Three conditions that are often related and can be helped with similar care are insulinoma, pancreatic tumors & hypoglycemia. Insulinoma is caused by the growth of small, usually benign, tumors on the pancreas. Hypoglycemia is usually caused by a lack of food – also known as low blood sugar. The symptoms of insulinoma are the same as hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Low blood sugar symptoms (increasing in severity)
- “Staring” into space
- Staggering/hind end weakness
- Extremely limp body/passed out
- Moaning/crying aloud
- Clenched teeth/locked jaw
- Glucose: a type of sugar contained in the blood stream
- Hypoglycemia: low (hypo) glucose (gly) in the blood (emia)
- Insulin: the hormone that converts sugar from food to blood sugar (glucose) that can be used by the body
- Pancreas: an organ that regulates the production of insulin
- Insulinomas: tumors that grow on the pancreas
- Endocrine system: glands in the body that produce hormones
Ferrets have a high metabolism, which means they burn a lot of energy. They need regular food intake to keep their blood glucose levels balanced. Anything that interferes with their eating, such as dental disease, can cause problems. Hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) can be a temporary condition, or it can be a recurring problem.
Insulin is the hormone that the body uses to convert the sugar in food to glucose for energy. The pancreas regulates the production of insulin. Too little insulin results in diabetes. Ferrets often develop tumors (insulinomas) on the pancreas which cause the production of too MUCH insulin. While the symptoms of both illnesses are similar, they are caused by opposite reasons.
The brain is the biggest user of glucose in a body. Excess insulin in the body “starves” the brain of fuel and causes the most severe symptoms, like seizures.
There is no direct preventative for tumors on the pancreas. For humans and ferrets, small frequent meals help keep blood glucose levels stable.
Your ferret should always have food available. Other illnesses that cause them to stop eating will contribute to temporary hypoglycemia, such as the flu or ECE. Dental disease can also keep a ferret from eating regularly.
Many doctors recommend avoiding sweet treats (for humans and ferrets) as all the sugar in sweets can interfere with the body’s ability to properly regulate insulin production. Ferrets love sweets! But snacks and treats should be meat-based, with low or no sugar.
Diagnosis and management of insulinomas should be coordinated with your veterinarian.
Just like humans, ferrets growing older may lose their appetite. Supplemental meals of warm, soft food help stimulate hunger. See our “Simple Gruel Recipe.” You may begin by offering extra food once a day, then morning/evening, then adding mid-day meals. Food should be protein-based; protein requires more insulin to be broken down into glucose.
For early-stage seizures: Mild symptoms (Limp, hind end weakness) may be treated at home with sugars such as ferretvite, Karo syrup or honey, either mixed with water and syringe-fed, or rubbed on gums. (Never force liquids into an unconscious animal.) Once the ferret begins to come around, feed protein to stabilize the blood glucose and to avoid “crashing” after the sugar has been used. Good protein sources include softened kibble (see Gruel) or human infant chicken. Once stabilized, make an appointment with a vet for an accurate blood glucose level test and to discuss further treatment.
As the illness progresses, food will not be enough to keep the excess insulin “busy.” Steroids like prednisolone are commonly used to help control hypoglycemia. They work by increasing appetite. Over time, however, steroid use can affect liver function. You may be able to delay starting steroids by supplemental feedings.
Progylcem (generic name diazoxide) is a human medication that works by blocking insulin production. It is expensive; therefore veterinarians usually prescribe it only when steroids are no longer effective.
Insulinoma tumors are very small and usually not cancerous. They rarely spread to other parts of the body. However, there may be many microscopic insulinomas on a pancreas that will grow when others are removed. Insulinoma surgery can be difficult and expensive.
The adrenal glands are also part of the body’s endocrine system. There is some evidence that if your ferret has both adrenal cancer and insulinomas, the two illnesses may keep each other in check, so animals should be monitored very closely after surgery.
There is no definite cure for insulinomas. They can recur even if surgically removed. The progression of the disease will differ from ferret to ferret, however, we have found that with a regimen beginning with supplemental food, then moving to medicine when needed, a ferret can have a good quality of life and symptoms can be controlled for 2 years or more.
Simple Ferret Soup aka “Gruel” Recipe
- Crush your pet’s regular dry kibble (a coffee grinder works great).
- Add twice as much water, then microwave for 1-2 minutes, depending on quantity. Consistency should be like that of thick soup.
- Allow to cool to comfortable temperature, but not too cold (test with finger).
- Feed from syringe or off finger initially; ferrets normally learn to like it—a lot!
- 2 oz. is a full meal for a ferret. This is equivalent to about 4 tablespoons or the small sauce cup you get in restaurants.
- Refrigerate unused portions for reheating.