Veterinarians Wrapped Bears' Burns From California Wildfires In Fish Skin

The method may help even more animals going forward.

In addition to the unusual skin grafts, both bears received acupuncture for pain management and laser therapy to kill bacteria and promote healing. When one of the bears was discovered to be pregnant, Clifford and the rest of her team knew they needed to get the animal back to the wild quickly, so they constructed a den for each bear and released them at the same time about a week ago.

"This treatment has the potential to be used successfully on all kind of burn patients, both domestic and wild," Clifford explained. "For us, at the Wildlife Investigations Lab, it's been an invaluable experience because California's changing climate means that we're likely to see more wild animals impacted by catastrophic wildfires." 

In particular, at least two female bears and a mountain lion sustained serious burns to the bottoms of their paws that required medical attention. To help the animals recover, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) reports members of its own staff (including Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Deana Clifford) worked with veterinarians and an environmental scientist to treat the trio with bandages made from sterilized tilapia skin. After "several weeks of intensive – and unusual – care," the animals were released back to the wild earlier this month.

According to CNN, the wildfires that devastated parts of Southern California late last year destroyed nearly 282,000 acres of land and over 1,000 structures, and the blazes also had a negative impact on the wildlife population.

This unorthodox treatment method was championed by Dr. Jamie Peyton, Chief of Integrative Medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital, who developed a homemade burn salve for the bears' paws, and a process for sterilizing tilapia skin. As Buzzfeed News notes, doctors in Brazil occasionally treat human burns with fish skin in the absence of more typical treatments, but this marks the first time animals have benefited from such a technique. Since tilapia skin contains moisture and collagen, research has shown it can reduce pain and aid healing.

Per the video released by the CDFW, the tilapia scales were sewn directly on top of the bears already salved paws, creating a kind of artificial skin. The CDFW also notes the tilapia skin was covered in corn husks and rice paper in an effort to prevent the bears from chewing off the scales right away.

"We made little spring rolls with their feet," Peyton told The Seattle Times.

CDFW
CDFW

She added, "By better understanding what resources are needed to care for injured wildlife and what treatment techniques increase healing speed, we can make the most informed treatment decisions, reduce animals' time in captivity and provide guidance to other facilities caring for burned animals."

Clifford's team plans to monitor the bears by satellite.

Cover image via CDFW.

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