King the cat and his family had been through a lot — their Omaha home damaged by fire and King himself burned over about 50% of his body.
The burns, in fact, were so extensive that veterinarians caring for King at the Nebraska Humane Society were concerned that their usual techniques wouldn’t be enough to close the gap. King had plenty of life — lives? — left in him, they believed, if they could just find a way to help him heal.
That’s where this story gets a bit, shall we say, fishy.
On Sunday, the veterinarians sutured fish skin — tilapia, cleaned and disinfected — over King’s wounds, covering them with a kind of organic bandage.
Dr. Amber Horn, the Humane Society’s animal medical director, said tilapia skin has been shown to provide some pain relief while protecting wounds and helping to speed healing.
A veterinarian from the University of California, Davis, used the technique in 2017 to treat bears and a mountain lion injured in a wildfire. Last year, the California vet used the same procedure to treat domestic dogs and cats injured in another large fire. The UC Davis vet reportedly decided to try it after reading how doctors in Brazil, who lacked access to tissue banks and other costly treatments, were experimenting with fish skins to treat burns in humans.
Information about the technique has become available through the veterinary medical literature, Horn said, so the team took it from there.
First, they had to find fish skins. They called area markets to find fish with intact skin. They cleaned and disinfected the skin, leaving the scales on the outside surface. Horn and Drs. Katie James and Michelle Rutz then stitched the skin into place.
“It was pretty cool,” Horn said. “You want it to work, but at the same time, you don’t have any other options, so you have to be brave and step outside your comfort zone and do things like this.”
King isn’t out of the woods yet, Horn said, but the team is optimistic that he will pull through if they can manage his pain, prevent infection and keep him eating.
(Speaking of eating, the Humane Society is out of the human-grade canned chicken that King and other ill and injured pets like to eat. The organization, near 90th and Fort Streets, would appreciate donations of the product. Potential donors can also call 402-444-7800.)
King, who’s getting pain and anti-anxiety medications, could reject his fishy bandages, Horn said. But even giving his wounds a few extra days of protection to help advance the healing process should be enough.
Their goal, she said, is to reunite him with his family. They’ve lost a lot, including another pet.
“It was really important for Dr. James and I to do our darnedest to get this kitty back to his owners,” she said.
Horn said she would like to try the technique in other situations. Animals struck by vehicles often suffer skin damage.
Meanwhile, they will keep an eye on King. And brace for the catfish jokes.
“I look forward to the puns,” she said.
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