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Late Nights at OVC
Large-animal surgeon studies new ways to provide pain relief to horses  May 2009

Dr. Nicola Cribb picture“I care for every horse I see in the clinic as if it were my own,” says Prof. Nicola Cribb.

Photo by Martin Schwalbe

Guelph, ON -
Some of OVC professor Nicola Cribb's best lessons aren't listed on the class schedule and don't follow a lesson plan. One happened recently at two in the morning when a horse was brought in needing urgent surgery and Cribb had to operate, teaching a student as she worked.

“That horse had colic because of a twisted bowel,” she says. “He was in so much pain that none of the medications we gave him helped for more than 10 minutes. But we did the surgery, and now the horse is fine and no longer in pain. I really respected my student for taking the opportunity to learn at that time of night.”

Late nights in OVC's large-animal clinic are nothing new for Cribb, who's been working there for two years. What is new is her faculty appointment in the Department of Clinical Studies, where she's now teaching courses in large-animal surgery. She hasn't given up her clinic work, however, even though it sometimes means being called out in the wee hours. “I have pretty much given up sleep,” she jokes.

Cribb's accent gives away her background: she was born and raised in London, England, where she developed a love of horses early on. You might not expect London to be the ideal place for a young rider, but she says it's actually pretty easy to saddle up there.

“London has many royal parks, areas of land that were once the grounds of royal palaces and that are now set aside for recreation. I didn't have my own horse, but I would go riding in the parks as often as I could.”

It was that love of horses that motivated her to become a veterinarian, and after graduating from Cambridge University, she came to OVC for specialist training in large-animal surgery. That was six years ago, and she's been here ever since, caring primarily for horses but also treating cows, sheep, goats and pigs.

Although she had done some teaching in the large-animal clinic before starting her faculty position, Cribb says she loves her expanded instructional role.

“It's the interaction with students and the discussions that I enjoy because there's always something new. There will always be one student who will ask a question you haven't been asked before or approach something in a different way.”

Of course, there's always something new in the clinic as well.

“We have a lot of specialized equipment here, so we get animals needing special treatment or techniques to make a diagnosis. So you never get bored — everything you see is a bit different.”

She also finds this work highly rewarding. “It's extremely satisfying when an animal goes back home, healthy and happy again, after being treated here. That's why I do what I do.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Cribb continues to seek ways to improve the outcomes for her animal patients. Her current research comes straight out of her work in the clinic: she's studying new ways to provide pain relief to horses without the serious side effects that sometimes complicate an animal's care. Many drugs currently given to relieve serious pain can cause equally serious problems such as colic.

“There's really a need for a better approach,” she says.

Cribb's strategy, which she's currently studying to see if it can be done safely and effectively, is to inject medication at the site of an injury instead of administering it orally or through an IV. Her hope is that this will keep the medication near the injury site and not have it spread through the body, causing unwanted side effects.

This research project fits in well with her overall goals as part of OVC's large-animal team.

“We want to further develop cutting-edge expertise in large-animal surgery,” she says. “There are lots of new developments in surgery for horses, and we need to stay at the top of all of them.”

One example is the use of minimally invasive surgical techniques that avoid the large incisions typically required to allow a surgeon to insert his or her hands inside an animal's body. Instead, the veterinarian makes a small incision and inserts a 10-mm-wide camera alongside five-mm-wide instruments, then performs the surgery guided by the camera.

“That kind of surgery requires a very different skill set,” says Cribb. “You need a lot of dexterity. It can significantly reduce the risk of complications for the animal, though, so it's a very valuable technique.”

After six years in Guelph, she feels settled here and has taken up cross-country skiing to “help get through the winter.” As much as she loves to ride, she doesn't have a horse of her own.

“This is what happens to a lot of equine vets — we get into this field because we love horses, then we don't have time to ride or do things with our own horses.”

Luckily, she has her equine patients to dote on. “I care for every horse I see in the clinic as if it were my own.”