Burned Bears Successfully Treated With Fish Skin

Two bears that were badly burned in the California wildfires have been healed using a treatment involving the skin of tilapia fish. The treatment had never been tried before on human or animal burn victims in the United States.

The two female black bears survived the Thomas wildfire that swept through Southern California in December. State wildlife authorities found one bear huddling in a backyard aviary near the town of Ojai. The other bear was found two weeks later in a nearby wooded area. Both bears suffered third-degree burns that caused their paw pads to slough off.

The second bear was discovered to be pregnant during an ultrasound exam, making a fast recovery imperative. If the bear gave birth in captivity, the stress might cause her to reject the cub.

When the bears’ paws were first examined last month, vets figured that the bad burns might take up to six months to heal. The bears could hardly stand due to pain. Jamie Peyton, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at the UC Davis veterinary teaching hospital, tried the usual care for severe burns at first.

However, an issue arose when it came to bandaging the bears’ paws and managing their pain. The bears needed to be a safe distance from people when not sedated, making treatment tricky. There were also concerns about traditional bandages coming off or the bears eating them, potentially causing an intestinal obstruction.

Peyton had read a news story about scientists in Brazil successfully using sterilized tilapia skin on human burns and decided to try the technique on the bears. The Brazilian researchers had found that the fish skin helped their patients recover quicker and lessened the need for pain medication. Tilapia skin is also cheaper and more widely available than the pig and human tissues long used for burns because it’s a byproduct of tilapia sold as food.

Peyton procured the skin from a local fish market and sterilized it before it was sutured onto the sedated animals’ paws. The paws were then wrapped in rice paper and corn husks as edible bandages. Instead of six months, the bears’ paws healed in a matter of weeks. Wildlife officials decided the bears were ready for release in mid-January. The bears were released in a spot not too far from where the bears were found, but that hadn’t been damaged by fire.

Wildlife authorities also found a 5-month-old male mountain lion with burned paws in the woods. The tilapia skin was also used on the mountain lion’s most severe burns. The mountain lion was unfortunately too young to be released, so he’ll go to a wildlife rescue center.

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