Our resident marine veterinarian, Dr. Amanda Pinder, gives us an up-close look at routine checkups on three sea lions at Atlantis Dolphin Cay, the largest animal sanctuary and rehabilitation hospital in the Caribbean. “California sea lions are highly intelligent, social animals, and they can be trained to do health checks voluntarily. I wish I could do that with my own dog!” says Dr. Pinder. “These sea lions continue to amaze me.”

How often do you give sea lions health checks, and what’s involved?

Once a year, we do X-rays to screen for signs of illness or arthritis, which is common as they age. All of our animals receive routine bi-annual checkups, which involve bloodwork to check major organ functions and fecal exams. We weigh them once a week, and I start every morning with daily rounds to observe the animals in their natural element. And I discuss any concerns with our team of six dedicated sea lion specialists, who care for them around the clock.

How do sea lions prepare for an X-ray?

They have to fast before an X-ray. Even a small fish bone in their esophagus can block our view of the lungs on a scan. The behaviorists give them positive reinforcement by feeding them ice cubes and giving lots of rub downs. After the exam, they get favorite treats, like fish and squid.

What’s a rehabilitation regimen like?

Sebo and Cassie are senior animals, so we give them arthritis supplements and anti-inflammatories to control discomfort in flippers, similar to what older humans take for the same condition. And we change their schedule so they can slow down. They’re retired and mostly hang out with the youngest pups.

When did they come to Atlantis Dolphin Cay?

They came to us in 2005, after losing their homes during Hurricane Katrina. They were swept out to sea during a tidal surge and survived for nearly three weeks before being rescued and brought here to Dolphin Cay. We’ve become a safe haven for injured and stranded animals. We have a full rehabilitation center, on-site laboratory, pharmacy and operating suite. Our whole team focuses on getting these animals healthy, so they can be returned to the wild.

What would people be surprised to learn about sea lions?

They have a language. To humans, sea lions may sound alike, but sea lions recognize each other through a series of distinct barks or vocalizations. Mothers start vocalizing to her pups right away, and they develop a unique communication. Vocal cues are the most important factor in mother-pup recognition.


COMMON NAME:   California Sea Lion
SCIENTIFIC NAME:   Zalophus californianus
TYPE:   Semi-aquatic mammals
LIFE SPAN:   20-30 years
DIET:   fish, crustaceans, squid and octopus
MOVEMENT:   To swim, they use flippers, and to walk, they rotate their hind flippers forward and use all four limbs as feet

MALES:   Known as “bulls”, males have a golden, lion-like mane
As big as:   770 lbs
As long as:   9 ft

FEMALES:   Known as “cows”
As big as:   330 lbs
As long as:   7 ft

GROUP OF SEA LIONS:   Known as a “raft”

Sebo, our 21-year-old geriatric male sea lion, prepares for an X-rays to monitor for age-related arthritis in his flipper joints.

Dr. Pinder checks the heartbeat and retrieves a blood sample from Cassie, our 28-year-old retired female.

Dr. Pinder examines Moxie, a healthy 12-year-old female in her prime.

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