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For addition information on Lymphoma, see Dr. Bruce Williams article on the topic HERE.  
Graphic necropsy photos are included on this page.


Lymphomas are cancers of white blood cells called lymphocytes. These cells help fight infection and repair wounds. Most of the lymphocytes are in the various organs of the lymph system, but they can also be found in the blood, skin, and gastrointestinal tract.  Malignant lymphomas and lymphosarcomas [Lymphoma and lymphosarcoma are different terms that describe the same condition] are solid lymphocyte tumors that form in the lymph nodes of the body and spleen. From there they can spread to many organs of the body.  Many different organs can be infiltrated with cancerous lymphocytes and the disease can have any number of signs that can be confused with many different diseases.

There are two basic clinical presentations of lymphoma in ferrets.  An aggressive form that is seen in ferrets under approximately 2 years of age and often called "juvenile lymphoma."  Sadly, the prognosis is usually very poor in these cases.  The more "classic" form of lymphoma is seen in older ferrets and while this disease is almost always terminal, chemotherapy can sometimes result in a miraculous turn around; however, the period of time that the ferret will remain in remission can vary from only a few weeks to many months with continued treatment.

Lymphoma is classified by location and this has been defined by the following stages:

  • Stage I - Involvement of a single site or  tumor
  • Stage II - Involvement of multiple sites on the same side of the diaphragm
  • Stage III - Involvement of spleen and lymph nodes on both sides of the diaphragm
  • Stage IV - Involvement of multiple sites on both sides of the diaphragm

An uncommon presentation is cutaneous lymphoma.  Although uncommon, it has been seen in ferrets and of all the lymphomas, if one has to have lymphoma, this would be the one to have. Progress of the disease can be slow, often taking years and metastasis is uncommon.  The feet are often affected and the ferret may be euthanized due to loss of function after time rather than because the disease has metastasized.


Diagnosis requires a needle aspirate or biopsy of a lymph node or a biopsy of an organ, with the spleen probably yielding the highest number of positives.  If your vet has diagnosed lymphoma simply through blood work and an elevated lymphocyte count, you do not have a valid diagnosis.  You need to ask your vet for a more accurate diagnosis or seek a second opinion. Tissues should always be examined by a pathologist with ferret experience whenever possible.

Note that some ferrets can get large fat pads along the sides of their neck that are sometimes diagnosed as enlarged lymph glands when in fact it may be nothing but fat.   The bottom line is that a diagnosis that has been done without a tissue biopsy is not complete and the diagnosis of a terminal disease should not be accepted.


Treatment may consists of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, alternative medicine or a combination of treatments.   Lymphoma that involves the liver, stomach or intestine generally respond poorly to chemotherapy.  Ferrets that have received glucocorticoids for an extended time period, for example prednisone for insulinoma or IBD, may be resistant to the antitumoral effects of steroids.

With aggressive treatment started right away, your ferret has the best chance at the longest survival time.  Dr. Katrina Ramsell of Southwest Animal Hospital, Beaverton, OR, has several lymphoma protocols which have proven quite successful in the treatment of lymphoma.  Dr. Ramsell has graciously offered to supply her protocol paper to anyone in need.  Please contact Dr. Ramsell at exoticpetvet@hotmail.