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Burned Bears Successfully Treated With Fish Skin

A veterinary team at the University of California at Davis sutured tilapia skin onto the paws of bears burned

The idea came up in discussions between Deana Clifford, a senior veterinarian with the CDFW, and Jamie Peyton, chief of integrative medicine at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis.

Two bears that were badly burned in the California wildfires have been healed using a treatment involving the skin of tilapia fish.

They also had another patient - a mountain lion - but his injuries were not as severe and because of his young age, the lion has been earmarked for placement in a wildlife rescue facility.

Bears being treated by Dr. Laura Peyton, chief of integrated medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on January 8, 2017. Both bears were soon walking.

One of the bears initially laid down continuously to spare her burned paws, not wanting to stand or walk at all, Peyton said.

When the veterinarians with the CDFW Wildlife Investigations Lab first saw the bears, their paw pads had been burned off and the wounds were "oozing", according to a statement by the CDFW.

"You can only anaesthetize them so many times", Peyton said. "It's not their fault they were in this awful fire and they're in a unusual environment and they don't know what's going on and they hurt". The team didn't want to risk having the bears acclimate to people or captivity. Veterinarians used acupuncture, fish skins and other alternative medical treatments to help wild animals recover from the burns.

Doctors in Brazil are treating human burns with fish skin in the absence of supplies for more typical treatments, such as human or pig skin. Instead, Peyton and her husband bought live tilapia at a local fish market, skinned the fish (while eating the meat themselves), then cold-sterilized the skin over several days using a technique more commonly used for human skin graphs. "It would act as protection and it was pretty low-priced and available".

Peyton and Clifford cut grafts of clean tilapia skin and sewed them directly onto the bears' paws while they were anesthesized.

The two bears had third-degree burns on their paws
KARIN HIGGINS UC DAVIS The two bears had third-degree burns on their paws

The tilapia skin was sutured onto the mountain lion's paw.

One of the first things that the bear did was stand up after we applied them.

Acupuncture, chiropractic care and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation were also administered in the first-of-its-kind treatment in the US.

Macintyre said that the treatment worked much quicker than typical burn salve and pointed to a photo showing the paws' progression. Along with protecting the wounds, the collegen-rich skin aids healing. The fish skins are even edible, and no reactions to the skins were observed.

Inspired by a Brazilian practice, the team made a decision to use sterilized tilapia skin sutured over the wounds as a temporary second-skin.

The first such animal they spotted - an adult female black bear weighing about 200 lbs. "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", Peyton said.

While the bears' wounds are not healed 100 percent, Peyton says she's praying that they do great in the wild. A state biologist spent a few days hiking around Los Padres National Forest - in a spot not too far from where the bears were found, but that hadn't been damaged by fire - in search of good denning spots, Macintyre said.

They didn't know whether they could wait until the burns healed completely, but they planned to get them as close as possible and then release them. The officials sedated each bear and put them in the dens.

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