Lessons Learned From Wildfires for Healing Painful Burns

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

fish skin for burns

Story at-a-glance -

  • In California, veterinarians are using the sterilized skin of tilapia fish to heal burn wounds in animal victims of recent wildfires
  • Tilapia skin transfer collagen to burned skin and provides pain relief
  • Veterinarians at Michigan State University recently used descaled Icelandic cod fish skin on a Rottweiler puppy’s severe burns
  • The use of fish skin to treat burns also requires minimal if any sedation of the animal, and fewer painful bandage changes

It’s been all over the news lately, so you may have already heard about a remarkable new treatment that veterinarians are using to heal burns on animals — fish skin!

Tilapia Skin Transfers Collagen to Burned Skin and Also Provides Pain Relief

Veterinarian Dr. Jamie Peyton, Chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at the University of California Davis, recently used fish skin to treat eight pets — four dogs and four cats — burned in California’s Camp Fire last year. Peyton used the sterilized skin of tilapia fish.

The technique has been used successfully in human medicine, and Peyton also used it in 2017 to heal the badly burned paws of two bears and a mountain lion, and more recently, a bear cub.

“We’re trying to change burn care for animals,” Peyton said in a news release. “Tilapia skins act as a dermal substitute that provides pain relief and protection and helps these wounds heal better.”1

The fish skin can be sutured to the burned area or used as padding inside a bandage. It actually transfers collagen, a healing protein, to burned skin and reduces the frequency of bandage changes, which are very painful for burn patients.

The owners of the pets who received the treatment reported a positive change in their animals’ comfort level and behavior shortly after the fish skin was applied. In the case of one dog, the pet parent noticed a dramatic change in behavior shortly after application, and new skin began to grow on the severely burnt area within five days — a process that normally takes weeks.

An added bonus is that if an animal decides to taste-test the new skin, there’s no toxicity risk, which the mountain lion proved when he ate his fish skin bandage a few days after it was applied! Tilapia have rapid growth rates and are easy to farm, so they can potentially provide a readily available resource if the demand for fish skin to treat burns increases. According to Vet Voice, a publication of the Australian Veterinary Association:

“The skin is not designed to be a sole treatment for burns in animals but is a new development that could drastically change the way we manage and treat burns in animals.”2

Descaled, Icelandic Cod Fish Skins Applied to Burns Become Functional, Living Tissue

More recently, across the country in Lansing, Michigan, a one-year-old Rottweiler named Stella miraculously escaped a housefire while her owners were away, but when she was brought to the emergency department at Michigan State University’s Veterinary Medical Center, it was discovered she had second and third-degree burns over 10% of her body.3

The burns were across Stella’s head, nose, ears, hind end and sides, and in addition, the poor girl was suffering from severe smoke inhalation, thermal injuries to her trachea and lungs, and respiratory problems. She went on to develop ulcers and scarring in both eyes from fire exposure, and for two weeks, no one was sure she would survive the ordeal.

"Stella's will to live was amazing; she never quit fighting," Rose Wahl, one of the licensed veterinary technicians who was there when Stella arrived, told MSU Today. "Her resilience and strength have astounded everyone who has worked with her."4

In the emergency center, Stella was immediately given intravenous (IV) fluids and pure oxygen to help her breathe. Once she was stabilized, soft tissue surgeons and ophthalmologists began caring for her wounds. Due to her significant respiratory injuries, the dog wasn’t a good candidate for anesthesia, which made treating her burns a special challenge.

Thinking outside the box, the surgical team decided to try a non-traditional approach using Icelandic, descaled cod fish skins donated by a company that develops fish skin products for use with burn patients and in other medical procedures in both human and veterinary medicine.

The tissue of cod fish skins is high in omega-3 fatty acids and has anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties that are important for healing and tissue regeneration. The surgeons were able to place the grafts on Stella using minimal sedation, which prevented further stress to her lungs, and also improved the way her burns healed. As reported in MSU Today:

“The descaling of the cod skins is what differentiates them from other fish grafts, such as tilapia. While scaled tilapia grafts, which gained national attention during the California wildfires earlier this year, are effective, they act more as an organic covering while the skin underneath heals itself.

According to [Dr. Brea] Sandness [a veterinarian and surgical resident at MSU], descaled grafts have been shown to stimulate the production of cells and become functional, living tissue. In Stella's case, these grafts, which can be changed as often as the burn requires, were absorbed by her body as new tissue grew into the graft.”5

Stella is back home now and is relatively active for a pup her age. Her burns are healing well, but unfortunately, she still struggles with respiratory issues that will likely need close monitoring and care for the rest of her life. On a positive note, her case will help generate more discussion about using fish grafts in veterinary medicine. Stella’s full case study can be found here.

"Stella's case is an inspiration, and her grafts have the potential to be a new and highly effective treatment tool in the veterinary profession," Sandness said. “She's a living example that the fire within her burned stronger than the fire that injured her.”6

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