If your pet gerbil has a scent gland tumor, it could be fatal. The only treatment option available is surgical removal, but this can be expensive.
Tumors are small hard lumps that appear on or near a gerbil’s scent gland. They are caused by irritation after overmarking. Gerbil scent gland appearance is characterized by swelling, redness, rough dry skin, bleeding, and excess hairless patches. Surgery costs $150-$400.
The anesthetic can be dangerous or fatal, and your gerbil will have a surgical scar that could get infected. It also costs a lot, so consider your options before deciding.
What Are Scent Gland Tumors in Gerbils?
Tumors, also known as cancers or neoplasms, are abnormal cell growths. They occur when the DNA in cell changes in some way. This DNA is copied throughout the cell. Before long, many cells are full of this incorrect DNA, and the growth begins to get out of control.
Gerbils can get different kinds of tumors. Skin tumors can appear all over the body, for example on your pet’s ears or feet. Internal cancers do occur, but are, of course, harder to spot. Much more common are scent gland tumors.
Your gerbil’s scent gland is located on its belly. It’s a shade darker than the rest of your gerbil’s skin, and is hairless. You will have seen it before.
Gerbils use this scent gland to mark their territory, and to show that they want to mate. According to Animal Behavior, males use it more often than females, and a male’s gland is bigger.
While it does serve a useful purpose, the gerbil’s scent gland is also vulnerable to tumors. Cancerous growths can appear in this area in old age.
What Is a Gerbil’s Scent Gland?
The gerbil’s scent gland is like the scent glands of other animals. It is a sebaceous gland, which is the same kind of gland that produces sweat. However, a scent gland produces a modified fluid that contains lots of pheromones (smelly chemicals).
These pheromones serve several functions in the animal kingdom. They are used:
- To mark territory, so that animals can control food or water sources
- By competing males, to attract females
- By females, to see which male has the best genetics for mating
Even though you may not notice it, pheromones are produced by people as well. Humans don’t have scent glands, but we can still release pheromones in our sweat. You won’t notice that you can smell them, but your nose still picks up on them.
Either way, the gerbil’s scent gland produces an orange fluid. This fluid is used in the ways described above. The gerbil will leave it behind as it moves, where its belly touches things. Males do this more than females.
In certain circumstances, the gerbil will use its scent gland more frequently. So, a male will leave its scent behind when there are competing males around.
This behavior is carried over into captivity. If you observe your pets for long enough, you will notice them scent marking. As in the wild, males do this more frequently, and will mark more in the presence of other males.
Why Do Gerbils Get Scent Gland Tumors?
Tumors can occur for several reasons. The underlying cause is abnormal DNA, but there are many reasons why DNA can be made ‘abnormal’ in the first place.
In gerbils, the main cause of scent gland tumors is irritation. The scent gland is on a part of the body that can easily be rubbed against things, such as the stomach. Throughout its life, the gerbil will rub its stomach on all sorts of things.
If the gerbil does this too much, the area can become swollen and irritated. It can even develop open wounds that can become infected. It’s this repeated damage that causes tumors.
The principle is the same in people. Skin cancer is caused by repeated damage to the skin, from years of overexposure to the sun. In the same way, repeated damage to the gerbil’s scent gland can result in tumors too.
Are Gerbil Tumors Malignant?
According to Johns Hopkins, two kinds of tumors can affect any animal. These are malignant and benign tumors. You’ve likely heard this distinction before, and it’s an important one.
A benign tumor is one that’s self-contained. A benign tumor will not spread into nearby tissue, or into the bloodstream or lymph system (which is how cancers spread). You can ‘live with’ a benign tumor, although there is a chance it can become malignant.
Malignant tumors are also called cancers, while benign tumors are not. Malignant tumors will invade nearby tissue to grow bigger. They can travel to other parts of the body, e.g. from the lungs to other organs. Malignant tumors are dangerous.
Gerbil tumors are usually malignant. So, if you don’t get it removed, it will grow bigger on your pet’s stomach. This will gradually kill it. That’s why surgery is the right choice for your gerbil’s health.
How to Tell If Your Gerbil Has Scent Gland Tumor
The gerbil scent gland has a unique and distinctive appearance. This assists in identifying the cancers that might affect it, or might appear around it. Unlike other cancers, like those that affect internal organs, scent gland tumors can be easily spotted.
Surgery is more frequently successful, if the tumor is discovered early. It’s simpler because the tumor is smaller. There’s less to remove, and your gerbil’s health won’t be badly affected.
Healthy Gerbil Scent Gland
A gerbil’s scent gland is visible if you know where to look. Unlike those of many other animals, it’s located on the gerbil’s stomach. The typical healthy gerbil scent gland is:
- Located centrally in the stomach, along a central line
- Tan or skin-colored, usually a shade darker than the rest of your gerbil’s skin. It may also be slightly orange, as the secretion that comes from it is orange
- Hairless, but surrounded by regular belly hair
If you’ve spent lots of time with your gerbil, you will have seen its scent gland before. But because it’s on your pet’s underside, you may not frequently get a good look. That’s why tumors can develop their unnoticed.
Gerbil Scent Gland Tumor Appearance
Here is a table describing all the symptoms you might expect to see. After they are described briefly here, we explore each point in more depth below.
|Redness and swelling||Always||Redness and swelling appear around the lump, like a spot. Always appear when an area is inflamed. Exacerbated by the physical presence of a tumor.|
|Bleeding||Somewhat common||Fresh and dried blood can appear. Can be the result of the skin stretching. Can also appear after irritation of the scent gland.|
|Dry skin||Common||When the scent gland is damaged, it dries out. Flakes like dandruff (fine and powdery) appear around the scent gland.|
|Bare patches||Common||Irritation and overgrooming can get rid of patches of your gerbil’s hair.|
|Hard lump under the skin||Always||This is the tumor itself, which always appears. It is harder than the surrounding tissue and is noticeable if you run your finger over it.|
Aside from this, your gerbil’s behavior may change. When a gerbil is ill, it gets depressed and stressed. Your gerbil will:
- Go off its food
- Not want to play as much as it used to
- Not get excited when it sees you
- Spend more of its time sleeping than before
- Overgroom, chew its cage bars and scratch the floor (stereotypy behavior)
However, these behaviors can be symptoms of many health conditions. So, while this symptom is worth looking for, it cannot definitively be called a sign of cancer.
How to Check for Gerbil Scent Gland Tumors
It’s no use knowing all about these signs if you can’t search for them. To check for these signs, you have to examine your gerbil manually. This is more difficult than it might sound. Follow these guidelines:
- Take your gerbil from its enclosure. Scoop it rather than lifting it from above.
- Turn your gerbil onto its back. If your gerbil is tame and trusting, it may allow this. But many gerbils don’t like being flipped this way.
- Examine your gerbil’s underside. Look for all the symptoms listed above, and make a note of anything unusual.
- Take a photograph to refer to later, rather than stressing your gerbil by looking again. You may need to get a friend to do this for you. The higher resolution your camera is, the better.
One common problem is that your gerbil won’t stay still in your hand. Gerbils are active animals, and also might not like being flipped upside down. If your gerbil feels this way, put it inside a clear plastic tub (with air holes).
Then, hold the tub over your head. From this angle, you can look at your pet’s underside. You can do this for longer than you can hold a gerbil on its back. It’s also less stressful for your pet. Even so, holding your gerbil in your hand is ideal.
That’s because you can touch your gerbil’s belly to feel for lumps. The plastic tub may also make photos blurry. So, try holding your gerbil first.
If you still can’t spot these signs, but you’re sure that something is wrong, talk to a vet. They can diagnose the issue for you.
Redness and Swelling
These two symptoms appear together. The swelling occurs because the tumor is large enough to push out at the skin.
It can also occur because the gerbil has been overmarking its territory. Gerbils use their scent glands to lay claim to places, and to let potential mates know where they are. They do so by rubbing their bellies on things. So, rubbing the area too much results in irritation.
Redness co-occurs with swelling. Blood is pushed towards the surface of the skin by the hard tumor underneath. It is also a classic sign of irritation and inflammation.
The area may also have a small open wound with a slight amount of bleeding. There may also be small amounts of dried blood around or on your gerbil’s scent gland. Bleeding can occur for several reasons.
- Tumors can be brought on by overuse of the scent gland. The gland is rubbed against things that the gerbil wants to mark. This can cause irritation and, in the worst cases, wounds.
- The skin becomes dry and cracked after tumors occur.
- The tumor may be large enough to have cracked the skin on its own.
Blood is one of the most noticeable symptoms. It’s bright against your gerbil’s fur. If the blood is dried, it will also have the distinctive dried texture of blood, and perhaps still be sticky.
When tumors occur, the scent gland is damaged. Because of this damage, it can become dry and the skin flaky. Whereas before it was soft like the rest of your gerbil’s skin, it will now be dry and rough.
You can easily see the signs of this occurring. There may be small amounts of flaky skin around or on your gerbil’s scent gland. There may also be large flakes of skin sticking out. These dry flakes of skin can look like dandruff.
Tumors usually occur because of overmarking. This results in irritation along the belly, and on the scent gland itself. While redness and swelling are the first marks of irritation, they can eventually cause baldness.
Overgrooming can also cause baldness. When a gerbil senses something wrong with its health, it can begin grooming too much. This can happen when a gerbil has parasites, for example. It can also happen if your gerbil’s skin is irritated, or it notices the small lump on its belly.
These spots are small at first, but will become bigger over time. By observing your gerbil frequently, you will also see if it grooms or marks too much. Compare the gerbil to the others in its enclosure to see if it’s marking/grooming too frequently.
Small, Hard Lump on Gerbil Scent Gland
You can also try to feel the tumor itself to identify its presence. Take your gerbil in your hand, and keep it comfortable while you turn it on its back. Look at its scent gland first to see if there are any other symptoms present.
Then, take your finger and gently touch around your gerbil’s scent gland. If there are any bare patches of skin nearby, run your finger here too. You’re looking for a small, hard lump under the surface of your pet’s skin.
If you find one, and can identify these other symptoms too, then the issue is likely a tumor. You should take your gerbil to the vet. They can diagnose your pet’s condition, because you may be wrong.
Scent Gland Tumor Treatment
The only way to treat your gerbil’s scent gland tumor is through surgery. There is no such thing as chemotherapy for gerbils, so cancer must be cut out. Only a veterinarian should perform this procedure, and it can be costly.
Scent Gland Tumor Surgery
Your vet will begin the procedure by giving your gerbil anesthetic. This will stop your pet from feeling any pain during the operation. Ask your vet before the operation starts whether they will be using any, for the welfare of your pet.
Before administering any, your vet should ask about your gerbil’s medical history. This is because some people and animals are allergic to the anesthetic. Even in people/animals without this sensitivity, the anesthetic can be dangerous.
Depending on the location of the tumor, there are two options available to the vet. These are to remove the tumor alone, or to remove the scent gland and tumor together.
Removing the tumor alone allows the gerbil to retain the use of its scent gland. This is good because it will enable your pet to continue its life as usual. But it’s also bad, in that it could develop other tumors.
Average Surgical Removal Costs
The cost of the surgery for your pet depends entirely on the vet you ask. Some vets will charge more than others. Some will be more experienced than others, which can either lead to the charging of a fair price, or overcharging.
The quote for surgery will be somewhere between $150 and $400. This covers the cost of anesthesia, surgery, and subsequent pain medication.
Depending on your insurance, you may have to pay some or all of these costs. Check your policy before you make your decision. If you don’t have insurance, you will have to pay the entire bill. You may pay this bill in installments depending on the vet you opt for.
It may not be possible to pay this large amount of money. That’s why many people don’t get surgery for their gerbil.
If you cannot afford or do not want your gerbil to have surgery, you can leave the tumor be. This will allow the tumor to continue growing. You can’t stop it in any other way. There are things you can do to make your gerbil’s life a little better:
- Providing more toys in its enclosure for it to play on
- Giving it more varied foods to eat, to keep its spirits up
- Taking it from its enclosure regularly for playtime
However, it may not be a bad idea. Surgery carries several risks, no matter the age of your pet. But in old pets, especially, the shock and physical trauma of surgery can kill on their own.
You should carefully consider whether surgery is worth the cost. Of course, the surgery itself costs a lot of money. But it can also hurt your gerbil in its own way. If your gerbil is already old (i.e. older than three), you may not feel there’s much point to the surgical operation.
Prognosis after Scent Gland Tumor
The outcome of this surgery is usually good. Your pet will survive, and live its life as normal. It may be less active as it recovers from the surgery, but gerbils are resilient. Your pet will be back to its old self in no time. However, there are several complications that may affect your pet. They include:
- Avoidance of pain medication
- Nibbling and gnawing at the surgical mark
- Infection of the surgical scar, especially if the gerbil nibbles at it
These issues can complicate recovery. You may have to take your pet to the vet again, e.g. for antibiotics. Despite these known issues, your gerbil is likely to make a full and quick recovery.
Aftercare and Recovery after Surgery
After your gerbil goes through surgery, it will need to recover gradually. You will need to perform ‘aftercare,’ which will help your gerbil get better. The first stage of recovery is after the tumor is removed, the vet will stitch up the wound.
Then, your gerbil will go through fluid therapy. According to the British Medical Journal, fluid therapy helps prevent dehydration and loss of blood volume. It’s also perfect for helping a pet overcome anesthetic, which would take a long time otherwise.
Your pet will be put onto an incubator to help it through this period. This will keep it warm. Once your gerbil wakes up, it can usually go home on the same day. By the next morning, your gerbil will be running around in good health.
Once home, you can help your gerbil in many ways. Keeping your gerbil warm will help, so leave a warm light pointed at the cage, put it next to a heater, or provide lots of extra bedding for your pet to snuggle up in.
Be aware that your pet may smell different when it returns. This can lead to other gerbils rejecting it. However, keeping it isolated isn’t good either. So, watch closely to see if the other gerbils reject it and declan at this time.
Preventing Scent Gland Tumors
Now that you know all about scent gland tumors, you have to know how to prevent them. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent them entirely. But you can make them less frequent and less serious when they do occur.
Check Your Pets Regularly
You should check your gerbils regularly for any symptoms of scent gland tumor (or other conditions). This doesn’t have to be a full diagnostic check, but a once over.
When you’re next playing with a gerbil, pick it up and give its underside a look. Try to identify any symptoms listed above. If you can, then you may catch the tumor before it becomes too severe. It then stands less chance of doing serious harm.
Doing this will also prevent other conditions before they get too serious. It also encourages you to spend lots of time with your pet. So, this is a good idea all around.
Keep Fewer Males
Males overuse their scent glands to a greater extent than females do. That’s because males must compete over mating rights. The male with the strongest scent in the most places will get to mate. So, males can use their scent glands frequently.
Preventing this sort of competition is easy. All you have to do is keep fewer males. By keeping fewer males, you give your gerbils ‘time off’. They don’t have to spend all their time marking territory.
Less time using the scent gland means less chance of irritation, and less chance of tumors. Your gerbil will still use its scent gland, but much less.
To achieve this without getting rid of your gerbils, you can separate the males. However, be aware that this may lead to your pets becoming unhappy. You would be splitting apart their social group, which is bad, even if you prevent competitive scent marking.
Despite these preventative ideas, though, your gerbils are still likely to get tumors.