The recent wildfires in California have taken a terrible toll in life and property, but it isn't just people who suffered. Two adult female black bears were caught in the conflagration and suffered third degree burns on their paws, which were treated by veterinarians from the University of California, Davis and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) using innovative new, edible bandages made out of fish skins.
According to UC Davis, the two bears and a five-month old mountain lion were brought in to the CDFW Investigations Lab in Rancho Cordova for treatment in December after being trapped in the Thomas wildfire that raced through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in Southern California. There Deana Clifford, senior wildlife veterinarian with the CDFW and assistant clinical professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, provided treatment for the severely burned animals while Jamie Peyton, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, tried to find ways to manage their pain.
Treating any animal in such a condition always presents a challenge, but in large wild animals like a bear, burns present a major problem. Aside from the fact that the bears couldn't stand or walk without severe pain due to the bottom of their paws being masses of raw flesh, there were constraints on how long the vets had to act.
Peyton says that treating such wounds should have taken up to six months to heal properly, but that was time they didn't have. Not only would it have meant dealing closely with a wild bear to frequently change its bandages over a long time, but there was also the danger that the bears might become acclimated to captivity and lose their fear of people. Worse, the older of the two bears was pregnant and the lab holding facilities weren't equipped to handle such a condition.
Peyton found a solution in the literature about a new technique developed in Brazil that used sterilized tilapia skins to successfully treat burns on human beings. It had never been used in the US, but it seemed like just the thing for the bears because the high collagen content of the skins would promote healing and act as a matrix for the scar tissue. In addition, the skins were inexpensive, could be sutured directly to the skin, and were even edible, so the bears could eventually remove the dressings by themselves.
After the skins were obtained, sterilized, and stitched to the bears' paws, which were then wrapped in corn husks to prevent them from being immediately eaten, a noticeable improvement took place in the animals' condition. The bears seemed more comfortable and could now stand.
In addition to the new dressings, the bears were treated with a specially developed painkilling salve, as well as a wide range of therapies, including acupuncture, chiropractic care, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, and cold laser therapy. These were aimed at reducing pain and promoting blood and lymph flow to aid healing. The end result was that the bears were ready to be released in weeks instead of months with new skin on their paws.
Because the fires had destroyed the bears' habitat, they were equipped with satellite tracking collars and released on January 18 in separate winter dens that were constructed for them in Padres National Forest.
According to Peyton, the new fish skin dressing could be used one day for treating domestic pets as well as helping human burn victims in regions without adequate skin grafting banks.
"One animal can change the face of medicine," says Peyton. "I think these bears and the mountain lion are inspiring us to think outside the box. These individual animals have contributed to promoting how we're going to treat burns in the future."
The video below, which contains some disturbing images, discusses the bears' case.
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