Insulinoma is one of the most common neoplastic diseases affecting ferrets. It's caused by tumors in the pancreas which produce excess insulin.
Some of the symptoms to look out for are:
Staring into space
Pawing at the mouth
Episodes of drooling
Difficulty walking, especially in the rear limbs
Should the blood sugar drop very rapidly, it could cause tremors or seizures. In severe cases, the ferret could go into a coma due to lack of glucose in the brain.
If your ferret show signs of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), that is ... lying there limp and looking like it’s about to die (i.e. comatose) ... you MUST rub either honey or Karo (corn) syrup on its gums IMMEDIATELY. If you don't have either on hand, use Nutrigel (for Aussie ferret owners) but be aware that the sugar levels aren't as high. It might be an idea to keep a small jar of honey/Karo syrup in the cupboard, just in case!
Please make sure that you don't mistake your ferret in a coma for Deep Ferret Sleep (DFS) syndrome. Ferrets in DFS wake up when you shake them but a ferret in a coma will not.
Not all ferrets show any sign of insulinoma and to find your ferret lying in a coma is a really frightening experience.
It might take a while for the honey, or whatever you put on your ferret’s gums, to kick in but if you don’t do that, you can be assured that your ferret WILL slip off into a deep sleep and never wake up.
When we found Muis in that state, it was the most frightening thing I have ever experienced because it happened out of the blue and so quickly. Because it was so unexpected, I really freaked out and thought we were going to lose her.
It took about half-an-hour from the first rubbing of Nutrigel into her lips for her to open her eyes. That didn’t last long but it was such a hopeful sign. I put more Nutrigel on her gums and about half-an-hour after the second rubbing, she finally came to and looked “normal”!
I gave her a saucer full of smoothy and she ate that up very enthusiastically, so I topped that up and she licked that all up too.
After that she was completely herself and trotted down the corridor to join the rest of the gang in the chest of drawers. It really was incredible to see the difference – an hour ago she was at death’s door and then, after getting the Nutrigel on her gums, she managed to snap out of her coma and appeared perfectly normal!
When I took her to my vet, she said that if animals have a drop in their blood sugar when they are asleep, they go into this comatose state so it’s IMPERATIVE to rub something sweet on their gums.
Muis didn’t show any signs of insulinoma apart from one occasional a month earlier where she seemed unsteady but it lasted just a couple of minutes and then she was fine, without any help from Nutrigel.
I had taken her to my vet and voiced my concerns about insulinoma but the vet thought that it might have been an epileptic fit, so I was to keep an eye out for any more occurrences. But since that one time, nothing else happened to make me worry until this.
So, I cannot stress this enough. If you find your ferret lying like a limp, wet noodle with its eyes closed and breathing shallow, rapid breaths, grab one of the following - Karo, honey, Nutrical or Nutrigel – and rub a small blob on its gums ASAP and once it comes around, make sure it has something to eat (like the smoothy) to get it back to normal. Then get it to your vet as soon as you possibly can.
There are various options for a ferret with insulinoma but be aware that a ferret with insulinoma cannot be cured. The disease can be controlled and hopefully will give your pet a good quality of life for as long as possible.
One other thing I should point out here - please do NOT get complacent if you *think* your ferret is having a "Deep Ferret Sleep" (DFS) episode.
Not all ferrets sleep deeply but if yours does and you find it hard to wake your little one up, then please don't just assume it was a DFS, especially if you had to rub honey/Karo syrup on its gums.
If that happened then PLEASE take your ferret to the vet to be checked for insulinoma.
Update ... December 15, 2014
This is something I've just come across and all I can say is that I hope, hope, hope that our vets will be able to do something to prevent our babies from dying from insulinoma!
A reader has very kindly shared his advice on how to look after a ferret suffering from this all-too-common disease. Pat's ferret, Bandit, was diagnosed with Diffuse Insulinoma 2 years ago and is still enjoying good quality of life.
The liver is a vital organ that is involved with many functions having to do with blood volume, clotting, fats, glucose, cleaning blood.
One job of the liver that many people don’t realize is that the liver makes, stores and uses glucose. That is why prednisolone (which bypasses the liver) works better than regular prednisone
(which is turned into prednisolone in the liver) in older ferrets and ferrets with liver issues.
A way to help support the liver which actually works is to give your ferret Milk Thistle. It’s the main component (along with B-vitamins) in Hepato-Support, which was recommended by Dr Wagner for a ferret with liver disease.
It’s innocuous, and seems to have no side effects. I give about 1/4 capsule of Milk Thistle in some duck soup and I'm convinced it’s helped more than one ferret not only to feel better, but also to throw off liver infections."
DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this page is not meant to replace seeing a veterinarian if you think your ferret is ill. It’s only meant to supply general information on a particular illness which was obtained either from personal experience with my sick ferrets, or from books and/or the Internet.