Otter Be Healthy: Animal Husbandry of Lontra canadensis

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Calvert Marine Museum

SOLOMONS, Md., February 8, 2014—The Calvert Marine Museum strives for excellence in all of its animal care programs. Being mammals, our charismatic North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) “Bubbles” and “Squeak” receive extra attention and scrutiny.

Every day, aquarium staff police the otter exhibit and holding areas for scrubbing and disinfection needs; enrichment items such as puzzle feeders, toys, scents and décor are switched to prevent boredom; linens are swapped giving each otter a cozy, dry bed that coming evening. The otters even have a dedicated Laundromat.

In 2012, the museum invested $50,000 in a modern filtration system to maintain water quality in the otters’ 8,000-gallon freshwater pool. This system practically runs itself, monitoring pressures to automatically start backwash cycles, and with control points that activate/deactivate chemical feeders.

These animal husbandry elements are not just fanfare—every year, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service pays an unscheduled visit—or visits as the case may be—to conduct a site inspection. The museum is required to provide proof that high standards are being met in areas such as nourishment, record keeping, water quality management and veterinary care.


Twice a year (or more as needed), the Calvert Marine Museum coordinates visits by our consulting veterinarian Jennifer Matteson, D.V.M. of Three Notch Veterinary Hospital in Hollywood, Md. The midyear visit entails review of protocols and a hands-off examination of the otters. On Feb. 5, 2014, full physical examinations were conducted on both otters while under sedation–this annual event is done onsite to reduce stress to the animals.

Despite this being a routine examination that has been executed successfully many times without incident, each time raises tension for both keeper and critter. This process requires anesthetizing (we do not touch otters that are conscious) the otters with Telazol, used for its predictable results. This is achieved by pre-conditioning the otters to enter a squeeze box so the animal can be neatly injected without issue (such as needles breaking off beneath the skin).

Dr. Matteson prepares to administer anesthesia to “Squeak”
Dr. Matteson prepares to administer anesthesia to “Squeak”

It takes 10 to 15 minutes for the Telazol to take effect, and two to three hours to wear off, so time is of the essence. Sedated otters are easily manipulated, though they are bulky (weighing over 20 pounds each) and care must be taken to avoid injuries to the head and skeleton.

Dr. Matteson manually transfers the sedate “Squeak” to the examination table
Dr. Matteson manually transfers the sedate “Squeak” to the examination table

An impromptu examination table is used to conduct the physical. It is disinfected, lit by heat lamps and cushioned by a temperature-regulating pad. Once in place, the otter is checked for range of motion and musculoskeletal problems—wild animals have an uncanny knack for hiding injury. This tactile exam also reveals information about general body conditioning such as the “fattiness” of the tail, a key health indicator.

Teeth are checked and cleaned of plaque. Ears, nose and throat are viewed by otoscope. The heart is monitored for palpitations and arrhythmia. A tourniquet is applied to a front leg and blood is drawn.  Feet are studied for pad lesions and claw health. Vaccinations are administered for rabies and parvovirus. The eyes are checked for clarity or sign of degeneration.

a stethoscope is used to check the heart while a rectal thermometer records vital statistics; Veterinary Technician Torrie Hammett is seen assisting
a stethoscope is used to check the heart while a rectal thermometer records vital statistics; Veterinary Technician Torrie Hammett is seen assisting
these rounded canines show customary wear from eleven years of gnashing; the gums are a healthy pink
these rounded canines show customary wear from eleven years of gnashing; the gums are a healthy pink
blood is drawn from a vein made easier to locate by application of a shoulder tourniquet (black band)
blood is drawn from a vein made easier to locate by application of a shoulder tourniquet (black band)
vaccinations are administered – rabies is not unheard of in river otters
vaccinations are administered – rabies is not unheard of in river otters
teeth are scraped of plaque, gums are checked for gingivitis
teeth are scraped of plaque, gums are checked for gingivitis

The entire time the otters are knocked out, they are closely monitored for signs of distress. The eyes are kept moist by a mucous-like gel. Treatment is given to reduce salivation to prevent choking. Breathing is checked continuously. The color of the tongue and gums are used to indicate good blood circulation–pink is good, blue is bad. Alertness is watched to avoid any surprises.

The last step in the exam is to get an accurate weight of each otter. Weight is a good indicator and, just as in humans, can be a telltale sign of deteriorating health when other symptoms do not present themselves.

otters are weighed using a plastic container that has been pre-zeroed on the digital scale
otters are weighed using a plastic container that has been pre-zeroed on the digital scale

After this, the otters are returned to separate holding areas to recuperate. The animal care team checks on the otters regularly until they have made full recoveries. All said, this routine is not unlike a visit to your doctor’s office for outpatient care.

In the days that follow the annual otter physicals, blood will be sent out to be run by an independent laboratory and results analyzed. A titer for distemper will be done to ensure that vaccination is still effective.  Inspection of feces will indicate the presence of any unwanted parasites. Errant findings will be used to make adjustments to medications, diet and vitamin regime, or to make plans for follow up visits as necessary. Staff will administer veterinarian-prescribed Droncit, Panacur and Clavamox in subsequent feedings for preventative deworming and antibiotic treatments. Finally, records will be updated in preparation for the next surprise visit by the USDA.

This process is full of challenges and sometimes surprises. If all goes well, the otters will receive another clean bill of health and there will be no revelations. As our otters continue to age (wild river otter lifespans are eight to nine years– “Bubbles” and “Squeak” just turned eleven) into their senior years, the staff and facilities of the Calvert Marine Museum will maintain their vigil, watching for any problems that arise.

The North American river otters are on display daily at the Calvert Marine Museum–visit them in their boardwalk exhibit between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., even while we are closed for renovations. Learn more about the museum and its programs by visiting us on the web (www.calvertmarinemuseum.com), and follow us on Facebook and twitter.

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