A handful of lucky pets rescued from Northern California’s Camp Fire last month are healing with the help of a procedure that — until now — had never been done on cats or dogs.
Tilapia skins have been applied to the burns of four cats and four dogs at the VCA Valley Oak Veterinary Center in Chico, where hundreds of burned pets have been taken to recover, according to a University of California Davis news release.
Jamie Peyton, a UC Davis veterinarian, had success last year using the unconventional fish skin technique on bears and mountain lions rescued from fires — so this year, as injured animals poured into the hospital in Chico, she volunteered to give the method a try on household pets.
Peyton hopes the method can one day be used on humans, too, according to a University of California Davis news release.
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Sterilized fish skins are ideal for burn recovery because they transfer healing collagen from the tilapia skin into the burned animals’ skin, according to the veterinarians. That also means recovering pets have more time to rest between painful bandage changes.
“We’re trying to change burn care for animals,” Peyton said in a statement. “Tilapia skins act as a dermal substitute that provides pain relief and protection and helps these wounds heal better.”
The Camp Fire was the deadliest blaze in the state’s history, killing more than 80 people and destroying whole neighborhoods after it started Nov. 8 and quickly swept through Butte County. The fast-moving flames also left countless pets injured and separated from their owners, many of whom left everything behind to escape the fires in time.
Hundreds of those pets were taken to Northern California animal hospitals for treatment.
Judging from photos and videos veterinarians have released, a 4-month-old kitten at the Chico hospital might have gotten the cutest fish skin bandages yet.
The kitten was suffering from third-degree burns after spending 13 days ambling through Camp Fire devastation, according to UC Davis. He scorched his paws until the pads of his feet were gone, but was rescued and taken to the hospital on Nov. 20.
Veterinarians didn’t dare suture the fish skins to the kitten like they might on larger, wild mammals, fearing that anesthetizing a cat for the procedure would be risky.
Instead, Peyton plopped small strips of fish skin on the young cat’s paws, and then wrapped them up with bandages — creating what she calls “little fish mittens.”
So far, the results are promising.
“Just like we’ve seen in other species, we’re seeing increased pain relief,” Peyton said. “We’re seeing wound healing and an overall increased comfort.”
Underneath the fish skins, the animals are growing skin of their own.
“We’ve been very impressed and somewhat amazed with the amount of healing that happened underneath those fish skins,” Dusty Spencer, a veterinary surgeon at VCA Valley Oak Veterinary Center, said of a dog who underwent the treatment.
The technique was also used on a bear that survived the Carr Fire earlier this year, the Sacramento Bee reported.
Another perk of the fish skin is that it’s not synthetic, as experts noted after the bear was treated with tilapia.
“Any vet will tell you that an animal will try to get off a synthetic bandage,” said Kirsten Macintyre, communications manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. But after sterilization has removed the tilapia skin’s fish smell, “the bear doesn’t recognize it as food. It’s like paper.”
Peyton first used the technique on two bears and a mountain lion during Ventura County’s Thomas Fire in 2017, according to UC Davis.
After the Camp Fire, animal rescuers in San Francisco, at UC Davis and beyond posted pictures of unclaimed cats and dogs on social media, trying to find their owners.
UC Davis’ veterinary medicine school posted on Facebook Tuesday that some animals still haven’t been reunited with their owners.