California sea lions sick with leptospirosis

A dying pinniped exhibited occasional spasms after dragging itself up on the beach at Beards Hollow Sunday morning. Though it was near tire tracks, examination from a distance didn't disclose signs of traumatic injury, so it may have been suffering a bacterial illness being blamed for other sea lion deaths on the West Coast.

LONG BEACH — Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute warned this week that pet owners should be especially diligent about keeping pets away from sick and dead sea lions, some of which are dying this fall from the infectious disease leptospirosis.

Leptospirosis, a contagious bacterial infection of the kidneys, naturally occurs in the environment and can also infect humans.

“This disease causes animals to appear very lethargic and unable or unwilling to move their hind limbs, and is often accompanied by weight loss and pneumonia,” the institute said in a Tuesday press release. Dogs are particularly at risk of contracting the disease when they investigate sea lion carcasses or bodily fluids. An immunization is available from veterinarians, who urge prompt veterinary care for animals that suddenly loose their appetites and become lethargic after a visit to the beach. The vaccine isn’t totally effective, as there are several strains of the bacteria.

While there haven’t been recent official reports of the disease on the south Washington coast, it is stirring considerable attention in Oregon.

“As in past years, we are currently seeing a significant increase in the frequency of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) appearing on Oregon beaches in varying states of health and disease. Many have been affected by Leptospirosis, a contagious bacterial infection of the kidneys,” the marine institute said. “While it is possible for infected animals to recover from this disease if given plenty of opportunity to rest, there is no option to rescue and rehabilitate these animals in Oregon.” Washington has the same lack of options.

“This disease, and many others, is transmissible to humans and dogs. We strongly advise people to keep well clear of sea lions on the beach,” the institute said, concluding that is it is a violation of federal and state laws to harass, disturb, touch, or feed marine mammals.

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