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Fish Skin Healed Bears’ Paws Burned in the California Fires

A veterinarian remembered a story about doctors treating human burns with tilapia skin.

Jesse Hicks

A pair of black bears with paws badly burned in the Southern California wildfires received somewhat unusual care when they saw veterinarians from University of California, Davis. The bears—along with a 5-month-old mountain lion cub—had their third-degree paw burns covered with tilapia skin.

The fish-skin treatment had never been performed in the US and never on animals and it was so successful that the vets argue it deserves further investigation. The bears received other alternative medicine, including acupuncture and chiropractic treatment.

Rescuers found the bears in the Los Padres National Forest in December and brought them to California Department of Fish and Wildlife, where the team saw that they could hardly stand from pain: The bears’ paws were burned so badly that their pads started to slough off.

Karin Higgins/UC Davis

The CDFW called Jamie Peyton, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at the UC-Davis veterinary school. She thought it would take four to six months for the wounds to heal, but that would be long enough to have them get used to captivity and one of the bears was pregnant. Peyton remembered reading about human burn victims in Brazil who’d been treated with tilapia skins in an effort to ease pain and speed healing. Fish skin is high in collagen, a protein which is good for healing, and stays moist longer than gauze. Doctors routinely graft human and pig skin to treat burns but tilapia skin is cheap and widely available as a byproduct of fish sold for food.

So they sterilized tilapia skin and stitched it to the bears’ paws. Next the vets wrapped the fish skin bandages with rice paper and corn husks to help keep them intact. Everything is edible, meaning the bandages wouldn’t lead to intestinal blockages if the bears tried to eat them.

“We wrap their feet like tamales. They were known either as ‘tamale feet’ or ‘California bear roll feet,’” Peyton told the Washington Post.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Before you imagine cute teddy bears with tamales or sushi rolls for feet, remember that these are still wild animals. Unlike domesticated animals, they have to be heavily sedated for vets to safely care for them. “I adore them, but they’re wild,” Peyton said. That can make it difficult to provide standard burn treatment, which includes cleaning the wounds, removing dead tissue, applying ointments, covering the burns, and managing pain.

There’s no guarantee they’ll eat pain pills hidden in their food, and getting close to them means drugging them. “You can only anesthetize them so many times,” Peyton said. “It’s hard on them. We can’t do that to them every day.”

So the veterinary team tried their alternative treatments on days when the animals were already scheduled for sedation, to have their bandages changed or for other standard care.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The fish skins seemed to have immediate benefits. Previously, one bear wanted to lay down most of the time to spare her burned paws. “After the first time we put the bandages on, she woke up, she stood up,” and showed interest in her surroundings, Peyton told the AP. Soon enough, both bears were up and walking on their tamales. They got the bandages replaced ten days later and new skin grew back on their pads in a matter of weeks.

On January 17, the bears got their final fish bandages and were ready to be released back into the forest. (The mountain lion cub was too young when injured to ever be returned to the wild, and will be taken to a care facility.) The veterinarians say the positive results should warrant further study of using fish skins for burn treatment in animals.

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