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To Cut or Not to Cut?

By Mary Van Dahm

To Cut or Not to Cut -- By Mary Van Dahm

Every day we get calls at the shelter asking our opinion about surgery for ferrets with medical problems such as adrenal cancer, insulinoma or lymphosarcoma. While the ultimate decision should be made between you and your veterinarian, here are some guide lines that we offer for ferret owners who have to face this difficult decision:

How old is the ferret?

Will the surgery extend its life by a significant amount? Since the average ferret only lives about 6 or 7 years, an older ferret may not be as good of a candidate for surgery as a younger one. The condition of the animal should be taken into consideration, as well as its age. A ferret in overall good shape, in spite of its age, may be a good surgical candidate and may have a longer than average lifespan ahead of him.

How far has the disease progressed?

Most cancers, when caught early, have a good rate of surgical success. Some cancers, like insulinoma, however, can reoccur, but surgery can buy some medication free time for your pet. Debulking the insulinoma tumors (removing any large, visible tumors) may help keep the cancer from spreading to other organs. Your pet might also be lucky enough to not have a reoccurrence. If the cancer is advanced and has already spread to other areas of your pet’s body, then surgery may not help much. Unfortunately sometimes your veterinarian can’t be sure how far the disease has spread until after he cuts the ferret open. Sudden low glucose readings can be indicative of a very active growth of insulinoma tumors. Insulinoma has been known to spread to the liver, spleen and even lungs.

Is the ferret in any pain?

Fortunately most cancers in ferrets cause no or little Pain. Unfortunately, if the ferret is experiencing pain, such as in the advanced cases of lymphoma, the ferret is probably in the terminal stages of the disease and surgery may not be of any help.

Note: In some advanced cases of insulinoma, some ferrets may make vocalizations, such as moans or even screams. The ferret usually is not in any pain. These cries are caused by low glucose seizures. The brain is not getting enough sugar and “short circuits”. This causes thee body to receive wrong signals and vocalizations may occur.

Will the surgery improve the quality of life for the ferret?

In most younger ferrets (under 4 years of age) the answer is usually “yes”. The surgery will often improve the long term quality of life for the ferret. This, of course, will vary with each ferret depending on what kind of cancer the ferret has and whether multiple cancers are present. Old ferrets (over 6 years of age) may experience some short-term benefits from surgery, but they have to be weighed against the stress they will experience from the surgery itself. Once again, overall health and condition of the ferret must be considered to determine whether the ferret is a good candidate for the surgery.

Are there other options available?

Many veterinarians are now working with medical and holistic alternatives to surgery. Some of these treatments are not cures, but can help control the cancers or at least the symptoms for a period of time. These treatments are often cheaper than surgery, but not always.

Is the surgery within you budget?

No matter how much we love our pets, sometimes there is a limit to what we can do for them. Finances are often the final decision-maker for many people. This is a fact of life and choosing to not have surgery on your pet should not be considered shameful, as long as you do your best to keep your pet comfortable and follow your veterinarian’s advice for alternative treatments, if available. Some veterinarians will allow you to pay off your bill on time if you can at least put down a deposit toward the balance due.

Note: Planning ahead and starting a little “rainy Day” fund for your ferret “now” while he or she is still health is an excellent idea. This way you will have more treatment options open to you, should you ever need them.

The final option

Saying goodbye is sometimes the hardest decision to make. If your ferret is suffering, and the veterinarians can do nothing more for your pet, or if you can’t afford to do more for your pet, please consider euthanasia. Forcing your pet to live in pain because you “don’t have the heart” to put him to sleep is cruel and selfish. The last step of helping your ferret through life is helping him through death.

[intlink id=”fair”]This article originally appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of \”The F.A.I.R. Report\”.[/intlink]