BLAINE, Minn. — Petey has suffered a lot in his five years.
The Jack Russell Terrier mix was run over by a Bobcat skid-steer last fall, leaving him with a broken foreleg and skin on his back so damaged, it died and peeled off.
By the time Liz Gigler, director of the nonprofit Rescued Pets Are Wonderful, found him in December, he had no skin on his back from his shoulders to his hips and cried all the time.
“Normally when something like this comes in, someone says ‘just euthanize him,'” she said. “I wanted to try and save him.”
Gigler, who partners with Blaine Family Veterinary Hospital, tried creams, wound care and bandages. The skin was growing back, but very slowly.
In desperation, she remembered an experimental treatment for burn patients — fish skin — and set out on a quest to get Petey what she called “a major hail Mary.”
Passion for pets
Gigler joined RPAW in 2004 when she was just 16. She’s now its director and the only paid employee. The 20-plus other staff members foster pets or volunteer.
Gigler has seen the number of pet rescue organizations grow from a handful to more than 100 in Minnesota in the past 16 years. With more groups taking in abandoned pets, RPAW has decided to specialize in those with difficult medical cases.
Gigler has five dogs at home, all with special medical needs, such as a Chihuahua with no front legs.
She has a four-year degree in humane education and shelter management. And while she’s fascinated with the medical side, she’s never aspired to be a veterinarian.
“I always had the shelter bug,” she said. “I just try to learn everything I possibly can at all times.”
Searching for fresh fish
Frustrated by Petey’s slow recovery, Gigler began researching other options and came across the work of California vet Jamie Peyton, who has pioneered the use of tilapia skins for treating burned animals, including those recently injured in the fires in Australia.
“I started thinking, why wouldn’t fish skin work for him?” she said.
Tilapia skin contains large amounts of collagen proteins that help heal skin. Unlike a traditional bandage, the skins are also moist and flexible, and don’t have to be changed as often, which helps reduce pain and speed up healing.
It seemed like a plausible idea, but where to find fresh tilapia in Minnesota in winter?
Gigler tried grocery stores and Asian markets, but the fish had either been filleted or frozen, which destroys the collagen.
Undeterred, she called a friend at the Creature Conservancy in Detroit, who pointed her to an aquaponics farm in Wisconsin.
The company, Nelson and Pade, raises tilapia and uses the waste water to grow produce in greenhouses. The company said it was an unusual request, but offered to donate the fish if she could pick it up.
“I’m in my office and I start screaming,” she said. “I’m going to get fish!”
She put out a plea on Facebook and on Feb. 7, Kellie May Chauvin and Julie Osterberg volunteered to drive four hours to Montello, Wis., to pick up the fish.
Back at the clinic, Gigler and the vet techs scaled and filleted the fish, rinsed it in saline and chlorhexidine, placed it in a glycerol mixture and vet Krista Steffenhagen surgically attached it to Petey’s back.
Gigler even arranged to donate the meat to a family and the skeletons to the Wildlife Science Center in Stacy, Minn.
“Not an ounce of this tilapia will be wasted,” she said.
Wait and watch
Now they wait to see if the fish skin will help Petey’s skin grow back. The fish skin will eventually dry up and fall off, hopefully revealing new skin underneath. It will look like a scar, she said, because the hair won’t grow back.
“Will it work? I have no idea,” she said. “But considering the amount of wound cases we have coming in, this will be a game changer if it does work.”
As Gigler shared Petey’s story, sitting in the clinic last week, Petey’s sad howls could be heard coming from his kennel in the back. It wasn’t because he was in pain. That’s being managed with medication and wound care. It was because the incident had also damaged him emotionally, making him fearful and needy.
Eventually she let him come in the room and he whimpered happily, trying to give doggie kisses over the rim of the plastic cone around his neck that kept him from bothering his wound.
She’s hoping once he’s healed he’ll be adopted by a retiree, or someone with time to sit and reassure him.