These Bears Got Fishy Bandages After a Wildfire Burned Their Paws

August 19, 2018

A fishy treatment helped heal two black bears and a mountain lion whose paws were badly burned in the deadly Thomas Fire, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).

In December, CDFW hunted the three wild animals and treated their burned paws with a homemade burn ointment. Then, veterinarians sutured experimental bandages – sterilized tilapia skin – over the ointment to help the animals’ paws heal, according to CDFW.

In fact, the treatment worked so well that wildlife officials released the two adult black bears (Ursus americanus) and the mountain lion (Puma concolor) back into the wild last Thursday (Jan. 18), CDFW said.

“We are really hopeful that these novel treatments have accelerated the healing of these bears and provided them with the best chance of survival,” said Dr. Deana Clifford, CDFW’s senior wildlife veterinarian, in a statement.

Wild encounters
According to Cal Fire, the Thomas Fire lasted over a month from December 4, 2017 to January 12, 2018, burning 440 square miles (1,140 square kilometers), making it the largest wildfire in modern California history. The fire was so severe that CDFW has been searching for wildlife that may have been injured in the blaze.

The first such animal they found, an adult female black bear, weighed about 200 pounds (90 kilograms). Dr. Jamie Peyton, director of integrative medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, had the opportunity to try an experimental treatment.

Peyton isn’t the first to use tilapia skin on burn patients – Brazilian doctors use the treatment on human burn patients – but she’s certainly the first to try it on veterinary patients, CDFW said. Peyton said she uses the bandages because of the high collagen content in the fish skin, a structural protein found in the skin.

Tilapia bandages aren’t approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use on human burn victims. But a 2011 study published in the Journal of Dermatologic and Aesthetic Surgery showed some benefits of collagen dressings, although there was no significant difference in wound healing when collagen or traditional dressings were given to 120 burn patients.

The researchers wrote in the study, “However, collagen dressings may avoid the need for skin grafting and provide [] additional advantages in terms of patient compliance and comfort.”

In the case of the bear, Peyton cut pieces of tilapia skin to fit the bear’s paw and sutured them over the wound while it was under anesthesia. However, because fish is part of the bear’s diet, she covered the tilapia skin with rice paper and corn husks, making it difficult for the bear to tear off and eat the bandage.

“We expect the outer wrap to eventually come off, but we’re hoping the tilapia will maintain a steady pressure on the wound and act as artificial skin long enough to speed healing of the wound below,” Peyton said. She also treated the bear with acupuncture to help it with the pain.

Within a few weeks of capturing the first bear, CDFW brought in two more animals with burned paws: a pregnant black bear and a mountain lion. These new arrivals were also treated with ointment and tilapia. Amazing ecology: award-winning photos of wildlife].

“This treatment has the potential to be used successfully with all kinds[s] of burn victims, including domestic and wild animals,” says Clifford.” By better understanding what resources are needed to care for injured wildlife and what treatment techniques can increase the speed of healing, we can make the most informed treatment decisions, reduce the amount of time animals spend in captivity, and provide guidance to other facilities caring for burned animals.”

A Touching Day.
CDFW also acted as a real estate agent for the bears. Given that the bears hibernate in the winter and that these bears haven’t had time to make dens, officials found the best place for them to make dens, which is to find a spot near their former habitat that’s close to food and water but hasn’t been destroyed by a fire. Then wildlife officials dug up the ground, brought in logs, and made a cozy winter lodge for each bear.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye. Officials sedated each bear and put them in their dens. But they’ll keep an eye on each bear because the bears are fitted with satellite collars and there’s a trail camera next to each den, CDFW said.