April 1, 2013
by Rachel Thompson, DVM
You may be wondering how animal care staff at the Minnesota Zoo gets the animals to take their medicine. It’s often easier said than done!
Some medicine, especially antibiotics, can taste very bitter. Very few zoo animals will swallow a pill whole and chase it with a glass of water, so we have to be creative. Zookeepers are excellent in coming up with new methods for pill delivery: they crush pills, hide them in food items, and dissolve them in tastier substances. The higher the value of the treat, the more likely the animal will accept it without hesitation, and the medication remains undetected. We also try to get medicine formulated to taste like apples, bananas, or meat, depending on the patient. Some medicine can even be compounded into a lollipop!
Primates are really good at finding pills and spitting them out, or hiding them in their cheekpouches and spitting them out later. This makes them an even greater challenge to medicate! Sometimes we take advantage of competition between animals to get a monkey to scoop up the medicated treat before his roommate gets a chance. Other times we use training to ensure medications are administered successfully. Animals, like primates, can be trained to take liquids through a syringe, and medication can be formulated into a flavored liquid. After giving a monkey a piece of medicated fruit, we may ask the patient to present an open mouth – all to ensure the pill was swallowed and not hidden in the cheek pouches.
If animals like the river otters, pumas, or tigers need a vaccine, for example, the keepers can train them to accept the injection. They work up to the goal with small steps, first presenting a hip to the mesh, then allowing us to touch it with a pole from the other side of the barrier, holding still and eventually tolerating more pressure so we can administer the treatment– and the animal’s cooperation is rewarded, so the process remains positive!
Despite our best efforts, sometimes animals just won’t take their medicine. Then we really have to be creative. Zoo veterinarians have lots of stories to share. Some end with a face full of medication that was spit out after being detected by the patient. These are the stories that motivate us to find more palatable routes of administration for medications, and ensure we always have entertaining anecdotes at dinner parties.