New Incidence of Seal Hair Loss Reported in Alaska

Ringed Seal with patchy hair loss the Belgravia Centre

Losing hair is not a uniquely human trait, and this year there have been an assortment of news stories to prove the point.

Earlier this year, in May, we reported that a colony of Australian fur seals on Lady Julia Percy Island were suffering from widespread hair loss. Now, a new case of hair loss in seals has emerged on the other side of the world, with far deadlier consequences.

Diseased seals experiencing ‘patchy hair loss, skin sores and ulcers’

In October, Alaska Dispatch reported that, “A mysterious and potentially widespread disease is thought to have contributed to the deaths of dozens of ringed seals along Alaska’s Arctic coast.” Many more were ill, with symptoms including patchy hair loss, skin sores and ulcers.

Now, in December, scientists studying the outbreak have confirmed that they still do not know what is causing it.  The scientists, from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that they were continuing to test for, “immune system-related diseases, fungi, man-made and bio-toxins, radiation exposure, contaminants, and stressors related to sea ice change.”

Sixty seals have been reported dead so far, but it is not known whether their deaths are directly caused by the diseases, or whether the fatalities are the result of bacteria entering through sores and diminished ability to survive caused by the loss of their hair in the freezing Arctic climate.

In the separate case of the Australian Fur Seals’ hair loss earlier this year, a study concluded that the animals’ hair loss was having a negative effect on their health and survival. In fact, they found that in areas where there were bald patches, the animals’ surface body temperature was on average more than 6°C lower than fully furred areas. In this case too, the causes of the hair loss remain unknown, but Australian researchers are investigating possible environmental factors.

Further cases of animal hair loss

For humans, hair loss can be distressing, particularly when it is unexpected, but for animals living in the wild, losing their hair can be a matter of survival.

There have also been cases of animals in zoos suffering from hair loss. In 2010 we looked at the story of Guru the chimpanzee at Mysore zoo in Southern India. Guru, a 20 year-old male chimp, made the news globally because he had lost virtually all his body hair.

The zoo revealed that he had been suffering from the Alopecia-like condition since before he came to them, after being rescued from a circus. A vet at the zoo, Suresh Kumar, said at the time, “With chimpanzees being so much like humans, we think it could have been caused by factors in Guru’s life such as stress or trauma, which can induce alopecia in humans.”

Alopecia is an auto-immune disorder which causes the body’s natural defences to attack healthy hair follicles. Though the exact cause is not known, in humans it is thought to be triggered by stress, such as divorce, or by traumatic experiences such as car accidents.

In the case of the seals, their hair loss appears to be a by-product of a more serious condition which is affecting them. In humans, this can be the case with thyroid disorders and other medical conditions. Despite a common myth however, cancer does not lead to hair loss; it is the chemotherapy treatment which causes hair to fall out.

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The Belgravia Centre

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