AK: Experimental tilapia skin burn treatment heals Haines dog

Archer gives Dr. Michelle Oakley a kiss before his bandage change. (Photo by Claire Stremple – KHNS)

Veterinary medicine didn’t have solutions for severe burns in animals until a UC Davis vet was motivated by the California wildfires to pioneer a new treatment. She brought her skills to Haines to teach local vets how to use the tilapia fish skins—and help save a local dog’s life.

Archer is a four-year-old husky greyhound mix who was severely burned in January.

“It was a horror show to be honest,” said his vet, Dr. Michelle Oakley. You may know her as the Yukon Vet from her series on National Geographic. She says about half of Archer’s body was covered with 2nd and 3rd degree burns.

“His entire head and ears looked like it had been skinned. Like, completely red and raw and burned. Part of his ear came off in one of the bandage changes. So we lost that. The whole side of his flank was burned,” Oakley said.

Friends rushed him all the way to Whitehorse for care because there are no consistent vet services in Haines. The staff at the All Paws clinic was overwhelmed by the severity of his burns. They were unsure if it was humane to continue fighting to save Archer’s life.

But one of the nurses had read about a burn treatment for animals using tilapia skin. Tilapia is a hardy, freshwater fish that’s commonly farmed. The nurse told Dr. Oakley, who reached out to the source: UC Davis vet and researcher, Dr Jamie Peyton. She is pioneering tilapia skin treatment for severe burns on animals.

“As soon as I got ahold of her she was like: ‘Don’t worry this will be fine! She was like our angel,” Dr. Oakley said.

Dr. Peyton agreed to come up to Haines — a 2,000 mile trip — and show the local vets how to undertake the treatment. She began treating animals burned in the California wildfires in 2017. And she’s redefining what’s possible in animal burn care.

“What we’ve learned from treating animals with these injuries is they can heal,” Dr. Peyton said. “We can manage their pain. It can be completely humane. I think the things we’ve learned have changed our view of what’s possible.”

She says veterinary medicine didn’t have treatment options for severe burns. Badly burned humans get skin grafts or biological bandages, often made of pig skin. These treatments are extremely expensive and are usually paid for by insurance companies. That option isn’t available for animals. So Dr. Peyton began making affordable fish skin bandages to treat the animals in her care. Attempting to heal burns simply hadn’t been done before.

“This is the first time,” Dr. Peyton said, “So what’s really exciting is that in veterinary medicine we’ve been a bit behind in advanced burn care for animals and that’s something I’m trying to change.”

A tilapia bandage. (Photo by Claire Stremple – KHNS)

Dr. Peyton has treated 13 species and over 30 animals using the tilapia treatment she developed at UC Davis.  These aren’t slimy raw skins, they’ve been processed, sanitized, and dried out. They work to aid healing in a few ways. Tilapia is full of collagen, which promotes skin growth. Dr. Peyton calls it a jungle gym that new skin cells can rebuild around. Tilapia skin also cuts down on pain—so much so that Dr Payton is studying why. And finally, it’s a protective barrier. Think of it like a fish skin suit of armor for animals.

Dr. Peyton says that the devastation of the California wildfires pushed her to try healing increasingly injured animals. In some cases, people’s injured pets were all they had left. Archer’s owner, Cody Hotch, also lost his home in a fire.

“This is why we do what we do. I love helping the animals but more than that I love helping the people,” Peyton said. “Cody said something to me that was so profound. I said I’m sorry you lost your home, belongings. He said, ‘No I didn’t lose everything. I still have Archer.’”

Today we’re in Dr. Oakley’s clinic at the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines for a bandage change. Archer runs in with Hotch and shakes.

“Okay let’s get your weight,” Dr. Oakley said as she and Cody try to wrangle Archer onto a scale.

“He’s been eating a lot lately and he’s been a little less picky about it,” Cody laughs. In the beginning, he says they went through all kinds of dog food, trying to find something Archer would eat. He was too injured to have much of an appetite.

Archer is wiggling around in a cone and a t-shirt, so he cant pick at his bandages. He’s got a big doggy smile on his face. Hotch says the difference in his dog before and after tilapia treatment is like night and day.

“He’s been pretty energetic.” Hotch said. “He’s been wanting to play and run around.”

At first, Archer’s care was constant. These days, a bandage change is relatively quick. Dr. Oakley says that a human patient would still be in intensive care.

“Once we put the tilapia on and changed it, the improvement was just incredible. His head just started being completely covered, hair started growing through. We’re still fighting this spot on his flanks, but it’s just amazing,” she said.

Dr. Oakley and her assistant Nicole Holm clean the wound, then use a series of treatments: healing lasers, a pain reliever cream called awesome sauce, and electromagnetic therapy. Finally, they kind of mummify him in bandages.

Infection was a huge risk while so much of Archer’s body was an open sore, but now he’s healed enough to  be out of the woods. He’s out of his homemade intensive care unit and able to go out out with Hotch again.

“Yeah, it’s pretty wild. It’s just nice to see him being more himself now. He wants to have fun, run around go play outside or something,” Hotch said.

Archer’s a little groggy after anaesthesia, but he scarfs a few treats and scrambles off the operating table. He follows Hotch out the door and into the snow.

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