Between 1998 and 2008, 15 cases of segmental to diffuse hemorrhagic to necrohemorrhagic enterocolitis were diagnosed in neonatal and weaned juvenile harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) presented from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre for rehabilitation. Based on a combination of gross pathology, histopathology, bacterial isolation, and toxin testing, Clostridium difficile enterocolitis was diagnosed. Most pups were anorexic or inappetant and died acutely with few other premonitory signs. Due to ongoing clinical concerns and possible emergence of this pathogen at the facility, efforts to better characterize the disease and understand the epidemiology of C. difficile was initiated in 95 harbor seal pups presented for rehabilitation in a single stranding season. Fecal samples were collected on admission, following completion of antibiotic treatment, and also prerelease or postmortem. All samples were collected fresh and submitted either directly or stored frozen. Fecal samples were inoculated into selective media for culture and screened by enzyme-linked immunosorbant assay (ELISA) for C. difficile toxins A, B, or both. Results of the 95 seals in the study were as follows: on hospital admit 72 seals were sampled, 10 were culture positive, 12 were ELISA positive; following antibiotic therapy 46 seals were sampled noting three culture positive and nine ELISA positive; prior to release 58 seals were sampled noting zero culture positive and one ELISA positive; and on postmortem exam seven seals were sampled noting zero culture positive and two ELISA positive. Clostridium difficile was not deemed to be the cause of death in any of the animals. Although the exact mechanism of disease is unknown, this study suggests that C. difficile infection is not a significant cause of mortality and may be part of the normal flora in harbor seals undergoing rehabilitation. Morbidity and mortality from this bacterium can likely be minimized by judicious use of antibiotics, effective biosecurity–biocontainment protocols, and clean husbandry practices.
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