Ozark - the Australian Wildlife Carer's Information & Communications Network

Mon - Dec 11


By Dr Anne Fowler


Often in the drama surrounding the fire and the obviousness of the burns, the patient is forgotten. We also need to remember that this is one occasion where we all need to work as a team – the person collecting browse or doing the washing is as integral as the person changing the bandages.

The entire animal should be assessed and treated. The following things are important in the procedure of treating burns:

Examine the Animal and Collect Vital Signs
  • What is the mental status of the animal? Is it bright, alert, dull, or quiet?

  • What is its breathing like? Fast, harsh, gurgly, or moist? We are looking for animals with smoke inhalation or burns.

  • What is its heart rate? A shocky animal will have a fast heart rate.

  • Pinch the skin. Does it tent? This indicates at least 10% dehydration.

  • What is the gum colour? Is it pink or white? What is the refill time when you press on the gums? It should be 1 second; longer indicates shock.

  • Is a joey present? If it is dead, remove to prevent infection of the pouch. If the joey is alive, and the mother lactating, then an individual assessment is made as to whether to keep the joey and mother together – based on severity of burns.

  • When possible, weigh the animal – to gauge future losses or gains.

Treat for shock
Keep the animal warm, dark and quiet. The temperature should be between 24 – 30ºC Minimize human traffic and noise. Keep pets and children away. The environment that houses the animals should be kept clean – and fly strike prevented.

Treat dehydration
These animals have been stuck in a tree in hot air leading up to and through the fire front. Ambient humidity of air may only be 10% instead of 50%. Leaves which are food and water may have shriveled and died. Rehydration is essential. Offer fresh water – and yes, every animal – including koalas, will drink water if it wants it. Leave fresh water available at all times – but remember that the animal may be too disorientated or sore to move – so continue to offer water several times a day.

Treat for a minimum of 10% dehydration – and ideally 20% dehydration – for at least 3 days. Some animals will require a longer time to rehydrate. Aggressive rehydration prevents later problems with kidney damage.

Fluids can also be given subcutaneously or intravenously. Fluid will be absorbed from the subcutaneous space over several hours – making this suitable for more alert animals where you wish to minimize handling.

Treating the burn
In the true first aid setting at the fire front, the initial treatment of a burn is to flush it in tepid water for 10 minutes. The goal is to stop the 'microwave' effect. The skin traps heat and the subcutaneous fat continues to burn – thus the burn extends. Flushing the burn will also remove some of the debris such as soot and plant material.

When it comes to treating burns, the first thing to do is to get organized. Lay instruments out ready for use, have bandages cut to size and work from a clean side to dirty side.
  • It is appropriate to use disposable gloves when treating full-thickness burns to prevent the transfer of bacteria from your hands to the burn.

  • Trim off singed fur with scissors or clippers so that the skin can be examined.

  • Bathe burns in tepid 0.9% saline for 5 – 10 minutes. The longer time is necessary initially and can be reduced over time. Change the water when it becomes dirty.

  • Bathe eyes with saline. Wipe soot away from conjunctiva.

  • Moist cotton buds are used to clean the nostrils.

  • With sharp scissors, trim away any flaps of dead skin.

  • Dry the burns with cotton gauze or cotton toweling. Cotton wool balls leave strands of cotton on the wound and should not be used.

  • For the first 3 – 5 days while the wounds slough (debride), a saline wet to dry bandage is changed daily. Moisten cotton gauze with sterile saline. Then apply dry cotton gauze over the top and then wrap.

  • Apply Silvazene (Smith & Nephew) to the affected areas liberally. Cover all burnt surfaces – not just front and backs of hands or feet. There is no other cream that is suitable for partial to full thickness burns. The silver promotes healing and the sulphadiazine is antibacterial and antifungal in its action. Application of Silvazene stops when there is a complete covering of skin.

  • Apply a layer of Melonin (Smith & Nephew) shiny side facing the burn.

  • Paraffin can be used but in the early stages may leave its indentations on the granulating wound bed. It is suitable to wrap around burnt tails.

  • Wrap the feet in mittens. Mitten bandages leave the opposing thumb bandaged separate to the remaining fingers. In this bandage, animals are able to grab browse. Do not bandage in 'ball' bandages taught in human first aid – these are uncomfortable in the longer term, do not allow the animal to feed and do not permit normal walking. Bandage material such as Coplus, Vetrap can be used.

  • Acticoat 7 (Smith & Nephew), can be used after the first week for animals that require regular anaesthesia for bandage changes – this dressing stays moist and releases silver over a 7 day period – suitable for birds and possum burns.

  • After 5 days, bandage changes can be performed every second day. Do not delay changes longer than two days as Silvazene is only active for 24 hours.

Supplementary feeding
The metabolic requirement of burnt animals is three times their maintenance requirement. There is a high protein requirement to make cells to fight infection and to heal. All animals should be provided with natural browse. However, supplementary feeding permits the provision of fluids, energy and a source of protein.

Milk is well-suited for this purpose. Koalas are fed 60 – 120 ml of Divetalact/Prosobee/Biolac M200 daily. Whatever milk you are accustomed to use for possums can be offered for lapping. Birds may benefit from being crop fed Handrearing mixes.

Access to fresh water at all times is recommended.

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