One-year-old sea otter Mishka at the Seattle Aquarium has asthma and marine mammal experts believe she’s the first sea otter to be diagnosed with the disease.
Asthma makes it difficult to breathe by causing spaces in the lungs to become narrower than usual, which allows less oxygen to enter the lungs.
Many believe asthma is a condition that affects only humans, but any animal with lungs can have it—cats and horses are two land animals that commonly get asthma.
Smoke caused Mishka to have trouble breathing
Mishka began having trouble breathing when smoke from the Eastern Washington wildfires moved into the Puget Sound area last month. The aquarium’s staff veterinarian Dr. Lesanna Lahner made the diagnosis of asthma based on Mishka’s clinical signs of having difficulty breathing, blood work, radiographs, and actually listening to her chest just like an M.D. would listen a child’s lungs to help diagnose asthma.
Now Mishka is learning to use an inhaler, just like humans do, to receive medication that will help her breathe better. (In fact, even her medication is the same as that used by humans with asthma!)
Mishka’s asthma coming from unknown sources
Aquarium biologist Sara Perry uses food to train Mishka to push her nose on the inhaler and take a breath.
“We try to make it as fun as possible,” she says. “Anytime you’re training a medical behaviour, you want to make it nice and positive.”
Why does Mishka have asthma? Aquarium staff don’t know exactly. Humans develop asthma for different reasons.
Sometimes it’s a mixture of genetics and environmental exposure or sometimes it’s just exposure to an irritating substance such as smoke from wildfires.
It could also be related to reduced genetic diversity in sea otters, which has the potential to impact their immune systems and make it harder to fight off disease.
Washington sea otters became extinct in 1910 as a result of rampant hunting related to the maritime fur trade. (Fast fact: the pelt from the final native Washington sea otter was sold for $1,000, which at that time was enough to buy a house—otters were hunted to extinction because of their tremendous monetary value.)
Sea otters given protection after fur trade hunt
Sea otters, along with other fur-bearing marine mammal species, were given protection from fur trade hunting under an international treaty in 1911 but, of course, that was too late for the animals that had made their homes in our state’s waters. Washington was without otters for 60 years—until in 1969 and 1970, 59 otters were moved from Alaska to areas along the Washington coast.
It’s believed that most of these animals died; many were found washed ashore, dead, soon after. Because of that, it’s estimated that the sea otters on the Washington State’s coast today are descended from as few as 10 animals.