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The Curious Case of the Sea Lion That Couldn’t Catch His Breath

California sea lion Orchard was having trouble breathing when he was rescued. Veterinary experts at The Marine Mammal Center recognized that he had a rare condition and treated it with a simple procedure, saving his life.

November 19, 2014

Orchard was diagnosed with a rare respiratory condition.
© Sarah van Schagen, The Marine Mammal Center



“Rescued from San Gregorio Beach in San Mateo—noted to be sneezing and open-mouth breathing at rescue …”

This is how California sea lion Orchard’s medical chart begins. It’s the first line in a seven-page medical progress report that starts with an admit exam. And what follows details exactly how the veterinary experts at The Marine Mammal Center saved his life.

The callers who spotted the year-old sea lion on San Gregorio Beach on October 3 knew something was wrong when they were able to approach him without much of a reaction. He was lethargic—turning toward the water to flee but not moving much. Trained rescue volunteers brought him to our Sausalito hospital that same day.

Orchard was lethargic and underweight when he arrived at the Center.
© The Marine Mammal Center

Although a sea lion his age should be able to catch and eat fish on his own, Orchard refused any offers. He wouldn’t even get into the pool. Instead, our animal care volunteers had to feed him ground-up fish smoothies through a tube into his stomach to ensure he got the nourishment he needed.

During Orchard’s admit exam, Dr. Greg Frankfurter noted multiple puncture wounds on Orchard’s head, abdomen and flippers. It was obvious the young sea lion had some trauma-related injuries, but it was unclear whether these were from bite wounds, gunshots or something else.

Dr. Frankfurter ordered bloodwork and x-rays to be done as soon as Orchard was stable enough.

As the veterinary team continued to monitor Orchard over the next few days, they noted his “increased respiratory effort,” or trouble breathing. Many of the patients we treat end up with pneumonia as a secondary infection when their immune systems are down due to malnutrition or other ailments, and this was one suspected diagnosis for Orchard as well.

However, once Orchard was strong enough to undergo the anesthesia needed for a more thorough exam, including x-rays, the cause of his labored breathing became obvious. Orchard’s x-ray films showed a dark black area along the right side of his ribcage where a healthy lung should be, indicating that the space was filled with air. (A bright white area would have indicated the space was filled with fluid.)

The diagnosis? A pneumothorax, sometimes called “a collapsed lung.”

Thought to be quite rare in sea lions, a pneumothorax is a condition in which air or gas is found within the chest cavity but outside the lungs. Because the chest cavity is normally under negative pressure, once a large amount of air escapes the lungs into the chest cavity, it can’t get out. The buildup of air prevents normal expansion and gas exchange in the lungs, so the patient often presents in respiratory distress.

A Suffocating Sea Lion Saved by a Simple Procedure

To put it simply, Orchard was suffocating. The excess air in his chest prevented him from taking in anything more than shallow breaths. He would have had trouble diving to catch fish too, which may explain his weight loss and disinterest in food.

A pneumothorax is a stressful and life-threatening condition without treatment. Symptoms in any mammal can include lethargy, depression, poor appetite, open-mouth breathing and, in sea lions, floating abnormally in the pool.

In animals, the most common cause for a pneumothorax is a traumatic injury. For Orchard, that could have been a severe bite wound, a gunshot, a stab wound such as from a stingray barb, or a rupture of lung tissue caused by a blunt-force trauma, like falling off a rock or being struck by a boat.

Had Orchard not been rescued, he likely would have died. But instead, a simple procedure saved his life: using a needle and syringe, Dr. Caitlin Brown, Koret Marine Mammal Medicine and Pathology Intern at the Center, performed a thoracocentesis, the removal of a substance (in this case, air) from the chest.

During the procedure, Dr. Brown removed 720 milliliters of air—nearly equivalent to a standard bottle of wine—and the result, she says, was immediate. “He seemed like a very different animal—like he could finally catch his breath.”

Orchard heads for the water, followed by Caprese.
© Julia Mutere, The Marine Mammal Center

Later that day, Orchard ate fish on his own for the first time since his rescue and started getting into the pool regularly. He continued to improve over time.

After two weeks, our veterinary team performed follow-up x-rays on Orchard to ensure that any remaining air in his chest had been absorbed.

At the beginning of November, about a month after Orchard was rescued, he was cleared for release back to the wild. He returned to the ocean along with Caprese, another young sea lion, at Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore.

After making his way along the sandy beach toward the waves, Orchard took a deep breath of fresh air and dove in.

You can make a difference in the lives of marine mammals like Orchard! Your donation or membership goes a long way to help these animals get a second chance at life.




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