Bears Badly Burned in Wildfires Healed with Fish Skins

By Brulliard, Karin | Sunday Gazette-Mail, January 28, 2018 | Go to article overview

Bears Badly Burned in Wildfires Healed with Fish Skins


Brulliard, Karin, Sunday Gazette-Mail


When Jamie Peyton first examined the bears' paws last month, she figured they might take six months to heal.

Peyton, a veterinarian at the University of California at Davis, had treated cats and dogs with burns before, and she knew these were severe. The two female black bears in her care had survived the Thomas wildfire that swept through Southern California in December, but both suffered third-degree burns that had caused their paw pads to slough off. They could hardly stand due to pain.

Instead of six months, the bears' injuries healed in a matter of weeks - a quick recovery Peyton attributed to a treatment never before tried on human or animal burn victims in the United States: Fish skins applied as bandages.

Using fish skin wasn't Peyton's first instinct when state wildlife authorities enlisted her help. They had found one bear huddling on Dec. 9 in a backyard aviary near the town of Ojai and the other two weeks later in a nearby wooded area. A third patient, a 5-month-old male mountain lion with burned paws, was discovered in the woods shortly before Christmas. Kirsten Macintyre, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said officials determined the three were candidates for rehabilitation, which meant transferring them to a state wildlife investigations lab near Sacramento. A vet there suggested calling on Peyton, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at the UC Davis veterinary teaching hospital.

Peyton said she first tried the usual care: Cleaning the burns, removing dead tissue and applying ointments. But she knew two very important steps - covering the burns and providing pain control - would be tricky with these unusual patients, which needed to stay a safe distance from people when not sedated.

There was no guarantee they'd gulp down pain pills hidden in their food, Peyton said. "And we couldn't put on any type of bandage material they would eat, because that might cause intestinal obstruction. Also, she said, "if a bandage comes off, you can't really go into the cage to get it.

A fast recovery was imperative, especially for the second bear. Peyton's team had discovered the bear was pregnant during an ultrasound exam, and they feared the stress of giving birth in captivity would cause her to reject the cub.

Then, the veterinarian said, she remembered a news story she had read about scientists in Brazil successfully using sterilized tilapia skin on human burns. Like the pig and human tissues that have long been applied to burns, the fish skin is moist and transfers collagen, a protein that helps healing. But it's cheaper and widely available, because it's a byproduct of tilapia sold as food. The Brazilian researchers told Reuters last year that it hastened recovery in their patients and reduced the need for pain medication. …

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