A Brush With Insulinoma Toby's Story

Jennie Chapman tells the moving and positive story of rescue ferret Toby's battle to overcome insulinoma. Jennie also gives us a closely researched insight into the frightening and potentially fatal medical condition.

Toby came to live with us in September 2002. He was an older rescue (possibly about five) and gentle and quiet, not really playful but happy to have the odd 'moment' in the rice tub and a little bounce up and down when the mood took him. He also loved the occasional game in the tubes with one of his ferret friends in his group of four.

Over the years he began to slow down. It was gradual and he seemed to sleep more and play less, but he appeared to be quite happy and we thought he was just becoming old.

I went to let his group out for their evening playtime. Toby was still in the hammock and when I gave it a prod to wake him he was all floppy and lifeless, like he was asleep with his eyes open. I put the others away in a hurry (much to their annoyance) and sat with Toby on my lap. He was cooler than he should have been so I warmed him with a hot water bottle and rang the vet. It was an answering service and I had to wait for them to ring me back.

Toby's nose was running but his jaws were clamped shut, he seemed to be in a coma. I remembered reading about ferrets that go into hypoglycemic comas when they have insulinoma and how it was recommended to rub honey or syrup on their gums to raise their blood sugar levels. I decided I had nothing to lose in trying and got a cotton bud, dipped it in golden syrup and rubbed it along the insides of his gums and lips. It didn't seem to have any immediate effect, he didn't lick his lips or even seem to notice.

The phone rang and it was the vet. She said that they would have done the same things I had done, keep him warm and give him a glucose solution to see if that would have an effect. As I was talking to the vet I noticed Toby was beginning to yawn, it looked like the syrup was beginning to work!

The vet said to melt some sugar in warm water and give him a little as it would absorb into the blood faster than syrup and to keep and eye on him, keep him warm and quiet and bring him into the vets as soon as possible for a check up. Luckily I had a syringe and, as Toby was now a little more conscious, I managed to syringe a little sugar water into his mouth. He slowly but steadily became more 'with it' and although wobbly, was out oh his coma. I watched him overnight until he began to eat, and then I knew he was all right.

We took Toby to the vet on Monday morning (he had, of course, become ill on a Saturday night). They checked him over and couldn't feel any lumps internally and decided to try to take some blood to get a blood glucose reading. Toby was as good as gold and between the veterinary nurse, a trainee vet, me and a bottle of Ferretone, Toby was laid flat on his back and held down firmly, had his neck shaved and a needle inserted to try to find the vein, which seemed to take about five minutes. Toby was a real saint and they were all very impressed with him - after being somewhat nervous of treating a ferret without sedating him first.

When the result came back even the vet was shocked. Toby's blood sugar level was 1.7 and in the book the vet consulted it said that any reading around 2.6 was low and indicative of insulinoma. Toby's was very low indeed!

Toby was prescribed a fairly high dose of Prednisone, 2.5 mg (or half a tablet) a day to begin with. It has given him a new lease of life. He hasn't had a single hypogylcemic episode since and he is like the ferret he was a few years ago. He is almost running at times and has a little play now and then, he is so much happier and livelier.

The vet will be reducing the dose of Pred. until we find the right level for Toby. Each ferret is different. I now have a box of glucose in my cupboard just in case he goes into an hypoglycemic coma again. Glucose is absorbed into the blood faster than anything else and the vet said it was preferable, but not too much as that can cause just as many problems. It seemed to take at least 20 minutes to begin working when I gave Toby the syrup during his coma so hopefully the glucose will work faster.

Toby isn't to go without food so he can eat to keep his sugar levels up. No sweet treats are allowed as they would elevate his blood sugar. The vet checked the ingredients of Ferretone and, much to Toby's relief, it has no sugars and it is fine for him to have.

As Toby is an older ferret, aged about seven, both the vet and I aare reluctant to treat him with surgery. He is doing so well on the Pred. right now and he isn't one of those strong robust types. He will continue to live with his three gentle cage mates and maybe, if he becomes stronger, then we will look at surgery as an option for him. Whatever the future, Toby has at least a few good years with us still to come and we will do our very best for him.

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

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