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The river otter is a common sight among North America’s wildlife. The river otter is a semiaquatic mammal whose population, like most wildlife, is affected by illness and various diseases, some of which are transmittable to other species. Viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites can cause these diseases.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, river otters can contract canine diseases such as rabies, canine distemper, canine parvovirus and infectious canine hepatitis. These diseases are directly transmissible to dogs by mucus membrane contact. Also, river otters can contract feline rhinotracheitis, feline panleucopenia and herpesvirus, all transmittable to cats.
Bacterial diseases contracted by the river otter include salmonellosis, tuberculosis, pneumonia, enteritis, clostridia, brucellosis, leptosporosis, and pasturellosis. In addition, the river otter can contract purulent pleuritis, which is an accumulation of pus in the pleural cavity, and purulent peritonitis, which is an inflammation in the lining of the abdominal cavity.
According to otternet.com, reported fungal diseases in river otters include a superficial skin disease called dermatomycosis, and pulmonary infections called coccidiodomycosis -- otherwise known as valley fever -- and adiaspiromycosis, in which fungal spores enter the lungs through inhalation and cause infection.
Because river otters spend much of their time in water, they have been known to have numerous types of parasitic infections. Toxoplasma gondii is a common parasite affecting otters in the Puget Sound Georgia Basin region. This parasite originates from cats and causes brain inflammation and death. It is speculated otters contract this parasite from feline fecal matter that travels in freshwater. Other internal parasites reported in river otters include 29 species of nematodes or round worms, six species of cestodes or tapeworms, 13 species of trematodes or flukes, eight species of acanthocephalans or spiny headed worms and an unreported number of sporozoans, a type of protist. Other protozoan parasites reported are giardia and cryptosporidium, which cause intestinal illnesses. External parasites affecting river otters include ticks, sucking lice and fleas.
Diseases contracted by river otters are not considered a public health concern; however, they host diseases that can transfer to other animals, including cats and dogs, and a few that humans can contract. Therefore, you should never try to touch a river otter, especially if you have a compromised immune system. Don't leave pets unattended near otter habitats. Any animal professional handling a river otter should wear proper protection. Of course, river otter diseases regulate but generally do not threaten their population.
- otter image by Darren Ager from Fotolia.com