Sea otter may be first in Alaska infected with harmful parasite

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Posted by on February 22, 2005 at 21:50:42:

SEWARD, Alaska - A sea otter found in Seward may be the first in Alaska with a parasite that has harmed the animals in California.

The sea otter was found with antibodies to toxoplasma, a protozoan parasite, said Carrie Goertz, a veterinary rehabilitation manager at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

"We hope it is a localized case, but the fact that toxoplasmosis has appeared here in Alaska is just one more hit for Alaska's otters," she said.

The parasite is widespread among sea otters in California. The Seward sea otter is the first detected case of toxoplasmosis she has heard of in Alaska.

Toxoplasmosis is a microscopic protozoan that causes symptoms of meningitis or encephalitis in sea otters and other animals. It attacks the neurological function in otters, she said.

Toxoplasmosis causes swelling of brain tissues and neurological signs such as seizures and stupor in sea otters and other animals. Toxoplasmosis can be fatal, Goertz said.

The Seward sea otter may have acquired it from eating clams contaminated with parasite eggs. The likely host is cats.

"Toxoplasmosis can be transmitted by cat feces entering the water," Goertz said.

The adult male sea otter was spotted on shore Jan. 29 near a popular skateboard park. The animal was lethargic and guarding its paw.

Radiographs showed puncture wounds and broken bones in its front-right paw, as well as a broken rib. Its condition is "guarded."

"We are treating him with antimicrobial drugs and have operated on his injured paw, and now we expect to keep him here for at least a month," Goertz said.

She said the disease causes the animal to "zone out," a stupor condition that could cause drowning or starvation, or increase susceptibility to predation.

The center may decide the animal cannot be released in the wild, Goertz said.

The Sealife Center works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to research causes behind regional declines in Alaskan sea otters. When an animal is rescued or rehabilitated, the center takes blood and tissue samples.

The sea otter's test came back from University of California, Davis with the positive result for antibodies to toxoplasma. The test was repeated with the same result.

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