Fish Skins Saves Kittehs’ Lives

Wildfires freak me out, not just because we live in the highest risk neighborhood in the Bay Area, but because I'm sick with concern for the animals impacted by it. Our neighborhood group is working with the park service to mitigate fire risks, but if the 20 miles of tinder dry parkland in our backyard go up, no amount of planning will save us. I just hope I'm home when that happens to evacuate my furry family.

Fortunately, the horrific Camp Fire was some distance away from us, but we were still choked by its smoke and ash for a couple of weeks that left me obsessed with the AQI and the need to have our go-bags ready.

A veterinary center in Chico, just east of the fire, has treated more than 500 injured animals, the vast majority of them cats. “Their paws have been badly burned,” said Dusty Spencer, a veterinary surgeon at the VCA Valley Oak Veterinary Center, in a press release. “Their whiskers are singed or gone.”

Twelve of the animals — six dogs and six cats — have undergone a relatively new treatment of applying sterilized tilapia skins to their wounds. The fish skin contains collagen, a protein that can help prevent infection and restore burned skin. Dr. Jamie Peyton, of the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, volunteered to treat the animals. She used the technique last year on two black bears and a 5-month old mountain lion found in the Los Padres National Forest after the Thomas Fire.

Tilapia skins are just one of the alternative treatments Peyton has used on animals; the others include acupuncture and chiropractic adjustments. She said today she was trying to "push the boundaries of veterinary burn care," and she has also used tilapia skin to treat wounds on owls, pigs and horses.

The idea's genesis was in Brazil. “We got a great surprise when we saw that the amount of collagen proteins, types 1 and 3, which are very important for scarring, exist in large quantities in tilapia skin, even more than in human skin and other skins,” said Edmar Maciel, a plastic surgeon and burn specialist.

Peyton says a big advantage of tilapia skin is that it can be changed as infrequently as every two weeks; usually, new bandages have to be applied daily, which is painful for animals and is much more labor-intensive. "If you think about treating a hundred cats and doing a hundred cat and dog bandage changes every day, it's a lot of manpower," Peyton said.

A dog, Olivia, was found with multiple second-degree burns on her side and legs. Her owners, Curtis and Mindy Stark, were out of town when the Camp Fire started and thought she'd perished when their home burned down. Fortunately, Olivia had been chipped and they were reunited. VCA Valley Oak veterinarians cleaned Olivia’s wounds, and she was given traditional pain medications. The Starks also agreed to have Olivia treated with tilapia skins…New skin grew on Olivia’s leg burn within five days. Normally, it can take weeks for skin to grow over severe burns.

Mindy Stark, a former resident of Paradise, the town of 27,000 that was wiped out by the fire, said that Olivia, sporting big sutures, gauze and wrapped legs, "started off kind of like a mummy" before the tilapia treatment. Curtis Stark said the treatment has helped considerably. “It was a day and night difference,” said Stark. “She got up on the bed and did a back flip. That is the first time we saw her acting like she was before.”

He said Olivia likes the taste of the fish, which also helps.

Peyton doesn't always use that method on cats, she says, because anesthetizing them can be risky. Instead, she wraps a small strip of tilapia skin on their paws with a bandage. A 4-month old kitten with third-degree paw burns is one of their patients who was treated successfully. Peyton calls the wrappings “little fish mittens."

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Mousebreath Magazine is an award-winning online magazine that celebrates cats and the cat-centric lifestyle. Editor Karen Nichols is a popular conference speaker and writer, whose current project is The Cat Scout Handbook. She is also the denmaster at

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