CROW Case of the Week: North American River Otter (#19-0230)

The North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) is a member of the weasel family. It makes its home in a burrow, called a den or a holt, near the water’s edge. These dwellings feature numerous tunnels, one of which is connected to the water. River otters are natural swimmers that learn to swim just two months after birth. Their powerful tails and the fluidity of flexing their long bodies act as a propulsion through the water.Their webbed feet and water repellent fur keep them dry and warm, while their nostrils and ears close in the water. They are proficient at diving as well with abilities to reach 60 feet below water.

On land, river otters can move quite efficiently and act like playful youngsters by bounding, running and sliding down hillsides and into water. However, river otters are wild predators, should not be approached and are sensitive to environmental pollution. If an area is polluted, the river otter will move to a new place that isn’t tainted. Interestingly, river otters communicate with sounds and smells either by scent markings within groups or by low frequency chuckling, a hissing bark, snarling growl, whistle, snort, chirp or grunt, depending on whether they are playing, distressed, in pain or irritated.

At CROW, an adult male North American river otter was admitted from Port Charlotte after it was suspected to have been struck by a vehicle. As a result, the otter suffered a fractured femur in its left hind leg. But the main concern at the time of admission was that the otter was hyperthermic (overheated). “When the otter arrived, the hyperthermia was the main concern as this was the most life threatening abnormality on presentation,” said Dr. Kyle Abbott, CROW veterinary intern.

“The otter was comatose when he was presented due to this hyperthermia.” Once the otter was stabilized, it was taken to Specialized Veterinary Services in Fort Myers, where Dr. Jason Eisele placed a plate and screws in the injured leg to stabilize the fractures. A second surgery was needed in which a pin was added after the otter reinjured the leg during recovery.

“The surgery was performed by a boarded veterinary surgeon who performs orthopedic repairs on mammals, cats and dogs, more regularly. We ultimately perform surgeries on all of our other patients, but this required a different kind of specialized surgical care to give this otter the best chance at recovery,” said Dr. Abbott.

“During the fracture recovery period for any mammal, which is usually seven to eight weeks long, strict cage rest is important for healing. However, with a large, wild river otter, this is not possible to achieve like it would be with other animals.Like any otter, this patient was active and during his activity he re-injured the leg. A radiograph check three weeks after the second surgery and seven and a half weeks after surgery have showed the plate, screws and pin remain in place and the bone has made progress in healing, but it still needs more time to fully heal.

 “Initially the otter was on antibiotics and pain control for his healing leg and surgical site. The otter was steadily moved to larger cages while healing as his use of the injured leg increased,” added Dr. Abbott.

“We will be rechecking his radiographs in four weeks from his most recent ones. The radiographic evidence of healing is moving well in certain areas, and slower in others. Another four weeks should give the bone further time to heal. We will reassess at that time and hopefully plan for his release.”



CROW Case of the Week stories are written by Bob Petcher and appear weekly in the Island Sun and River Weekly Newspapers.

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