Wildlife officials say four sea otters have been killed by a parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii.
“So right now we have four confirmed cases. Three of those are from San Luis Obispo County ranging from San Simeon down to Morro Bay and the fourth one was found off the City of Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz County," said Melissa Miller, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Veterinary Specialist and Pathologist.
Though there are no confirmed human cases of Toxoplasma gondii, veterinary specialists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife say the parasite can be passed onto humans through cats and they are monitoring the situation closely.
“This is a parasite that the only known source for the parasite to go land to sea is from fecal material that cats pass after their initial infection,” Miller said.
Sea otters are one of many draws to the Central Coast. On Friday, visitors flocked to the sea otter nursery in Morro Bay.
“They’re just really cute,” said Debbie Curtin.
Curtin is visiting from Fresno and is worried about the potential harm this could bring to the sea otter population.
“I’m an animal lover so any kind of parasite that would kill an animal — yes, it would be a concern,” she said.
Miller advises those who work closely with marine mammals to be careful.
“We want our collaborators who work on studying causes of mortality in marine mammals to take extra precautions because we know Toxoplasma can potentially infect people," Miller said.
However, there has not yet been a confirmed human case.
Miller says that while Toxoplasma infections in sea otters are nothing new, this particular strain — first discovered in cougars — is more pathogenic and is causing more severe lesions in otters than they are used to seeing. It was the cause of death for all four otters found dead on the Central Coast. Unlike cats, otters cannot transfer the disease to humans.
For those who are looking to protect themselves against a Toxoplasma infection, Miller recommends washing your hands after gardening, washing leafy green vegetables before consumption, and making sure meats are well cooked.
If you are a cat owner, Miller says keeping your cats indoors, properly disposing of litter, and feeding cats food that is cooked can help protect you and your pet.
Additionally, for those who are pregnant, there is an increased risk. Miller recommends not cleaning out litter boxes during a pregnancy and thoroughly washing your hands afterward if you must.