Just what the doctor ordered

On rounds at the harbor seal exhibit with the Aquarium’s vet

Ever wondered what it would be like to be the primary care physician for the 10,000-plus animals that make their homes at the Seattle Aquarium? Senior veterinarian Caitlin Hadfield, VetMB Dipl. AZCM Dipl. ECZM, could tell you all about it—she’s the doctor in charge for our mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates, and she recently allowed us to tag along while she cared for the Aquarium’s harbor seals.

Caitlin listens to Q’s heart, lungs and gut.
Caitlin listens to Q’s heart, lungs and gut.


Time for your checkup

Aquarium husbandry staff monitor the health of our animals every day; Caitlin performs full physical exams and also cares for animals with injuries, illnesses or other health issues. “All the Aquarium’s animals have care plans that are customized to their species and individuals within the species,” she notes.

Harbor seals receive full physicals at least two times per year, including an eye exam, ultrasound, and voluntary blood and fecal samples. And, just like your doctor does during your checkup, Caitlin uses a stethoscope to listen to the heart, lungs and abdomen of each seal. She listens closely: “Because of their thick blubber layers,” she laughs, “their body sounds are a bit muffled.”

Caitlin also looks in the seals’ eyes, ears and mouths—just like your doctor does with you. But in Caitlin’s case, expert training is the essential element that allows her to perform the exam. Aquarium husbandry staff work with the animals each day, teaching and practicing behaviors that allow them to voluntarily participate in their own health care.

Tools of the trade

Outside the exhibits, Caitlin works behind the scenes, using specialized equipment—just as your doctor would—to monitor animal health. The ultrasound machine is a particularly useful tool, and one that can be pressed into service for virtually any of our animals.

As you may know, ultrasound machines use sound waves to look at tissue density, providing a picture of what’s happening inside the body. Says Caitlin, “We can use our ultrasound machine to check for pregnancy; look at organs; understand what’s happening behind an injured eye; learn why a belly looks big…it’s our best diagnostic option, and allows us to pinpoint issues that we might not detect otherwise.”

Analyzing an ultrasound scan behind the scenes.
Analyzing an ultrasound scan behind the scenes.

Interested in learning more about harbor seals? Check out our harbor seal fact sheet—and spend some time at the harbor seal exhibit during your next visit to the Aquarium. Check the daily activity schedule when you arrive; you may be able to watching a training session!


See a harbor seal in the Sound or on a local beach? Don’t approach!

See a harbor seal in the Sound or on a local beach? Don’t approach!

Although they may look friendly, harbor seals in the wild can be dangerous. The human contact shown in our photos is the result of years of training and trust-building; you should never get that close to a harbor seal, or any marine mammal, in the wild—for their health and yours.






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