NEWPORT, Ore. — Long story short: Keep your dogs away from sea lions.
While it’s never a good idea to approach sea lions - and also a violation of federal and state laws to "harass, disturb, touch or feed marine mammals" - state wildlife biologists have an even more dire warning for dog owners.
“Over the past few months, we have been getting calls for multiple sick or dead sea lions daily, which is higher than normal,” said Jim Rice, an Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute researcher at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.
The Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory has confirmed at least 8 cases of leptospirosis since the outbreak began in late September.
Most of the sick sea lions have been found on beaches in Lincoln, Tillamook and Clatsop counties.
"While leptospirosis occurs worldwide, outbreaks occur only sporadically in marine mammals, with the last Oregon outbreak seen in 2010," the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a statement. "The disease can spread when an animal comes into contact with urine or other bodily fluids of an infected animal and can lead to kidney failure, fever, weakness, muscle pain, and other symptoms. In Oregon, young male sea lions are typically affected and usually show signs of dehydration, depression and reluctance to use their hind flippers."
There is a small risk of transmission to people, according to ODFW.
But dogs are most at risk.
Transmission can happen when dogs run up to stranded sea lions on the beach, or when the dogs come in contact with body fluid from sick or dead sea lions, according to biologists.
Beachcombers with dogs should keep their pets on a leash, ODFW recommends.
“Pets should be kept away from sea lions as leptospirosis can cause severe disease,” said Emilio DeBess, state public health veterinarian of the Oregon Health Authority.
DeBess said there are vaccines available to protect dogs and horses.
"If your dog becomes ill after being exposed to sick or dead sea lions, contact your veterinarian immediately,” DeBess said.
If you see a sick sea lion or another marine mammal on the beach, stay at least 50 feet away, ODFW said. The agency asks the public to report any such animals to 1-800-452-7888.