In January 2006, wildfires began in four parts of Victoria and destroyed bushland over the following month. The challenge was to provide good quality information to carers in isolated areas when most of these carers had never previously cared for burned victims.
Dealing with burnt wildlife involves interaction with a variety of government and community-based agencies, whose priorities are to save human life and property. The goal with burnt animals should be accurately assess, promptly treat those able to be rehabilitated and provide compassionate euthanasia to those suffering from extensive burns. Animals may present from these large-scale fires, or from local small-scale back-burning operations that occur during the cooler months of the year.
Assessment of Burns
The first thing to understand is the role of skin – from this we can appreciate what happens when it is damaged or lost. Skin is the largest organ in the body. It is responsible for keeping fluid in the body. It acts as a barrier to invasion by external organisms – such as bacteria and fungi. It provides a surface that allows us to feel our environment, without being damaged by it. The body is continually replacing the skin – it takes 12 weeks to grow from the deepest level to being shed as dead cells.
Without skin, fluid and electrolytes are lost from the body. The body requires more energy to replace the skin, so metabolic requirements increase. Susceptibility to infection occurs. Movement becomes painful and further loss of blood and tissues is likely as the underlying tissues are unable to cope with trauma.There are a few things to consider when assessing burns:
- Depth of the burn
- Extent of the burn
- Location of the burn
Depth of the burn
This was described as first, second and third degree burns. However, the terminology below is descriptive and able to be understood by people without training in burns.
- Superficial burns: involves the outermost layer of the skin. This is very painful. The skin is red, but not blistered. This was a first degree burn. The best example is of this burn is when you burn yourself on a hotplate. It is uncommon that this burn is seen in wildlife. Bird skin does not blister as prominently as mammalian skin as it lacks collagen.
- Partial thickness burns: involve the deeper levels of the skin. It is painful and was known as second degree burns. There are two levels of partial thickness burns:
Superficial partial thickness: The skin begins to blister but will heal within 2 weeks without scarring.
Deep partial thickness: The skin is blotchy with red or white areas. Blisters may be present. Nerves have been destroyed as so it is not painful. This burn will take 2 – 4 weeks to heal with possible scarring.
- Full thickness burn: destroys the full depth of skin, including tissues below. This will take at least 2 – 4 weeks to heal – dependent on the size of the burn. Escharotomy which involves cutting away the dead skin and suturing fresh edges together may be required for areas with full thickness burns.
Extent of the Burns
The amount of skin that has been burned needs to be considered. As carers and vets, we are unable to induce month-long comas, do extensive skin grafting and repetitive surgeries on these animals. The welfare of the animal must remain our prime concern. It is not fair for the animal to suffer with no chance for rehabilitation. So an assessment of the severity of the burns is needed.
- Burns to less than 15% of the body have a reasonable prognosis
- Burns to 15 – 50 % of the body have a poor prognosis
- Burns to over 50% of the body have no prognosis and prompt euthanasia is required.
We describe the area burned using the sketches below to calculate the area burned. This is taken from the Lund and Browder Charts for humans and is based on a koala body.
Areas are based on surface areas for adults. Please excuse the sketches – I failed Art! The tail on possums could be included in the buttocks area. However, it would rate higher for an animal such as a macropod in terms of surface area.
Location of the Burns
For wildlife, whose release is dependent on a functional body, some locations of burns may impact on rehabilitation.
Damage near joints where scar tissue restricts the movement of limbs or digits has a great effect on our tree-dwelling marsupials. This is also pertinent around face structures such as eyelids and mouth.
Nail bed damage is significant. Nails are used to climb trees to eat and escape predation, to groom, to fight, to care for young. An animal may cope with one nail lost on a hand, but more than one nail lost may affect its survival.
Burns may be hidden by feathers and the true extent of the burn is not appreciated.