Asthmatic sea otter learns to use inhaler

Alison Morrow reports

The Seattle Aquarium believes it has diagnosed the first case of sea otter asthma.

"Mishka" knows nothing about wildfires, but the 1-year-old did learn what it's like to have trouble breathing when smoke got thick and hovered over Seattle skies.

"These lungs here, you can see, have more white in them. In a normal radiograph of a sea otter, you wouldn't be able to see those things," explained Dr. Lesanna Lahner.

Dr. Lahner diagnosed Mishka with asthma. Now, Mishka needs to learn how to use an inhaler -- just like humans.

"We want to make this as fun as possible. Any kind of medical behavior you're training, you want to make sure it's nice and positive," said Lahner.

Her trainer, Sara Perry, uses food to teach Mishka to push her nose on the inhaler and take a deep breath. Mishka's medicine is exactly the same as what's in a human inhaler.

But she may have something else in common with humans.

"More and more there starts to be this concept of what we're calling "One Health," which really is that there's a connection between health of people and the health other species," said Dr. Peter Rabinowitz. "Sometimes those species can tell us there is a problem in the environment that could be important for human health as well."

Dr. Rabinowitz is a professor at the University of Washington in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, as well as the Department of Global Health.

Human cases of asthma are up by about 25% over the last decade. Researchers believe air quality is at least partially to blame.

The health of sea otters dates back to their extinction in Washington. Forty years ago, Alaskan sea otters were brought south and reintroduced on the coast.

"Any time that happens and reduces the genetic diversity of a species that can affect their immune system, ability to fight off diseases or deal with environmental contaminants," Lahner said.

It means animals like Mishka can have heightened sensitivities that alert us to environmental changes. Though only about a year old, she'll likely need the inhaler for the rest of her life.


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