Animal health matters: Leave the animal medicine for the animals

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum
Columnist

I think it was the medicine. 

My first fascination with the veterinary profession. As a little kid accompanying my dad to the local vet clinic, I remember being blown away by the realization there was medicine that was just for animals. Small brown bottles, big glass jugs and boxes of gigantic pills, lined up on shelves and in big display coolers. Medicine for cows, for pigs, for dogs.  How on earth could anyone possess the knowledge of what it all was, what sicknesses it was used for, how one would get that stuff into an animal? I couldn’t fathom it. 

It took 21 years of school and thousands of tuition dollars, but eventually I did figure out what all that medicine was for. The stuff in those bottles and jugs became the everyday tools I used to help sick animals get back to health or to prevent the problem in the first place. 

Unlike my medical doctor counterparts, as a veterinarian I directly used those medicines on my patients. I’d carry them around in my truck, suck them up into syringes for injections or squirt them on the back of a cow. Inevitably, I’d manage to unintentionally medicate myself every so often. I’d catch the ricocheted splatter of pour-on in my face or jab calf vaccine into my hand instead of the calf. 

It mostly never occurred to me to intentionally medicate myself with one of those animal products. I’d heard stories of vet school classmates curing hangovers by mixing horse pain reliever in their orange juice, but I never had the guts to do it myself. Besides, my unintentional exposures usually weren’t pleasant. Organophosphate pour-on splashed on your face isn’t good for you. A jab from a 7-way vaccine needle will make you wish your hand would fall off.  Some exposures have much worse outcomes: Google “Micotil” sometime. Clearly, animal medicines are meant for animals only. 

Which brings me to ivermectin. 

Ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug, is a lifesaver for people affected by parasites in developing countries. It’s inexpensive, extensively used worldwide and FDA-approved in the U.S., as well. It’s used for the same parasite control reasons in livestock and companion animals — killing intestinal worms in horses, heartworms in dogs and lice in cattle. I used gallons of the stuff in practice. 

This mundane dewormer is getting a lot of press now, thanks to COVID-19.

A 2020 Australian paper described ivermectin limiting the growth of the COVID-19 virus in tissue culture flasks in a lab. People got excited about this. Doctors started using ivermectin in sick COVID-19 patients, and some have prescribed it as a preventive.  Doctors can do this if they’re so inclined, even though the FDA has not approved its use in COVID-19 patients.   

Some individuals, however, have decided it’s too bothersome and expensive to actually consult with their doctors about this. They’ve bought up ivermectin in all its forms — horse paste, cattle pour-on, sheep drench — to take themselves. I’ve heard the stories: ranchers drinking a shot of pour-on (along with its rubbing alcohol carrier) or dabbing it — Old Spice style — on the wrists and back of the ears in hopes of warding off COVID-19.

A recent five-fold increase in poison control calls for ivermectin exposures illustrates that this is a horrible idea.

It turns out that ivermectin products formulated for animals (a 1250-pound horse for example) are really easy for a person to overdose on. The lucky poisoning victims get by with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The unlucky ones?  Blurred vision, hallucinations, seizures and a multi-day stay in the hospital — along with unknown long-term effects.   

Do not under any circumstances take animal ivermectin — or any other animal medicine, for that matter — for yourself.  If you’re really bent on using it, get a doctor’s prescription.  Better yet, just skip it.

While studies continue, they don’t have sufficient patient numbers yet, which to me means ivermectin’s potential is still a largely unanswered question. If it was really the answer to our COVID-19 prayers, we’d know it by now.

To feel confident about ivermectin — or any medication — as a worthwhile preventive for COVID-19, it would have to be given to millions of people, with only extremely rare side effects, while demonstrating wild effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 hospitalizations and illnesses. If only there was something out there like that, free of charge and available to every American.

Oh, wait…

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at (605)688-5171.