How vets used fish skin to help save sweet Stella after a fire

Fighting for her life after narrowly escaping a horrible house fire, doctors used fish skin grafts on the Rottweiler’s burns to help save her life.

Poor, sweet Stella. The one-year-old female Rottweiler was caught in a house fire in Lansing, Michigan, while her people were away. Miraculously, she escaped – but not without life-threatening injuries.

Upon being admitted to the emergency department at the Michigan State University Veterinary Medical Center in February of this year, 10 percent of her body was covered in second- and third-degree burns.

As Michigan State University (MSU) explains, she had burns “across her head, nose, ears, hind end and sides of her body, as well as severe smoke inhalation and respiratory problems.” She also had damage to both eyes due to fire exposure.

Stella was on shaky ground and despite being in such good hands, she was fighting for her life.

“Stella’s will to live was amazing; she never quit fighting,” said Rose Wahl, a licensed veterinary technicians who was one of the staff members there when Stella arrived. “Her resilience and strength have astounded everyone who has worked with her.”

The first order of business was treating the trauma and thermal injuries to her trachea and lungs. She was given intravenous fluids and oxygen to help her breath. After that, the MSU soft tissue surgery team and ophthalmologists got to work.

But because of the state of Stella’s lungs, the doctors were concerned about giving her anaesthesia – making skin grafts a challenge.

“We had to get creative with her burns because of the significant trauma to Stella’s lungs,” said Brea Sandness, a veterinarian and surgical resident at MSU. “She wasn’t a great candidate for anesthesia because of her respiratory injuries.”

So when all else fails … try fish skin? Yes, fish skin.

The team decided to try using the descaled skin of Atlantic cod, donated by an Icelandic company, Kerecis. The company has been working on fish-skin products for use on burns and other wounds – for both animals and people – taking advantage of the architecture of the tissue and its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. “These grafts have anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties, important for healing and tissue regeneration,” notes MSU. “They don’t require heavy sedation, either.”

“We were able to place them on her with minimal sedation, which not only allowed us to heal her without additional stress to her lungs, but improved the way her burns healed,” Sandness said.

fish skin© Michigan State University

Sandness explains that descaled fish grafts have been shown to encourage the production of cells and become functional, living tissue. They can be changed as often as required. As explains in Bloomberg Businessweek:

“The materials in fish skin, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, yield natural anti-inflammatory effects that speed healing. When placed on wounds, the product, made from dried and processed fish skin, works as an extracellular matrix, a group of proteins and starches that plays a crucial role in recovery. In a healthy person, a matrix surrounds cells and binds them to tissue, generating the growth of new epidermis. But in chronic wounds, this natural structure fails to form. So like a garden trellis, the fish skin provides the body’s own cells a structure to grow around so they can form healthy tissue, gradually becoming incorporated into the closing wound.”

In Stella’s case, even though she will likely have respiratory issues for the rest of her life, her burns have responded well to the treatment.

“Stella is one of the bravest and strongest patients I’ve ever encountered,” Wahl said. “Not only did she show incredible endurance and resilience, she has maintained a sweet and kind attitude throughout this whole ordeal.”

stellaMichigan State University/CC BY 4.0

Stella’s remarkable recovery aside, I admit that the ethics of using the parts of one animal in order to save another raised some questions for me. I was relieved to see that the fish used by Kerecis comes exclusively from stock that the Marine Stewardship Council has certified as sustainable; and it is processed with 100 percent renewable energy in Isafjordur. And even better, they get the skin from a commercial fish facility that processes the fish for food – meaning that the fish skin they are turning into lifesaving, medical grade graft material is a waste product. It’s a fascinating process, more about which you can see in the video below.

As for Stella, her story will be presented at the Society of Veterinary Soft Tissue Surgery convention in June.

“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.”

Fighting for her life after narrowly escaping a horrible house fire, doctors used fish skin grafts on the Rottweiler’s burns to help save her life.


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