Alberta vet tackles vampire bats with Vicks VapoRub and an open mind

Dr. Kelsey Shacker, who teaches at Olds College, travelled with another Alberta animal doctor to Honduras to teach equine vet students. The two shared their skills and picked up a few new ones on the way.

Dr. Kelsey Shacker and colleague share skills and learn new ones on Honduran teaching trip

Dr. Kelsey Shacker, who teaches at Olds College, travelled to Honduras to guest lecture at a school there and work with students in field clinics helping local farmers. (Dr. Kelsey Shacker)

Dr. Kelsey Shacker never thought she'd slather Vicks VapoRub on a horse to fight off vampire bats.

In Central America, vampire bats feed on blood and often nibble on horses that stay outside overnight. Horses are widely used for work by families, who can't always afford to shelter them.

The bats leave smelly pheromones in the bite wounds so they can track their way back to continue feasting on the horse.

Turns out, mentholated topical ointment masks the smell and keeps the bats away.

"It was kind of like, OK, add that into my toolbox of tricks of dealing with bat bites. I can use some Vicks VapoRub," Shacker said with a laugh.

There may be no vampire bats in Olds, Alta., where Shacker teaches animal health technology, but she often encounters new, strange injuries and illnesses in her work. And on a recent teaching trip to Honduras, she learned a great deal more.

"It's kind of par for the course, and as long as you go into things with an open mind, willing to learn, it's kind of a neat experience," she said.

Two veterinarians, Olds College animal health technology instructor Dr. Kelsey Shacker and Dr. Katarina Purich of Poplar Grove Veterinary Services Ltd. in Innisfail, Alta., brought donations of horse veterinary supplies to their Honduran colleagues. (Equitarian Initiative Honduras Trip-Dr. Kat and Dr. Kelsey/Facebook)

Shacker and Innisfail vet Dr. Katarina Purich joined other North American animal doctors, through the Equitarian Initiative, to lecture at the Honduran Veterinary School. They then teamed up with Central American veterinarians to supervise student equine field clinics helping local farmers.

Working with such a variety of specialists and backgrounds meant the teachers and students were flooded with new ideas, she said. Together, they were able to treat a mysterious and common ailment.

Farmers and horse owners thought it was a spider bite on the horse's hoof and that caused the hoof to separate from the foot — an incredibly painful experience for the animal.

Hondurans brought their horses for free checkups by veterinarians. Many families use horses for transportation and their businesses. (Dr. Kelsey Shacker)

The veterinarians came to believe the science behind it was linked to other diseases, not a spider bite.

"But trying to communicate that with the locals who are very traditional and have a lot of those underlying beliefs going on, [we] let them go to spider bite or treat the horse as it needs to be treated," Shacker said.

Shacker and her team of students treated between 30 and 40 horses over four days. They worked in a medical triage-type centre, where they treated wounds, dealt with parasites and ticks, and provide vaccines.

Dr. Kelsey Shacker and two Honduran vet students pose for a photo with their final patient of the day. (Dr. Kelsey Shacker)

Sometimes horses were sent for dental work or even castration, which prevents the free roaming animals from spreading any diseases to future generations.​ Shacker said castrated horses often are more compliant, making them harder workers and safer for the owners.

"Practising in Alberta, even though we learn lots through school every day, we're seeing new things and it's always that challenge of learning and growing," Shacker said. "So I think, as veterinarians, we are constant learners."

Training equine veterinarian students by treating horses in the field is not a far leap from Shacker's work at Olds College.

At the school, there's a teaching herd and the students also provide physicals and shots for horses owned by a local kids' camp.

With files from Brooks DeCillia


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