Cancer: Exotic Animals Battle it Too

The big “C”—cancer, that erroneous fluke in cell division that multiplies, invades, and eventually destoys normal cells. Unfortunately, most of you have all had loved ones who have bravely battled this dreaded disease. Some of you have even had cats and dogs that have fought it. But, have you ever considered that wildlife and exotic animals get cancer, too? They do.

Here at Zooniversity, we’ve accepted donations of animals with all kinds of health conditions—malnourishment, nutritional deficiencies, genetic conditions, systemic diseases, and…cancer. Our philosophy is do treat each animal as we would want to be treated. So, medical intervention is always given, until the animal’s quality of life deteriorates. When we “just know” it’s time for them to move on, then we help them to pass into their next phase of life. These decisions are so heart-wrenching, so difficult, but we will never let any animal suffer.

Why this dark, soulful topic for a blog? Because it’s an inevitable part of caring for exotic animals. And, because we have had to deal with it many times, especially in the last couple of weeks. Four cancer diagnoses in three weeks. It seems to always come in batches. One animal is no longer with us, one is being treated with medication, and two are recuperating from surgery.


“Goliath,” the two-pound African burrowing bullfrog, relished his weekly mouse (yes, he was carnivorous). Then, he stopped eating. Weeks went by. He refused to eat. We kept him warm, soaked him daily, eventually force-fed him protein-rich gruel. He couldn’t keep anything down. We could feel an abdominal mass on one side. Helpless, we felt it get bigger, and bigger. When his weight started to plummet and he showed signs of pain, we considered surgery. Amphibians do not usually survive surgery, so euthanasia was the better option. Necropsy showed the cause: a massive, cavity- consuming tumor that wrapped around every internal organ. The pathology reports are still pending. Rest in peace, Goliath.


“Bailey” and “Q-Tip” are our two fun-loving, frolicking domestic ferrets. At 8 years of age (too old for surgical risk), Bailey began showing signs of adrenal cancer—hair loss, lethargy, weight loss. We’ve opted to treat her with medication to hopefully slow-down the cancer’s progression—monthly Lupron injections and a melatonin implant. Our 2-year old albino ferret, Q-Tip, showed signs of disorientation and lethargy. A quick test determined his blood sugar was too low. Diagnosis: insulinoma, caused by a pancreatic tumor. He is now recuperating well with a belly-line of sutures from the partial removal of his pancreas. His sugar is still a bit low, hinting that perhaps not all of the tumor is gone. Time will tell.

The most distressing case is “Faith,” our adorable, 10-year old, blind fennec fox, who still has a hoard of fans, despite the fact she retired from our shows years ago. We noticed a small, lumpy mass on the tendonous part of her back leg just two weeks ago. We rushed to have it surgically removed. The pathology report identifies it as “spindle cell sarcoma,” a soft-tissue tumor that has also invaded the bone in her lower leg. Prognosis is that is that the tumor will most likely return. Nothing phases Faith. She’s still squealing with delight to greet her keepers, she still wolfs down her food, and she totally ignores her stitches. She is such a good patient.

Cancer is an insidious, unforgiving disease, no matter whom it strikes. Watching, waiting, and knowing the inevitable future, is the worst part for those of us who’ve been given the gift of caring for these animals.

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