Ferrets, particularly when they are getting on in years, are particularly prone to developing various different types of medical issues that can potentially be treated or cured with surgical intervention. Adrenal cancer, lymphosarcoma and insulinoma are just a few of these, and understandably, a diagnosis of this type can be very worrying for the owner of a much-loved pet ferret.
Making the decision whether or not to go ahead with surgical treatment in the hope of a cure and extending your ferret’s life is never easy, and in some cases, the right decision is that surgical treatment would not be viable, taking into account the potential for how much it would improve the ferret’s lifespan and quality of life. If you find yourself faced with the difficult question of whether or not to go ahead with a surgical procedure for your ferret, take into account the following factors.
The first consideration to bear in mind is how old your ferret is at the age that they are diagnosed, and if having the surgery will do anything meaningful to prolong their life.
With ferrets generally not living much beyond six or seven years, for older ferrets, surgery may not be a logical decision when you take into account the recovery time and your ferret’s quality of life while they recuperate. However, for younger ferrets, particularly those in peak health and that are likely to live to a good old age, surgery may be viable in this sense.
In order to give your ferret the best chance of survival and the shortest recovery time, one consideration is how far advanced the disease has become. Surgery is always easier and more likely to prove effective if the cancer is caught early on, giving your ferret the best chance for their ultimate survival in good health. However, some cancers can recur even after surgical removal; insulinoma particularly, which has a tendency to keep cropping up time and again. Removal of insulinoma tumours can stop the cancer from spreading to other organs and slow down the spread of the disease, and in some cases, may prevent recurrence entirely; so the decision is never clear cut.
If your ferret’s cancer is very advanced or is widespread throughout the body, surgical intervention may not be considered to be viable, as it is unlikely to be fully effective. Small, localised tumours and growths caught early on are the best candidates for surgery and recovery.
The good news (if that is the right phrase) regarding ferret cancers and tumours, is that they rarely prove painful for your ferret. In the later stages of any disease and particularly in the case of advanced, widespread lymphomas, however, your ferret may be in pain, but by that time it will likely be too late to perform a successful surgical intervention.
Quality of life is even more important than longevity when it comes to making a decision about surgery, and there are a great many intangibles to consider in this case. While your vet might agree that a surgical procedure will extend your ferret’s life, if this comes at the price of a protracted and uncomfortable recovery period and without hope of a full recovery, surgery may not be the best option.
For younger ferrets up to around four years old, the chances are that all other things being equal, surgery might be a good idea, as your ferret will have many more years ahead of them and the ratio between recovery time from surgery and their ultimate lifespan is a good balance.
Ferrets of six years old or older are more difficult to assess, as while they may gain a respite and some benefits from the surgery, they will be approaching the end of their natural life anyway, as well as finding it harder to recover from surgery due to their age.
Regardless of the age of the ferret, their general condition and health should be taken into account too; if your ferret is not a good candidate for surgery for other reasons, their recovery will be difficult, and surgery potentially ineffective.
If you are reluctant or set against a surgical solution, find out from your vet what alternatives might be available to treat the condition, help with the symptoms, or otherwise improve your ferret’s quality of life. Medications and palliative care can help with any pain or side effects of the cancer, although generally surgery is the only potential and realistic way to cure or remove tumours.
If you do nothing, the simple answer is that your ferret’s cancer or tumour will grow and possibly spread, up to the point that they may be in pain, constantly uncomfortable and unable to enjoy a good quality of life. As long as your ferret is reasonably comfortable an not in pain, it may be viable to simply let the disease run its course, providing that you are prepared to have your ferret put to sleep at the end of the line when their quality of life is no longer viable.