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Skin Tumors In Ferrets

Could that lump or bump on your ferret’s skin be a tumor?

By Jerry Murray, DVM
Posted: February 1, 2012, 4:40 p.m. EST

The skin is a common site for tumors in pet ferrets. Just about all of the skin tumors in ferrets are benign, but a few malignant types of tumor can cause serious problems and even have the potential to be fatal. The two most common skin tumors in ferrets are sebaceous tumors and mast cell tumors. Fortunately these two tumors are usually easy to treat and cure in ferrets. A few other tumors are also common in ferrets.

paw of ferret with sebaceous skin tumor
© Jerry Murray, DVM
Although sebaceous skin tumor look ugly and scary, treatment at an early stage is usually simple.

Sebaceous Tumors In Ferrets
Sebaceous tumors, such as sebaceous epitheliomas and sebaceous adenomas, are the most common skin tumors in ferrets. A sebaceous tumor can be wartlike in appearance, or it can be a rather large, red and ugly growth. Sebaceous tumors are occasionally itchy, which may result in the ferret scratching at them. Trauma from scratching can result in inflammation, infection and ulceration of the tumor.

Despite the size and scary appearance of sebaceous tumors, they are benign. They are best treated by surgically removing them as soon as possible. Otherwise, a sebaceous tumor may continue to enlarge and, with time, become difficult to remove due to its size and location.

mast cell tumor on ferret
© Jerry Murray, DVM
Mast cell tumors in ferrets usually first appear as small and flat and range in color from yellow to tan or pink.
irritated mast cell tumor on ferret
© Jerry Murray, DVM
Mast cell tumors are usually itchy, which causes a ferret to scratch and irritate the tumor so that it becomes red or even bleeds and scabs over.

Mast Cell Tumors In Ferrets
Mast cell tumors are the second most common skin tumor in ferrets. Mast cell tumors are typically small, flat and yellow to tan or pink in color. Mast cells are a normal part of the immune system. These cells release histamine in response to allergic reactions. Mast cell tumors are usually itchy, and ferrets frequently scratch at them. The trauma from scratching may cause the release of histamine, which will increase the itchiness and make the skin around the tumor reddish. After a lot of scratching, a mast cell tumor may even bleed a small amount and form a small, dark scab on top of the mast cell tumor.

Unlike mast cell tumors in dogs, mast cell tumors in ferrets are benign. Mast cell tumors in ferrets are usually treated by removing the tumor surgically, but some veterinarians prefer to freeze the tumor off with cryosurgery.

Some ferrets continue to get more mast cell tumors as they get older and may require additional surgeries to remove their new mast cell tumors. In ferrets with problems like heart disease or lymphoma, which could make anesthesia and surgery too risky, mast cell tumors can be treated medically by applying a cortisone cream topically. This does not cure the ferret, but it usually controls the itchy skin.

perianal tumor on ferret
© Jerry Murray, DVM
This is a perianal tumor on a ferret; this type of tumor is uncommon and almost always malignant.

Scent Gland Tumors In Ferrets
Tumors of the scent glands are the third most common tumors of the skin in ferrets. Ferrets have many scent glands on the neck, head, prepuce (males), vulva (females) and around the anus. These scent glands produce an oily substance that gives the ferret its characteristic musky odor. Ferrets use the scent glands as a sexual attractant and as a territorial marker.
Tumors on the prepuce are common in male ferrets. These typically appear near the opening of the prepuce. Most have a blue color to them, and some become rather large in a short amount of time. Unfortunately preputial gland tumors can be malignant tumors, and they can spread to the local lymph nodes and to internal organs, such as the lungs. Thus it is important to remove tumors on a ferret’s prepuce as soon as possible, so it does not get any bigger or spread to the lymph nodes and lungs.

Perianal and perivulvar tumors are uncommon tumors in ferrets, but they are almost always malignant (see fig4). Removing these tumors can be very difficult due to the rapid growth of the tumor and their close proximity to important anatomical structures. After removing as much of the tumor as possible with surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy can be used to try to decrease the chances of the cancer spreading to the lymph nodes and internal organs.

Ferrets that still have their anal glands can occasionally develop malignant tumors of the anal glands. These are usually large, firm masses near the anus. Tumors near the anus can invade into the rectal tissue and be extremely difficult to remove with surgery. This type of tumor frequently spreads to the local lymph nodes and can spread to internal organs. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be useful in treating this malignant cancer. Just about all pet ferrets have their anal glands removed when they are young, so they are not usually at risk for this type of cancer.

lymphoma tumor on ferret
© Jerry Murray, DVM
Lymphoma is a common cancer in ferrets and can occur in ferrets of any age.

Lymphoma In Ferrets
Lymphoma is a common cancer of pet ferrets and can strike ferrets of any age. Lymphoma usually involves the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, intestinal tract, kidneys and/or lungs (see fig 5). However, one rare form of lymphoma called cutaneous (epitheliotropic) lymphoma mainly attacks the skin and hair follicles. Cutaneous lymphoma is mostly seen on the paws, which become swollen, pinkish and hairless; in some cases, a ferret loses its claws. Rare cases of cutaneous lymphoma cause ulcerative nodules or skin lesions on a ferret’s back and/or sides instead of lesions on the paws. If untreated, these skin lesions continue to grow and can spread rapidly, so treatment for this form of lymphoma is removal of the skin lesions as soon as they are seen. If the skin spots cannot be removed, then treating the ferret with oral prednisolone and applying a cortisone/antibiotic ointment to the skin lesions may help to control this cancer.

Tumors on the skin are common in ferrets. Most of these skin tumors are benign and can be easily cured with surgery. If you happen to see or feel a lump or bump on your ferret, remain calm and bring your pet to your ferret vet. Your vet may be able to identify the tumor based upon its appearance and location, and surgery can be scheduled accordingly. After removing the tumor, it is a good thing to send it out to a pathologist for a definitive diagnosis. This is especially important if one of the malignant skin cancers is a possibility.

See Dr. Murray's author bio>>

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Skin Tumors In Ferrets

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Reader Comments
Thank you, Dr. Murray
I think I see now that my ferret has Mast Cell Tumors. Thank you for the description, and pictures.
What happens if tumors are not removed? We don't have an exotic animal vet here in S.Korea...
Thank you!
Anna, Incheon
Posted: 9/29/2012 6:14:53 AM
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