Medical Management of Liver Disease in a Captive Dolphin and a Wild Porpoise
IAAAM 1991
Laurie J. Gage, DVM
Marine World Africa, USA Marine World Parkway, Vallejo, CA


Liver disease has been reported in cetaceans, often yielding a guarded to poor prognosis. Animals are usually anorectic and have significantly elevated liver enzymes. Many suffer a severe weight loss that can lead to weakness and death. Two cases of liver disease of unknown etiology were seen at Marine World Africa USA in 1990. The first case was a captive eleven year old female bottlenose dolphin. The second case was a stranded female harbor porpoise estimated to be about four months of age that was brought to the Park for rehabilitation. Both animals were treated with fluids, antibiotics and a strict low fat diet. Both made a full recovery, and both regained all of the weight they had lost during their illness.

Case Report 1

A captive eleven year old female dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) that had been at the park over seven years became depressed, anorectic, and suffered severe weight loss. Her initial blood chemistries revealed an AST of 2565 IU/L, an ALT of 464 IU/L, and a white blood cell count (WBC) of 4,900 mm3 that was lower than her normal range of 7,000 mm3 to 10,000 mm3. The WBC rose steadily over a three day period to reach 18,300 mm3. The white count continued to rise in the next three days to reach a high of 21,500 mm3. During this six day period, the AST remained over 3,000 IU/L and the ALT rose to over 600 IU/L. This dolphin was anorectic during this time and had suffered a severe weight loss. The animal was treated with oral fluids, dextrose, vitamins, and was given 2 grams ceftriaxone IV and 3 grams ceftriaxone IM SID for six days. She was then treated with oral fluids twice a day, and given 884 mg enrofloxacin orally BID for 14 days. During this time she started to eat and would accept water from a large syringe. She was maintained on a strict low fat diet consisting mostly of smelt, and was given up to 2 liters per day of fresh water via the syringe. Her total daily fish intake was restricted initially to 1.5 kg of a combination of capelin and smelt through the 18th day of her illness. During this time her AST and ALT returned to normal range. Her WBC remained somewhat elevated and ranged between 12,500 mm3 and 16,000 mm.3 Her feed amounts were then brought up very slowly, and on day 20 her feed was increased to a total of 2.3 kg of smelt and capelin divided into five feeds per day. For the next five weeks, her feed totals were raised by 0.24 kg every two or three days to reach a maintenance level of 10 kg of fish per day. During this time, the fat content of her diet was increased slowly by adding herring until it comprised one third of her total fish intake. She was given one to two liters of fresh water each day during her recovery, which she would drink from a syringe. She recovered fully, and over a four month period, gained back all of the weight she had lost during her illness.

Case Report 2

A wild, juvenile, female beached harbor porpoise (Phocoena Phocoena) was brought to Marine World Africa USA for rehabilitation. She was found stranded amongst some rocks and had numerous lacerations on her ventral and lateral sides. Her admission weight was 20 kg, and she did not appear to be underweight. Her admission blood revealed an AST of 6070 IU/L, an ALT of 4414 IU/L, and a WBC of 9,100 mm3. During the next 10 days the WBC rose to 15,300 mm3 while the AST dropped to 1939 IU/L, and the ALT dropped to 692 IU/L. Her weight dropped to 17.3 kg.

This animal was given fluids initially via gavage, but started to eat fish on the third day of rehabilitation. This animal was treated initially with 250 mg cephalexin orally QID for 9 days and then with 106 mg enrofloxacin orally BID for 18 days. She was placed on a strict low fat diet comprised mostly of smelt, with a small amount of herring. The feed amounts started at 2.5 kg fish divided into six feeds, and were brought up gradually over a period of five weeks. Her liver enzymes and WBC were within normal range four weeks after admitting her. She gained strength and put weight on rapidly when, after five weeks of gradual increases, her feed amounts reached 1.75 kg herring and 2 kg smelt divided into five feeds each day.

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Laurie J. Gage, DVM
Six Flags Marine World
Vallejo, CA, USA