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southern sea otter Spinny
Patient Update

Threatened Southern Sea Otter Found Stranded with His Life at Stake

November 3, 2021
  • Species conservation

Found exhausted and debilitated with life-threatening shark bite wounds, sea otter Spinny now has a second chance at life as he receives medical care at The Marine Mammal Center, the world’s largest marine mammal hospital.

Meet our newest southern sea otter patient, Spinny. This young male sea otter was spotted in San Luis Obispo, California, with his life at stake due to multiple shark bite wounds.

Stranded on the beach, Spinny was successfully rescued and brought to our main hospital for rehabilitative care. Upon arrival, he underwent a thorough admission exam that included our veterinary experts' inspection of the shark bite wounds, collection of blood and determination of the most effective treatment regimen for this sea otter.

“Even though Spinny’s wounds were relatively minor, they were painful and more importantly, greatly disrupted his coat and compromised his ability to properly thermoregulate,” noted Dr. Michelle Rivard, our Veterinary Fellow.

Without blubber to protect them from chilly ocean waters, sea otters rely on their thick double-layer fur to survive. An otter spends many hours a day grooming itself, coating its fur in natural oils and trapping insulating air bubbles between the skin and layers of hair. This keeps the animal’s skin dry and protected, and their body temperature regulated.

But Spinny’s injuries prevented him from properly grooming and waterproofing his fur. He was quite cold with low blood sugar on arrival, and it was clear to our veterinary experts that this young otter needed extensive hands-on care during his rehabilitation. Fortunately for Spinny, our hospital has specialized tools to care for more vulnerable patients like him.

Just recently our experts acquired and modified a specialized otter tote, a dedicated housing area used to provide more intensive care for sick and injured sea otters—and Spinny was our first patient to use this tote in a treatment regimen.

otter tote with pool to the left and dry area to the right
This is the otter tote that our experts use to treat southern sea otters in need of intensive care and a more controlled environment. Photo by Liz Eby © The Marine Mammal Center
sea otter Spinny in the otter tote with wet fur
Spinny was housed in the otter tote until he was adequately grooming and waterproofing his own fur. Photo by Bill Hunnewell © The Marine Mammal Center / USFWS permit MA101713-1
sea otter Spinny eating herring
Along with nutritious meals, Spinny is receiving special enrichment items as part of his treatment regimen. Photo by Bill Hunnewell © The Marine Mammal Center / USFWS permit MA101713-1
three veterinary experts examine sea otter spinny on an operating table
Dr. Cara Field (left), Dr. Mattison Peters (middle) and Veterinary Technician Amy Rubenstein examine sea otter Spinny. Photo © The Marine Mammal Center / USFWS permit MA101713-1

The sea otter tote can be adjusted based on where an individual patient is in its recovery. Importantly, our animal care experts can control the water temperature. As otters need salt water access to groom and maintain their coats, warm water slows their heat loss when their coat is compromised, allowing more time to groom. The tote also has a dry haul-out space where the air temperature is warmed and circulated via a heat lamp fan. Switching between the warm water and the warm, dry haulout helps decrease the risk of sea otter patients developing hypothermia during rehabilitation.

Controlling the tote’s full environment allows our animal care experts to better treat sick and injured sea otter patients like Spinny. And with only about 3,000 individuals left in the California population of sea otters, each individual otter is essential to saving this threatened species.

Spinny spent the first month of his rehabilitation in the otter tote, during which time he significantly improved in stamina and overall body condition. As this young otter’s wounds were healing and he was getting better at grooming his coat, our veterinary experts decreased the water temperature and turned off the heaters. And once Spinny showed that he could fully waterproof his fur and thermoregulate normally, he was moved from the otter tote to our deeper pools to encourage more swim time and exercise.

To reach a healthy body weight and keep up with the physical demands of swimming, Spinny is getting a nutritious diet of seafood delicacies such as squid, shrimp, crab and sea urchins, and is fed five times per day! (Fun fact: Did you know sea otters can eat 25 to 30 percent of their body weight in one day? That’s similar to a 175-pound person eating 45 pounds of food in one day!)

Spinny is also receiving special enrichment items he can interact with as part of his treatment regimen. Items such as durable substitute kelp and food frozen in ice not only encourage our patients to forage as they would in the wild, but also help to reduce stress while in care. Spinny especially enjoys breaking into his daily “shrimp-cicle” enrichment item!

Sea otters are sentinels of the sea and the opportunity to rehabilitate this species gives us a look into our ocean’s health. As the world’s largest marine mammal hospital, we’re able to take what we learn from the hundreds of animals we rescue each year to help us better understand how to protect our ocean and marine mammals like the threatened southern sea otter.

Spinny has now gained enought weight and just received his final release exam from our veterinary experts, and he is ready to go home! But until then, he is receiving the best possible care thanks to support from caring people like you.

Header image: photo by Bill Hunnewell © The Marine Mammal Center / USFWS permit MA101713-1

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