Our seal pup is growing by leaps and bounds! She has weaned herself from tube feedings and nursing and is now eating fish. Keepers feed her about 8 pounds of fish each day now.
She also has been separated from her mom Kara, which is normal. In the wild seal pups only spend a few weeks with their mothers. The pup now spends her time in her own holding pool next to her mother’s pool.
Her white lanugo coat has completely disappeared, another sign of her growth. She now has a silvery coat with many black spots, much like the adult seals.
Staff is working on a plan to introduce her to the other seals, but that process will be very gradual.
After a tough start, our new seal pup appears to be thriving and rapidly gaining weight! She now weighs 60 pounds; that’s almost double her birth weight.
Gray seals generally nurse from their mothers for about 15 to 20 days. Our team of keepers and veterinarians continue to supplement nursing with six bottle feedings each day, but they hope in the next few weeks to start feeding her more fish and reduce the amount of formula she eats.
The pup is starting to lose her white coat, known as the lanugo coat. It is a fluffy white coat that gray seals are born with that insulates them until they pack on enough fat to keep them warm in the cold climate they live in. They molt their coats after roughly two weeks, around the time they start to wean. Then their permanent coloring starts showing.
Animal keepers at the National Zoo have been hand feeding a female gray seal pup, born January 21, 2014, at 10:21 p.m., in the holding area of the seal exhibit on American Trail. Zoo keepers, veterinarians and nutritionists have been closely monitoring the pup and her mother, Kara. Within 48 hours of her birth, the animal care team began preparations to hand feed the pup as she was not gaining weight while nursing from her mother. Although Kara has successfully given birth and raised one pup before, Kara is not lactating enough to support the current pup without supplemental feedings from keepers and veterinarians.
“Our animal care team is always prepared to hand rear or hand feed an animal if they need to,” said Ed Bronikowski, senior curator at the Zoo. “In the first days of this pup’s life we did not see her gain as much weight as we would have expected. It is still a tenuous time, but the pup’s weight is now heading in the right direction. We celebrate every pound that she gains.”
Zoo keepers, veterinarians and nutritionists immediately collaborated on a plan to supplement the pup’s nutritional needs. Kara received a dose of the hormone oxytocin Jan. 22 in an attempt to stimulate lactation, but even after the dose the seal team could not be certain she was producing enough milk for the pup. By the early afternoon of Jan. 25, keepers and veterinarians mobilized and began tube feeding the pup. She is now tube fed six times each day with a special formula that mimics her mother’s milk. The rich formula is made of a milk replacer, fish oil, water and vitamin E. Yesterday, Jan. 30, keepers were able to hand feed the pup a small capelin fish in addition to the tube feedings.
The pup now weighs 44 pounds, which is up from her birth weight of approximately 35 pounds. In the wild, gray seals generally nurse from their mothers for about 15 to 21 days and gain a significant amount of weight during that time. The mortality rate for gray seal pups that have not been weaned in the wild varies widely between 5 and 20 percent; it can sometimes be as high as 30 percent.
Although she may not be fully lactating, Kara is nursing her pup and is an attentive mother. Between tube feedings, which only take about 10 minutes, Kara and her pup swim in the holding pool and nap on the beach. The pup will join the Zoo’s four adult gray seals and two harbor seals on exhibit in the spring.
The Zoo received a recommendation to breed Kara with the Zoo’s resident male gray seal Gunther. Kara is the oldest gray seal to give birth in a Zoo. The last pup born at the National Zoo was Kjya in 1990. Kjya, who also lives on American Trail, is Kara’s sister. Kara was born at the Zoo in 1983. Both seals are offspring of the Zoo’s elderly female gray seal Selkie.
Although once endangered, gray seals are now listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In the wild, gray seals range from North America to the Baltic Sea.