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Sea otter with asthma learns to use an inhaler

The air was hazy from forest fires, and Mishka, a 1-year-old sea otter at the Seattle Aquarium, could barely breathe.

Aquarium staff jumped into action, putting an oxygen mask on the 45-lb. (20 kilograms) sea otter and administering anti-inflammatory medication to help her breathe. After several medical tests, Mishka became the first-known sea otter (Enhydra lutris) to be diagnosed with asthma.

Now, trainers are teaching Mishka how to use an inhaler -- one that's not designed for sea otters (after all, Mishka is the first one) but for cats, said Seattle Aquarium staff veterinarian Dr. Lesanna Lahner. [Image Gallery: Otter Pups Get a Checkup]

"She's very smart, and she's picking it up quite quickly," Lahner told Live Science. "But being an otter, she's also extremely playful. So we have to work with her and with her playfulness to make it fun."

Aquarium gives orphaned otter a second chance at life 01:30

Mishka is relatively new to the Seattle Aquarium. The Alaska native was rescued after people found her tangled in a fishing net in July 2014, according to the aquarium. She spent the next several months in rehabilitation at the Alaska SeaLife Center. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed her nonreleasable because she never learned critical survival skills, such as how to forage for food, and thus would be unable to survive in the wild, Lahner said.

Zookeepers named her Mishka, Russian for "little bear," when she arrived in Seattle in January. They didn't realize she had asthma until months later, when smoke from the forest fires in eastern Washington floated over the Cascade Range mountains into western Washington.

On Aug. 22, zookeepers noted that Mishka was acting lethargic and not eating much.

"It's abnormal for a sea otter not to eat pretty voraciously," Lahner said.

The next day, Mishka had a full-blown asthma attack, prompting immediate treatment.

Afterward, Lahner took a blood sample to make sure Mishka didn't have pneumonia or another respiratory pathogen (she didn't). Then, Lahner listened to Mishka's lungs with a stethoscope and took a radiograph of the animal's chest. The results pointed toward asthma, she said.

The radiograph showed that Mishka had abnormal thickening on her bronchial walls. This can make it difficult for enough oxygen to enter the lungs -- a pattern that "is typical of what is seen in cats presenting with acute asthma," Lahner said.

A radiograph of Mishka's lungs showed that she has asthma. Seattle Aquarium

Furry creatures on inhalers

Trainers are giving Mishka food rewards to use a device called the AeroKat, which has a chamber filled with aerosolized medicine. Mishka is learning to put her nose against a rubber face piece that's connected to the medicine-filled chamber, and take a couple of breaths. [8 Strange Signs You're Having an Allergic Reaction]

"We try to make it as fun as possible," aquarium biologist Sara Perry told the aquarium's blog. "Anytime you're training a medical behavior, you want to make it nice and positive."

Mishka is learning to use the AeroKat to take fluticasone (brand name Flonase) daily, and albuterol in emergencies, in case she has another asthma attack, Lahner said.

Theoretically, any animal with lungs can get asthma, Lahner said. But the condition is most commonly seen in people, cats and horses, she said. The zookeepers aren't sure why this sea otter got asthma and whether other otters will be found to have the condition as well.

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