In a brightly lit makeshift burn unit inside the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, a feline wildfire victim, her face raw and her paw pads seared bright red, quivered in the arms of technician Robin Fisher.
Nearby, in the hospital’s emergency room, veterinarians Johanna Wolf and Susanna Solbak cleaned and wrapped the seared legs of a black cat as he howled in protest.
Around the corner, Dr. Steven Epstein checked on a mottled gray kitty that suffered heat and smoke injuries to her throat and esophagus, requiring vets to insert a feeding tube to nourish her.
These are some of the lesser-known victims of the wildfires that have consumed wide swaths of Northern California in recent weeks. Beyond the human toll and massive property losses, dozens of animals were left homeless and injured, wandering amid the soot and ash in Calaveras and Lake counties before being rescued. UC Davis has stepped in to treat some of the most critically injured.
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As of Friday, the teaching hospital had received more than 40 cats, along with four horses, two pigs, two chickens, a dog and a goat. Nearly half of the animals have gone unclaimed, their families likely unaware whether they survived or where to look for them. Others have been identified through microchips under their skin, or after their owners spotted their photos on the UC Davis Facebook page.
UC Davis responded to their plight about two weeks ago, when the Butte and Valley fires first erupted. The ensuing conflagrations killed six people, flattened more than 1,500 homes and blackened 150,000 acres. Members of the hospital’s Veterinary Emergency Response Team, who are dispatched to animal crises across the region and beyond, traveled to Middletown and Angel’s Camp, where firefighters and residents were picking up burned and injured animals. Initially working in the dark, without electricity, they helped assess and treat the victims, and transported the most seriously injured to UC Davis.
Smaller veterinary hospitals are generally unequipped to treat critical burns, which require costly and intensive care, said Dr. John Madigan, a large-animal specialist and founder of the emergency team.
In 2006, the team treated a herd of sheep burned in a Yolo County fire. Members have rescued stranded livestock from floods and fires. But rarely has the hospital been called to treat such a large influx of patients with such serious injuries, Madigan said. Veterinarians, technicians and volunteers have been working virtually around the clock to treat victims of the Butte and Valley blazes.
“We don’t see significant burn injuries very often,” said Dr. Erik Wisner, a veterinary radiology specialist at UC Davis. “They require a great deal of treatment, support and nursing care. Everyone rises to the occasion when these kinds of things happen.”
UC Davis is providing the care without charge to owners, and asking for donations from the public to help defray expenses. Animals that recover and are unclaimed by their families will be placed for adoption by shelters in their home counties. In a few cases, firefighters who rescued cats from the charred rubble and brush have requested permission to adopt them if the owners cannot be found.
The vast majority of severely injured pets are cats. The vets speculate that could be because residents were given only a few minutes to leave their homes. Dogs, by nature, would be easier to corral out of the house, while cats may have gone into hiding or fled the chaos.
Most of the cats are expected to survive, Epstein said. But many will require weeks of treatment.
The UC Davis medical center is among the busiest veterinary hospitals in the country, treating an estimated 50,000 animals each year. When the recent fires exploded, its small animal clinic was running at 85 percent capacity, said communications officer Rob Warren. With wildfire victims still coming in, “we are pretty much at capacity,” he said.
We don’t see significant burn injuries very often. They require a great deal of treatment, support and nursing care. Everyone rises to the occasion when these kinds of things happen.
Dr. Erik Wisner, veterinary radiology specialist, UC Davis
To accommodate the animals, staffers searched for lesser-used rooms and other spaces that could be converted into burn treatment centers. “Interim burn unit,” read a handwritten sign on the door of a room that previously served as a radiology waiting area. “Only burn patients allowed in this room until further notice.”
Inside, a small army of specialists in colorful scrub suits tended to eight cats with varying degrees of injuries. Some had lost parts of their ears. Whiskers were seared off or curled from heat. A few faces were burned raw, their noses scabbing. Most sported bright blue bandages on all four legs. The unidentified animals had been assigned names that spoke to their ordeal: Blaze, Coal, Bernie, Flame, Ashley.
Infused with pain medications, their eyes were glazed and their demeanors mostly quiet.
Dr. Elizabeth Montgomery crouched beside the cage of a long-haired, black-and-white cat with blisters and second-degree burns on all four paws. She stroked his head, examined his bandages and adjusted the soft collar around his neck that prevented him from licking his wounds.
The treatment approach is not unlike that given to human burn victims. Veterinarians examine the animals head to toe, and clean and bandage their wounds. In subsequent days, they gently remove charred tissue. The battle against infection is constant. Bandages are removed several times a day, and wounds are disinfected with antibiotic solutions. Some of the cats are dehydrated and get intravenous fluids. Some need feeding tubes as well.
The team has lost only one victim, a cat burned over 75 percent of its body.
“None of these guys has a poor chance of success,” said Epstein, plucking an injured kitten out of his kennel. “Most have a very good chance of getting better. They’re getting the best care that a patient could receive.”
Fisher, the veterinary technician, was somber as she held a tightly bundled, buff-colored cat known as Aida, one of the most severely injured. Aida had just endured a thorough cleaning of her burned paw pads and face. She was heavily sedated and unmoving save for her shivers. Her melted ears and nose were dotted with ointment. To outsiders, she seemed a long shot for survival. But not to Fisher.
“I’m just going to hold her for awhile, until she gets a little more comfortable,” she said, gently perching the cat on her lap. “We’re going to do everything we possibly can for her.”
How to help
You can find information about donating to the care of animals injured in the Butte and Valley fires at www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu.