TECHNIQUE

Catching and Handling of Seals (Wildlife Casualty Management)
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Summary Information
Type of technique Health & Management / UK Wildlife Casualty Management / Techniques:
Synonyms and Keywords N.B. This information should be read in association with Wildlife Casualty Handling and Transport which contains background information together with links to the Electronic Library and Organisations (UK Contacts). The related Species pages contain similar linkages.
Description This page has been prepared for the "UK Wildlife: First Aid and Care" Wildpro module, and is designed for the needs of the following species: Halichoerus grypus - Grey seal, Phoca vitulina - Common seal.

These species are within the family Phocidae.

  • Seals are extremely strong, can move very quickly and inflict serious bites.

  • Medical attention must be sought for all wounds because of the risk of development of “seal finger”. Prophylactic antibiotic treatment may be recommended.

Catching:

  • Ensure that escape routes to the sea are blocked before capture is attempted.

  • Boards may be used to herd a seal to an appropriate place for catching.

  • Seals may also be caught using an appropriately sized net.

  • Movements when catching and handling seals must be rapid and firm; injuries tend to occur with hesitant action.

  • Use of boards: boards ("pig boards") may be used to herd a seal into a crate; this may be less stressful to the seal than physical contact with humans.
  • Netting: an appropriate-sized hoop net or piece of netting may be used for catching; the seal may be transferred directly and carefully from the net to an appropriate transport container.
  • For pups:
    • Seal pups may be caught by hand by experienced personnel.

    • A towel, coat or similar cloth can be used to distract the seal initially; this is then quickly thrown over the seal's head.
    • The handler then grasps the head around the base of the neck close to the head ensuring that the seal is not able to turn its head and inflict a bite. 
    • Ensure that the grip is firm but that excessive constriction around the neck is avoided.

(B10.47.w26, B123, J15.20.w1, D14, D60, P24.335.w8, V.w26)

Holding:

  • Restraint may not be easy, even for pups.
  • A towel can be used to distract the seal initially; this is then quickly thrown over the seal's head.
  • The handler then grasps the head around the base of the neck ensuring that the seal is not able to turn its head and inflict a bite.
    • Ensure that the grip is firm but that excessive constriction around the neck is avoided.
  • The handler should then straddle the seal and kneel down, their legs pinning the seal's body between their calves.
    • Always ensure that no pressure is placed on the seal's flippers, which can be easily damaged.
    • No body weight of the handler should be rested on the seal's body.
  • During handling ensure that the hands do not brush against the seals eyes because this can lead to corneal ulceration.
  • Lifting a pup: the handler may slide one arm under the belly, use the whole length of the arm to support the pup's body against their own body. The pup's chin should be gripped tightly with the other hand, pushing the pup's head against the handler's chest so that it is firmly restrained.(D60)
  • Seal pups can be carefully wrapped within a towel or blanket to aid transfer to a transport crate but this must be done with great care because seal pups may be able to bite through the material.(V.w26)
  • Larger seals, if passive, may be rolled in a large blanket and onto a stretcher for transport to an appropriate container; the blanket must be removed as soon as the animal is inside the container.(P24.335.w8)

(B123, J15.20.w1, D14, P24.335.w8, D60, V.w26)

Restraint for examination and treatment:

  • Restraint may not be easy, even for pups.
  • A towel can be used to distract the seal initially; this is then quickly thrown over the seal's head.
  • The handler then grasps the head around the base of the neck ensuring that the seal is not able to turn its head and inflict a bite.
    • Ensure that the grip is firm but that excessive constriction around the neck is avoided.
  • The handler should then straddle the seal and kneel down with their legs pinning the seal's body between their calves.
    • Always ensure that no pressure is placed on the seal's flippers, which can be easily damaged.
    • No body weight of the handler should be rested on the seal's body.
  • During handling ensure that the hands do not brush against the seals eyes because this can lead to corneal ulceration.
  • During restraint the seal may attempt to turn onto its back and roll around from side to side. Lifting a foreflipper and placing it above the knee of the handler can help to prevent this twisting movement.
  • Squeeze cage may be required for safe restraint of adults.
  • Sedation may be required for examination and treatment of adults.

(B123, J15.20.w1, D14, V.w26)

General Anaesthesia and Sedation:

 Suggested protocols for sedation and general anaesthesia include:

  • Special consideration should be given to the physiological mechanisms of seals for diving. Breath holding (apnoea) and reduced heart rate (bradycardia) may occur under general anaesthesia, therefore intubation is recommended and intermittent positive pressure ventilation often required. Particular attention should be paid to monitoring the heart rate during anaesthetic monitoring.(D14)

  • The use of a number of anaesthetic combinations has been reported in UK seals:

    • Intramuscular medetomidine 60g/kg body weight (Domitor [Pfizer Limited] ) and ketamine (Vetalar, [Pharmacia and Upjohn Limited]) 2mg/kg body weight. (D14, J15.20.w1)

      • Intramuscular pre-medication with atropine at a dose rate of 20- 50g/kg body weight is generally used with this combination.(D14)

      • General anaesthesia is usually induced within five minutes and lasts up to one hour.(D14, J15.20.w1)

      • Intubation should be performed and oxygen supplied during the anaesthetic.(D14, J15.20.w1)

      • General anaesthesia may be prolonged using gaseous agents such as isoflurane or halothane (1-2%).(D14, J15.20.w1)

      • Only use in animals with no cardiac abnormality.(D14, J15.20.w1)

      • The remaining effects of the medetomidine can be reversed with intramuscular [atipamezole] (Antisedan, [Pfizer Limited]) at the end of the anaesthetic.(D14, J15.20.w1)

    • Anaesthetic combination of intramuscular medetomidine 25g/kg body weight (Domitor [Pfizer Limited] )and butorphanol 100g/kg body weight (Torbugesic [Fort Dodge Animal Health]) followed after a 15 minute interval with intramuscular ketamine 2.0-2.5mg/kg (Vetalar, [Pharmacia and Upjohn Limited]) has been described in grey seal pups (Halichoerus grypus - Grey seal).(J15.20.w1)
    • Intravenous propofol (Rapinovet, [Schering Plough Animal Health]) at a dose rate of 5 - 6.5mg/kg body weight with atropine premedication of 10-20g/kg body weight intramuscular; this combination is reported to be useful for short duration general anaesthesia.(D14)
    • Induction of general anaesthesia may be performed using isoflurane mask induction although this technique may be complicated by breath holding.(D14)
  • The length of starvation prior to induction of general anaesthesia should be appropriate for the species in question and the likelihood of regurgitation. Clinical judgement should be used as to the pros and cons of starvation in an emergency situation.
Appropriate Use (?)
  • Catch only if necessary.
  • Handling of wild animals should be minimised.
  • Consider design of accommodation and timing of treatments to minimise requirements for capture and handling.
  • Consider whether physical or chemical restraint is more appropriate.
Notes
  • Restraint may not be easy, even for pups.
  • Seals are able to extend their necks further than might be expected.
  • Gloves and protective clothing are recommended during handling of seals.
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • Seals are extremely strong, can move very quickly and inflict serious bites.

  • Medical attention must be sought for all wounds because of the risk of development of “seal finger”. Prophylactic antibiotic treatment may be recommended.

  • There is a risk of corneal abrasion occurring during handling if the hands are allowed to rub across the seal's eyes.
  • Rigid thumb protectors used to prise open the seal's mouth may damage teeth and should not be used.
  • Care is required when holding seals to avoid kneeling on the foreflippers.
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers
  • Towel
  • Boards
  • Net, as appropriate
  • Squeeze cage
  • Appropriate drugs if chemical restraint is required.
Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • Experience is important for the safe catching and handling of seals; persons who are inexperienced should seek appropriate expert advice and assistance.
Cost/ Availability
  • Appropriate nets, gauntlets, squeeze cages may be available from specialist suppliers or veterinary suppliers.
  • Some drugs used for chemical restraint are expensive.
  • Drugs used for chemical restraint may only be available to veterinary surgeons or other licensed persons.
Legal and Ethical Considerations
Author Debra Bourne
Referee Becki Lawson and Suzanne Boardman
References B10.47.w26, B123, P24.335.w8, J15.20.w1, P24.335.w8, D14, D60, V.w26 

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