring in the spleen. 

In the rare instances that we need to remove the spleen, there is not a problem with a lack of blood cells; in fact, the bone marrow does a fine job in supplying enough blood cells for the body. 

In unusual instances of splenic enlargement, it can be due to cancer. Also, in rare instances, the spleen becomes so large due to EMH that the spleen "crowds out” all other internal organs and there is no room left in the abdomen for the gastrointestinal tract. When that happens, the ferret has a difficult time eating because there is no place in the stomach to store the food since the stomach is impinged upon by the ever-growing spleen. 

Those are the rare cases where a spleen, enlarged by EMH, needs to be removed. It sounds like this may be the case with your ferret and your veterinarian has given you excellent advice. At this stage of your ferret’s life, although the splenic enlargement is a benign process, the quality of life your ferret is leading may be declining. If soft or liquid food cannot sustain him and if he cannot have the spleen removed, then end of life issues are a subject you need to discuss with your veterinarian.

You have done a wonderful job helping your ferret get to this stage of life, but the next chapter may revolve around how to make him comfortable with the enlarging spleen. 

Like this article? Please share it, and check out:
Is It A Ferret Medical Emergency?
The What-The-Heck-Is-That Ferret Case

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Posted: October 13, 2014, 9 p.m. EDT

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