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July 15, 2021

Two cats injured in wildfire go home six months later

University of California veterinarians, veterinary students aided cats with third-degree burns on all paws
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In September 2020, a pair of fluffy gray cats arrived at the University of California-Davis with severe burns on all of their paws.

Rescuers had found Ash and Lucky, a pair of 2-year-old littermates, along a road in Berry Creek, California, a town in the Sierra Nevada foothills that was almost completely destroyed weeks earlier by the North Complex Fire. Dr. Karen Vernau, clinical professor of neurology and neurosurgery at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said the injured cats spent the time between the fire and their rescue on their own, and it’s amazing they survived.

“Ash and his brother actually came in together with probably the worst burn injuries that we’ve seen since we’ve been dealing with kitties who have been in disaster situations,” Dr. Vernau said.

Ash, shown, and his brother Lucky had the most severe burns seen by veterinarians at the University of California-Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. (Courtesy of UC-Davis SVM)
Ash and Biscuit
Ash (left), renamed Jam by his new owner, Ash Ward, PhD, with housemate Biscuit (Courtesy of Dr. Ward)

The UC-Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team evaluated, transported, or treated about 1,200 animals in response to fall 2020’s wildfires. Ash and Lucky were among more than 60 animals brought to the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital for advanced care.

In late March, Ash was the last animal discharged from care. After Lucky returned to his owner, Ash found a new home.

The 2020 North Complex Fire was among the most deadly and destructive wildfires in state history. Fifteen people died from the blaze, which started Aug. 17 and burned 319,000 acres and destroyed 2,400 structures, according to data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The Los Angeles Times previously reported at least 12 of those who died had lived in Berry Creek.

Treatment extends across specialties

Drs. Vernau and Elizabeth Montgomery, staff veterinarian with the veterinary school’s Community Surgery Service, took on the care of Ash and Lucky, after their initial treatment in the emergency room, and provided ongoing care for other animals that were injured in the fire. The two faculty members arrived early each morning for bandage changes, wound care, and other care coordinated with anesthetists and soft tissue surgeons—including those who performed a skin graft in early March to help heal Ash’s right hind paw.

A university announcement indicates veterinary technicians also readied medications and supplies by 7 a.m. daily for months to help Drs. Montgomery and Vernau care for the cats without interrupting their teaching and clinical duties. And internal medicine and dermatology faculty members treated Ash’s bouts of diarrhea and ringworm.

Ash and Lucky had sustained third-degree burns to all of their feet, requiring amputation of most of their digits, as well as some singed whiskers. But they were systemically well, Dr. Vernau said.

Lucky, in particular, was always at the front of his cage meowing, purring, and showing he wanted his caretakers to pet him, said Dr. Montgomery. Both cats were eating, Dr. Vernau said, but Dr. Montgomery noted both cats walked as though they were wearing stiletto heels.

“We had hopes that we would be able to get back to a pain-free state,” Dr. Montgomery said.

Dr. Vernau said that considering the severity of the injuries, the veterinarians had discussed early on whether proceeding with treatment was humane and ethical. But, given the cats’ attitudes and healthy appetites, the veterinarians were optimistic.

Dr. Montgomery said both cats seemed to emerge from treatment as happy pets.

“For the last few years, Karen and I have taken care of some of the most critical cats, and it is a tremendous amount of work, coming in on the weekends, coming in every day in a row,” she said. “It’s really rewarding to put in the time and effort and then be able to see these cats find amazing homes with dedicated owners and to see their recovery.”

Dr. Vernau also said the veterinarians were able to provide so much care because of community donations to the Veterinary Catastrophic Need Fund, which pays for medical treatments for animals injured in natural disasters, such as the wildfires, or accidents.

Sluggish to rambunctious

Megan Rivera, who will be a third-year veterinary student at UC-Davis this fall, took in Ash for at-home care starting Oct. 9, 2020, and brought him to the teaching hospital several mornings each week. She also coordinates the UC-Davis Orphan Kitten Project, a rescue group run by veterinary students.

Both cats spent time receiving foster care from UC-Davis veterinary students, Rivera said, but Lucky eventually returned to his owner. Ash had been a semiowned community cat, and he was surrendered to the project.

Ash had little mobility before his skin graft, she said, but he became more active quickly after the surgery. The cat was friendly throughout his time in foster care, but she said the pain and pain medication seemed to dull his interest in play.

“By the time he was adopted, post–skin graft, he just had a slight limp in that leg,” Rivera said. “But he was very happy, running, and starting to want to jump.”

Rivera wanted more clinical experience, especially with burn care, and caring for Ash gave her a chance to see his progress and watch him recover.

Ash Ward, PhD, who lives in Oakland, had wanted to adopt a friend for her female cat, Biscuit, and she found Ash’s story moving. She adopted him this past April and renamed him Jam.

He was limping and a bit timid at first, but he since has become extremely rambunctious, she said.

“He loves to run up and down the stairs and wrestle with my other cat, who likes that maybe about 30% to 40% of the time,” she said. “But he’s very affectionate, and he’s almost like a little dog.”

Jam and Biscuit also sleep together and wait side by side for the automatic feeder.

Dr. Ward expects Jam may need long-term joint care because he essentially walks on his knuckles, but he otherwise seems healthy, she said.

“I think a lot about how difficult it probably was to save him,” she said, adding that she is grateful the veterinary school was able to do so and that Jam’s care helped veterinary students learn.