Just this past month, California suffered its worst wildfire in the state's history. Camp Fire in Paradise, California burned 220 acres and claimed the lives of 85 people. The vast majority of residents had little-to-no warning to evacuate, and many pets were left behind and left to fend for themselves along with the wildilfe.
This kitten along with three other cats received care at the University of California Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital after they were found with severe burns during the Camp Fire. (Photo: Karin Higgins/UC Davis)
Several dogs and cats burned in the fire ended up at Valley Oak Veterinary Center in Chico. When Dr. Jamie Peyton, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, heard about the animals, she volunteered to treat them with the innovative method of using tilapia skin on their burns. (This is the first time dogs and cats have been treated with tilapia skin for burns.) The kitten pictured above suffered third degree burns on some of his paws and lost the pads to all his feet.
"Their paws have been badly burned," said Dusty Spencer, a veterinary surgeon at VCA Valley Oak Veterinary Center. "Their whiskers are singed or gone. Some of them have had really bad burns on their eyelids and nose."
An 8-year-old Boston terrier mix named Olivia was one of the first dogs to receive treatment.
Olivia's owners, Curtis and Mindy Stark, were out of town when the blaze began. Fortunately, Olivia has a microchip and was reunited with her owners. She suffered second-degree burns to her paws, legs and side, but it wasn't long till she was feeling better thanks to the tilapia skin.
“It was a day and night difference,” said Curtis Stark. “She got up on the bed and did a back flip. That is the first time we saw her acting like she was before.”
Treatment also works for the most severe burns
Pets weren't the only animals to suffer during the wildfire. Many wild animals desperately tried to flee but couldn't.
A bobcat was also brought in for treatment. Peyton tells MNN the bobcat suffered third- to fifth-degree burns on his paws. A fifth-degree burn means the burn goes down to the bone. The animal was very thin due to his inability to hunt for food and lack of food sources after the fire. In the week since the bobcat received his first treatment, he has had three tilapia bandage changes. "Each one seems to be showing marked improvement and he is moving well and showing a lot of spunk at his rehabilitation home," said Peyton.
It will be several months before the bobcat can be released back in the wild, but Peyton's goal is to "help him heal as soon as possible to allow him to get back to his home."
Previously, Peyton treated a bear cub injured in California's Carr Fire back in August and before that two bears and a mountain lion from the Thomas Fire earlier this year.
Previous success for other injured wildlife
This summer, the Carr Fire near Redding, California burned for more than a month and scorched more than 229,000 acres — also forcing many wild animals to try and escape.
On Aug. 2, a Pacific Gas & Electric Company contractor spotted an injured black bear cub lying in the ash, unable to walk on her paws. She was the latest victim of the Carr Fire — and luckily, one the contractor knew he could help. The contractor called Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, a certified wildlife rehabilitation facility.
A team was quickly mobilized to rescue the cub. Officers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) cleared a safe path and tranquilized the cub to carry her to safety. The cub was brought to a lab to be treated by a team of veterinarians from CDFW and the University of California, Davis.
"Generally speaking, an animal that has survived a fire and is walking around on its own should be left alone, but that wasn’t the case here," CDFW's Environmental Program Manager Jeff Stoddard said. "In addition to her inability to stand or walk, there were active fires burning nearby, and with the burn area exceeding 125 square miles and growing, we weren’t sure there was any suitable habitat nearby to take her to."
How does tilapia skin work for treating burns?
"The tilapia skins provide direct, steady pressure to the wounds, keep bacteria out and stay on better and longer than any kind of regular, synthetic bandage would," Peyton said. "The complete treatment also includes application of antibiotics and pain salve, laser treatments and acupuncture for pain management."
The cub is the third bear in the state to be treated for burns with tilapia skin. Earlier this year after the Thomas fire, two bears and a mountain lion also received similar treatment. With each animal being treated, Peyton and her team grow more optimistic that tilapia skin is an effective treatment for burns that can be used in veterinary hospitals around the world.
"Just like we’ve seen in other species, we’re seeing increased pain relief. We’re seeing wound healing and an overall increased comfort," said Peyton. "One of the most important things about being at UC Davis VMTH is that we are learning new techniques, but they don’t make much of a difference unless we can use them in the community."
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in August 2018.