Brace yourselves, cuteness seekers — the Seattle Aquarium is teaching an otter to use an inhaler. As if regular, healthy otters weren't cute enough, Mishka the asthma-afflicted otter somehow makes treating her condition seem exceptionally endearing. Born into the wild, 1-year-old Mishka was determined to have a lung condition when the aquarium noticed she was having trouble breathing due to smoke from wildfires in Eastern Washington. After conducting blood work, radiographs, and listening to her chest as if she was a human baby, the staff veterinarian Dr. Lesanna Lahner determined it was asthma, making Mishka the first otter to suffer from the condition in the animal's documented history.
Just like a human baby, the asthmatic otter had to be taught to use an inhaler, which, by the way, contains the same medication as human inhalers. By using food as encouragement, Aquarium biologist Sara Perry has been training Mishka to push her nose onto the inhaler and breath deeply. "We want to make this as fun as possible," Lahner told local TV news station KING 5. "Any kind of medical behavior you're training, you want to make sure it's nice and positive." According to the Seattle Aquarium blog, Mishka is adjusting nicely to the training, as the incentive of food must be quite strong. She'll likely have to use the inhaler for the rest of her life.
Experts at the aquarium are not sure why Mishka developed asthma. It's a disorder in which airways in the lung become narrow, cutting the oxygen supply and causing difficulty in breathing. For humans, this is could be caused by genetics, allergic reactions, or or exposure to irritating materials. The latter may be the case for Mishka if wildfire smoke was a factor in her malady. "These lungs here, you can see, have more white in them," Lahner explained. "In a normal radiograph of a sea otter, you wouldn't be able to see those things."
But diminished genetic diversity might also be a cause for Mishka's asthma, according to Lahner, as sea otters were extinct in Washington State until 40 years ago, when Alaskan sea otters were brought south. Any animal with lungs can have asthma, and animals such as cats and horses commonly do. In the past decade, there have been a 25 percent increase in the number of human asthma cases. Researchers believe it's a matter of poor air quality.
"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 the health of people and the health other species," Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, a health professor at the University of Washington told King 5. "Sometimes those species can tell us there is a problem in the environment that could be important for human health as well."