Nova Scotia·Q&A

N.S. livestock feed store owner warns customers that horse drug won't treat COVID-19

A veterinary drug that's used to treat parasites in certain livestock is becoming harder to find in Nova Scotia because of the misguided belief that it can be used to treat COVID-19.

Walker's Livestock Feed & Supplies has had customers asking for ivermectin so they can use it on themselves

Empty ivermectin boxes sit on the shelves of Lone Star Tack & Feed Inc., located just outside of Calgary, in late August 2021. Feed stores across Canada have been receiving a deluge of callers asking to buy ivermectin due to misinformation that suggests the livestock dewormer can be used to treat COVID-19 in humans. (Lone Star Tack & Feed Inc.)

A veterinary drug used to treat parasites in certain livestock is becoming harder to find across Canada because of the misguided belief that it can be used to treat COVID-19.

Demand for ivermectin, the anti-parasitic drug used to treat intestinal worms and lice in animals and humans, started to rise in December.

Ivermectin has not been approved to treat COVID-19 and studies have shown the drug is not effective against COVID-19 and could be harmful to humans.

Health Canada issued an advisory earlier this month asking people not to take the drug to treat COVID-19 after reports that some people were taking the veterinary form of the medicine intended for livestock. 

The advisory said taking the drug meant for livestock, which contains a higher concentrated dose, could cause "vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, allergic reactions, dizziness, seizures, coma and even death."

Jeff Douglas, host of CBC Radio's Mainstreet, spoke to Craig Walker about what he has witnessed as the owner of Walker's Livestock Feed & Supplies in Cole Harbour.

This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

A veterinary drug that's used to treat horses is becoming harder to find in Nova Scotia because of the misguided belief that it can be used to treat COVID-19. Host Jeff Douglas spoke with Craig Walker, the owner of Walker's Livestock Feed & Supplies in Cole Harbour. 8:15

How did you realize some of your customers were buying ivermectin to use on themselves?

Ivermectin is a product that we don't sell a lot of, but it's a very important product for anybody with horses. Typically, it's given once or twice a year for maintenance to prevent or to treat different worms and parasites in horses. I might sell a dozen tubes of it per year, so we noticed a few new customers were buying it ... but then we started seeing people buy two or three at a time, which is not typically what you'd see people do. Then one day, we had a gentleman come in and he told us all about it and why we should all be taking it.

It's made for horses, not other animals even. It's dosed for very large animals. It can kill another large animal if it's overdosed, let alone a human.

What kind of conversation did you have with that customer, once you realized what he wanted the drug for?

I just explained to him, I am not a vet or a doctor, but that is not the case. Ivermectin — I have heard of it used for humans, but it's not the same product, not even similar. I explained to him that this is not OK and he got quite agitated and he was quite sure of what he was doing. 

My staff came in too and said, 'This is a very bad idea. I do not suggest you do this. Talk to your doctor. This is not a human-grade product.'

What is the dosing that would be used for a horse?

The way we most commonly sell it … is in a 15-millilitre syringe, which will treat a horse up to 1,200 pounds [544 kilograms]. Just think about that for a second. 

We've had customers say, 'Well, can I use it for my chickens or for my dogs?' Absolutely not. It's just a completely different dose. That's when you want to talk to a professional. You want to go to your vet.

Once you have ivermectin back in stock, will you display or manage the product differently?

It's now kept behind the counter for that exact reason. Now if somebody comes in, we ask, 'Oh, so how many horses are you treating?' or 'How old is your horse?' just to put that line out there, and the last thing you want is it in the wrong hands and somebody hurts themselves.

The side effects are nothing to play with. It's nothing to joke about.

Did you ever flatly refuse to sell it to anyone — even when you had it in stock — out of concern they might take it and harm themselves?

We've had some phone calls, and when I asked them and they told us they want to use it for COVID, I said, 'Absolutely not. We do not carry it for that reason,' and most of the time, they've said, 'OK, thank you,' and hang up.

I've also had good customers [and when we ask what they're] using it for, they say, 'On my horse, of course,' and then I have to tell them what's going on. Most people are just blown away that's even something we have to talk about. 

For horse owners or equestrian stables who are waiting for ivermectin, could this lead to potential complications for livestock?

A lot of my distributors can't get in fast enough and I have equestrian centres waiting for it who need it for their horses. Unfortunately, I can't supply them or they're waiting a week or two until I have another shipment coming in.

If you do have worms or parasites affecting your animal, you want it treated and cleared up as quickly as you can to avoid weight loss or any distress of the animal. When they can't get a simple product at any feed store, that does cause a lot of trouble for them.

How does it feel knowing that someone may be using ivermectin for livestock instead of vaccines approved by Health Canada?

I feel for people. The last couple of years have been hard on every one of us in many different ways. I understand, I appreciate, I try to respect people's fears and their beliefs. 

You can believe the vaccine is safe or unsafe. That is your right and I'm not going to argue that with anybody, but I can tell you that taking animal-grade ivermectin is not safe, and that's something that anybody should easily be able to agree on.