A Brief Look At Insulinoma

by Jennie Chapman

I have no medical knowledge or training. This is a collation of information that I have researched from books and websites after Toby became ill with hypoglycemia in the hope that it will help others through the situation I found myself in.

Insulinomas are tumours of the insulin producing cells (beta cells) in the pancreas occurring in ferrets usually around three to five years of age and older.

Insulin drives blood sugar out of the blood and into the body cells making it available to the brain. Too much insulin will result in too much sugar leaving the bloodstream and not reaching the brain.

Ferrets with high insulin levels appear to 'faint' or go into a comatose state when their blood sugar is very low. The attacks become more frequent as the tumour/tumours grow. Very low blood sugar levels lead to a coma and, if not treated, death. In diabetes we usually have the opposite, low levels of insulin production render the animal's cells unable to use glucose with a build up of blood sugars and hyperglycemia results.

Low blood sugar is hypoglycemia, high blood sugar is hyperglycemia.

If the tumours are very malignant they may metatasize to other organs in the body and shorten the animal's life to a few months. However, the disease usually gives a life expectancy of on average a year whatever the treatment. A lot depends on early diagnosis, the age and the condition of your ferret.

If you catch the disease early and decide to operate and the tumours are easy to remove, then your ferret has a good chance of proving the above statement wrong and could possibly live two or more years after surgery.

Surgical removal of all abnormal tissue (where possible) causes instant improvement, but insulinomas often recur. It is a good idea for your vet to also check the adrenal glands for enlargement or abnormalities during surgery as they are so close to the pancreas and it is possible there may also be problems there as well.

Special care is needed after surgery as the stress can cause another hypoglycemic attack. Care should also be taken to keep the ferret warm to avoid hypothermia from loss of body heat from having the abdomen open.

If there are many small tumours or some that are not operable, or your ferret is not a good candidate for surgery then your ferret can be treated medically and put on Prednisone, a steroid that helps to stabilise insulin levels stimulating the production of blood sugar, and also helps reduce inflammation of the tumours but won't stop them growing indefinitely. It often gives them a new lease of life and they can stabilise and have a good quality of life for possibly another year or so.

Putting your ferret on an excellent diet and making sure he is eating high protein, low sugar meals little and often helps to stabilise the condition. Avoid foods containing sugar like wet cat food and treats like raisins and banana that will elevate the blood sugar levels. A high quality ferret food is advised to maintain the normal blood sugar levels.

This will extend your ferret's quality of life and give him a little more time with you.


As the nearest person, you can treat your ferret immediately if your ferret goes into hypoglycemia, but you should always make an appointment to see your vet as soon as possible so they can determine the cause.

Owners learn to recognise the early signs and can treat their ferret with a sugar solution such as honey, golden syrup or a little glucose dissolved in warm water.

Use the gums. If your ferret begins to convulse while you are applying the sugar it may bite down on your finger and clamp its jaws. Repeat the application of the sugar every so often until your ferret shows signs of improving. It can often take around half an hour before you see any improvement and sometimes longer. When your ferret has come around enough, the sugar should be followed with a high protein and fat snack because the sugar induces more insulin production with a risk of a second attack of hypoglycemia. The high protein meal will help to stabilise the blood sugar levels.


Symptoms can occur in episodes with normal periods of activity in between. A ferret may exhibit just some of the symptoms, which can make it hard to diagnose, such as lethargy and sleeping more which can be expected anyway in an older ferret.

- Weight loss

- Depression and lethargy, sleeping more then is usual and appearing 'out of it' and in a daze

- Staring into space

Weakness and lack of coordination, especially in the back legs

Drooling and salivating, pawing at the mouth

Clenched teeth, jaws clenched firmly shut

Severe lowering of the blood sugar results in hypoglycemic coma.

(From Ferrets First Issue #23 April/May 2005)

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