Fish Skin Heals Paws of Bears Burned in California Wildfires
Tilapia may taste good but it turns out it also has healing powers for bears severely burned in the California wildfires. The Thomas Fires in Southern California, which began on Dec. 4, 2017, and destroyed more than 1,000 homes —spreading throughout 281,893 acres — was finally contained on Jan. 20. It is reportedly the largest fire in the state since 1932.
The fire, which charred Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, also affected wild animals — specifically two adult female black bears — felled with third-degree burned paws.
The bears were brought to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Investigations Lab in Rancho Cordova on Dec. 9 — just five days after the fires started — where veterinarians from the University of California tried the holistic approach of using fish skins to heal them.
This experimental treatment was first discovered by doctors in Brazil. Scientists at the Federal University of Ceara in Northern Brazil found that tilapia skin — which is abundant in Brazil’s rivers and fish farms — has moisture, collagen, and disease resistance at levels comparable to human skin, and can aid in healing.
“Tilapia skin is one of those things that people said to me, ‘What? That doesn’t make sense. You can’t do that.’ When someone says ‘you can’t’ I always think to myself, ‘oh I will!’ I’ll make it happen because I’m just passionate about these animals and helping them and allowing them to heal,” Jamie Peyton, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at University of California, Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, said on UC Davis’ YouTube video of the procedure.
The treatment was a first in the United States; however, Peyton and Deana Clifford, a senior wildlife veterinarian with the CDFW, decided it was worth a shot. Plus, the older bear was in particular need of treatment since she was discovered to be pregnant.
“That was a game changer for us because we knew it wouldn’t be ideal for her to give birth in confinement. We aren’t really set up to have a birth at the lab holding facilities, and we knew there was a high probability that she could reject the cub, due to all the stress she was under,” Clifford said in a report by UC Davis.
The team sutured the tilapia skin to the bears, which achieved immediate results. Before the bears could only sit with their paws off the ground, and after the skins were applied, they were standing. In a matter of weeks, new skin had grown back on the bears’ paw pads.
There were no reactions to the skins, and even better, the fish skins are edible. A 5-month-old mountain lion, which received the same treatment as the bears, ended up chowing down on his.
The team also had trouble getting the bears to eat their pain medication. Peyton, who also serves as associate director for the UC Davis Center for Advancing Pain Relief, used several alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation — used by veterinarians to help with pain management — and enhance the healing of their wounds.
Standard burn care, which would require frequent bandage changes, proved to be difficult with a wild animal. Veterinary pharmacists at UC Davis created a new burn salve designed to ease the bears’ pain.
The bears’ wounds are expected to heal within four to six months. They were released back into the wild on Jan. 18, but not before CDFW officers created separate winter dens in the Los Padres National Forest, as their original habitat had been destroyed by the fires. Each was outfitted with a satellite collar so CDFW can monitor them and their survival.
With the success of using fish skins to heal burns on the bears, Peyton imagined the potential of using the treatment on humans in the United States.
“One animal can change the face of medicine. I think these bears and the mountain lion are inspiring us to think outside the box. These individual animals have contributed to promoting how we’re going to treat burns in the future,” she said.
WATCH this incredible video of veterinarians as they perform fish skin suturing to the bears, and don’t forget to SHARE it with your friends.