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Skin Tumors – Alternative Treatment Methods For Elderly Ferrets
By: Jason Raynor
As many of you know there are always risks when ferrets go under anesthesia for surgery. These risks get larger as they get older and some health complications (such as heart issues) can make anesthesia a very high risk option. So what is an owner to do if a ferret develops a skin tumor that requires surgery to remove?
My elderly sprite Wilma was in this exact situation recently. She is 8 years old, is being treated (very successfully) for heart failure and a small tumor appeared on her belly. At first I wasn’t concerned as MCTs (Mast Cell Tumors) are pretty common in ferrets, tend to remain small and often disappear on their own. At first it stayed small (a few weeks) but then suddenly started to grow. By the time it got to the size of a dime I knew I was going to have to ask my vet for options because if it continued to grow it could eventually start to cause other issues. At this point I was also pretty sure it may not be a MCT.
At my vets we inspected the tumor and determined it was growing from a smaller stalk connected to the skin and then “bushing out” from there (think of a head of broccoli or cauliflower). As I assumed, surgery would be VERY risky and my vet didn’t even want to give me the odds on her making it through. She said there was an alternative we could try though. She said that she we could try cryo treatment to freeze the tumor and kill it. When dead it would eventually just fall off. Unfortunately, my vet didn’t have any professional grade kits on hand and they were extremely expensive to get ($80 each and only available from her supplier in packs of 10!!). As an alternative, we decided to try one of the over the counter kits for freezing warts available in most pharmacies.
Treatment Option 1
Once my vet was back from vacation I scheduled an appointment to bring Wilma in for a reassessment. Unfortunately, in the week between the above treatment and the reassessment visit, the tumor had grown about 2 cm in height. After discussion with my vet we concluded that the over the counter cryo treatment wasn’t powerful enough and was only really killing the top layer of the tumor, allowing it to continue growing from underneath the dead tissue.
NOTE: This is not to say that cryo treatment isn’t something that shouldn’t be tried. If your vet has the professional grade kits or access to liquid nitrogen, this is still a viable option. We only concluded that retail grade, over the counter kits were not strong enough.
We cleaned it up and it really did look horrible. Like a raw, fleshy, oozing head of broccoli. Unfortunately, I didn’t think of snapping a picture at this point. Feeling pretty disheartened, we once again discussed what the surgical options were and I asked if my vet was willing to risk cutting it off without anesthesia. She said that the removal wasn’t the issue, but trying to do sutures on an unathensiatized ferret was not something she was willing to try.
She said that she had one more thing that we could try but it would not be painless. Knowing how stoic ferrets are and how quickly they get over pain, I asked her to continue.
Treatment Option 2
She suggested we try Silver Nitrate Sticks (also known as Caustic Pencils). Silver nitrate is a caustic chemical that destroys unwanted tissue. The silver nitrate is in a dried form on the head of the stick (they look almost exactly like matches) and when applied to wet tissue, the moisture activates the chemicals, killing the tissue it is applied to.
NOTE: The use of Silver Nitrate/Caustic Pencils is NOT painless. It does cause a momentary burning sensation and Wilma did struggle a bit. In our case it was easy enough for me to do on my own (scruffing her in one hand and applying the silver nitrate with the other). It all depends on how strong you are and the weight/strength of your ferret. Also be aware that Silver Nitrate stains your skin like henna (only black) so be careful not to get it on yourself.
We did the first treatment at the vet’s office with me holding Wilma and the vet applying the sticks. I think we used three on that first treatment. My vet instructed me to treat it again any time I saw exposed wet tissue and this is how things proceeded:
You could literally see the tissue dying as the Silver Nitrate was applied and the tumor contracted and shriveled up a bit. The sticks are also great because you can really precisely target where you want to apply it and you can see where and where you haven’t applied it (the tissue turns white as it dies). Because of this we were able to get underneath it and target the stalk as well.
Click through the picture gallery to see the full progression
The Silver Nitrate treatment was a total success and I highly recommend using it (with vet consultation) if you are in a similar situation with an elderly ferret or a ferret that cannot go under anesthesia.
NOTE: This treatment option will only potentially work with skin tumors. Tumors originating in deeper tissue are not candidates for this treatment option.