Before 2001, all serosurveys for morbilliviruses in sea otters (Enhydra lutris) in California, Washington, and Alaska, US, documented a 0% seroprevalence. The first published serologic detections of morbillivirus in sea otters occurred in 2001–02 in live-captured Washington sea otters, with a documented 80% seroprevalence. We conducted a retrospective study of sea otter cases from 1989 to 2010 compiled at the US Geological Survey, National Wildlife Health Center to identify cases of morbilliviral disease in Washington sea otters and to characterize the disease using immunohistochemistry, reverse transcription (RT)-PCR, genetic sequencing, virus isolation, and serology. We identified six cases of morbilliviral disease and 12 cases of morbilliviral infection in this population of sea otters during 2000–10. Significant histologic findings included inflammation in the white and gray matter of the brain characterized by lymphoplasmacytic perivascular cuffing, neuronal necrosis, and satellitosis in gray matter and by spongiosis, myelin degeneration, spheroids, and gemistocytes in white matter. Intranuclear and intracytoplasmic viral inclusion bodies were found in neurons, Purkinje cells, and glia. Immunohistochemistry for canine distemper virus (CDV) showed positive staining in neurons, glial cells, and cell processes. A pan-morbillivirus RT-PCR with subsequent restriction endonuclease digestion or sequencing identified CDV. Virus isolation was not successful. Two sea otters with morbilliviral encephalitis showed greater antibody titers to CDV than phocine distemper virus. Histologic changes were confined to the central nervous system and resembled neurologic canine distemper in domestic dogs. Cases of sea otters with morbilliviral infection without histologic changes could represent early infections or incompletely cleared sublethal infections. We found that morbillivirus was present in the Washington sea otter population as early as 2000, and we provide a description of the pathology of canine distemper in sea otters.

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