Oiled Sea Otter Rehabilitation Course


Shock is often observed when pups arrive at the rehabilitation center. The pups will appear lethargic or comatose and may not have nursed for many hours. This life threatening condition is often caused by dehydration and should be treated with lactated Ringer’s solution at a dose of 90 ml/kg for the first day, then decreased to 25 ml/kg/ day to cover normal fluid loss by urination and respiratory water loss until the otter’s condition stabilizes. The fluids should be warmed to 38°C (100°F) and administered subcutaneously.

Hypothermia and Hyperthermia

The most frequent health problem encountered in sea otter pups is hypothermia (a decrease in core body temperature below 37.5°C or 99.5°F). If a pup becomes hypothermic, rub its entire body vigorously with soft, cotton towels until it responds. This procedure stimulates the pup’s circulation and rewarms the periphery. Heat lamps can be used for additional heat. Although hair dryers (set on low heat) can be used, the noise may be stressful. A circulating fan is helpful for drying the fur and produces little noise. Do not place the pup on a cool waterbed or in water until its core body temperature has stabilized for several hours. If a pup becomes hypothermic while in a pool, simply removing it from the water and towel drying it immediately may correct the problem. (The thermal conductivity of water is twenty-five times greater than that of air, which causes rapid heat loss if the animal is wet.) Sea otter pups may become hyperthermic (core body temperature above 38.1°C or 100.6°F) if they are wrapped in blankets or if the nursery is kept warmer than 15°C (60°F). An overheated pup can be cooled by placing it in cool (15°C or 60°F) seawater or by placing it on top of ice packs. Also, freshwater ice cubes can be given to the pup to chew. Rectal temperature should be monitored constantly when warming or cooling a

Aspiration of Water

Pups occasionally suffer respiratory compromise as a result of aspirating water. The clinical signs of aspiration are fever, lethargy, and dyspnea. If upper airway sounds are heard during auscultation, or if aspiration is suspected, the prophylactic use of broad spectrum antibiotics such as penicillin (20,000 units per kg sid IM), cephalosporin (40 mg/kg bid IM), or sulfatrimethoprim (20 mg/kg bid IM) is recommended.


Diarrhea is often a symptom of serious disease. The cause should be determined as soon as possible. The most life threatening diarrhea is caused by hemorrhagic enteritis which results in black tarry feces (Williams, 1990). This clinical condition often occurs within twenty-four hours of a stressful condition, but can also result from too much fat or squid in the formula. The color, frequency, and consistency of the feces is often diagnostic. Diarrhea should be immediately treated with the following combination of medications; cimetidine (5 mg/kg tid IM), atropine sulfate (1 cc/l0 kg SQ) and metoclopramide hydrochloride (0.2 mg/kg bid IM) (Williams, 1990).

Perianal Dermititis

Feces may soak into the perianal area, mat the fur, and cause perianal dermatitis in sea otter pups. To prevent this condition, the perianal area should be washed vigorously, rinsed with salt water, blown dry at room temperature, and the fur brushed after each urination or defecation. If perianal dermatitis occurs, needle aspirates of the pustules usually yield mixtures of rod and cocci bacteria. This disorder has been treated with limited success with antibiotics (clavamox and cephalexin). Bacterial culture and sensitivity analysis of the aspirates should be performed to determine the optimum antibiotic therapy. Shampooing the affected area daily with benzoyl peroxide helps to control the spread of dermatitis (Styers and McCormick, 1990).


Both sea otter pups and juvenile sea otters are prone to hypoglycemic seizures after relatively short periods of anorexia, especially when concurrent underlying problems such as sepsis or stress are present. Hypoglycemic seizures should be treated with 50% dextrose intravenously. If an intravenous route is not available, lactated Ringer’s solution and 5% dextrose should be administered intraperitoneally. After the infusion, the pup should receive glucose every two to three hours by stomach tube, orally with a syringe, or saturated in crushed ice until the problem has abated (Williams, 1990).


Infant sea otters experience stress when separated from their mothers. The pup may express this stress by constantly vocalizing or by developing diarrhea, dark colored feces, and by vomiting. Sea otter pups require round-the-clock care (three staff persons working in eight-hour shifts) by experienced animal care specialists. Stress will be minimized if the pups receive good nutrition, have healthy fur, and are kept in a nursery environment that is clean, quiet, well ventilated and climate controlled. Barabash-Nikiforov (1947) found that classical music may soothe sea otter pups. Stress is also alleviated by allowing pups older than two to three months to socialize.