California vets use fish skin to heal bears badly burned in wildfire

When wildfires ravaged southern California in late 2017, people and animals alike had to deal with the devastation. Among the victims were two female bears who were badly burned in the Thomas Fire.

But despite the bears’ injuries, veterinarians from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were able to use an unusual and innovative treatment method to get the bears back on their feet. Fish skin, which contains collagen, can be used to bandage burns. However, the technique is not yet approved for use on humans by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

With the help of Dr. Jamie Peyton, chief of integrative medicine at U.C. Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital, this unique treatment was utilized on the bears. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Peyton cut pieces of tilapia skin to fit the bears’ paws exactly.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The tilapia skin was then sterilized and stitched to their paws while the bears were under anesthesia. Finally, the team of veterinarians placed additional wrappings, including rice paper and corn husks, over the wounds in an effort to increase the amount of time it would take for the bears to chew down to the fish skin.

A male mountain lion, whose burns were less severe, was also treated using the same method.

While the bears were healing, the treatment team discovered that one of them was pregnant.

“That was a game changer for us, because we knew it wouldn’t be ideal for her to give birth in confinement,” said Dr. Deana Clifford, California Department of Fish and Wildlife senior wildlife veterinarian, in a statement. “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. We needed to get her back into the wild as quickly as possible.”

Eventually, both bears were strong enough to be released back into the wild into dens the treatment team had created for them.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife

“At this time of the year, most bears have established dens for the winter, but since these bears won’t have time to create a den, we hope to improve their chances of survival by creating a den for them so they have a home base and shelter right away,” Clifford said.

You can see more photos of the bears’ journey from start to finish in this photo gallery from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Warning: Some of the images of their injuries are graphic. Watch the video below to see more about this experimental burn treatment.

We’re so glad these animals were able to benefit from this unique treatment!