Mary Poppins sang about how a spoon full of sugar helped the medicine go down, but Mary Poppins never worked at a zoo! Just like people and pets, taking medication is sometimes a challenge for the animals at the zoo and finding the best way to give medication can be an even bigger challenge for zoo veterinarians and zoo keepers.
Each animal presents a unique challenge, and solving that challenge can be a very interesting part of our jobs. With patients that range in weight from only 5-10 grams (that’s only 2/100th of a pound) all the way to our largest patients like our Grizzly Bears (650-800 pounds), selecting the proper dosage can be the first challenge we face.
Once we choose a medication and calculate the dose we need, next we have to find a way to give that medication. Many times, we want animals to take medications orally, or by mouth, with their food. Some animals, like our big cats will often take pills or capsules hidden in their meat. Other animals have a more sophisticated palate and become very picky about the flavoring medication gives to their food. This means that some patients receive medications powdered and mixed with food or water or specially made flavored medications from our friends at our local compounding pharmacies like Keystone Pharmacy and Woodpointe Pharmacy. We rely heavily on these partnerships to formulate very specialized treatments that often rely on flavoring (ranging from raspberry to liver flavor) and often in very customized doses.
As you can see in this photo we have many other options in addition to medications that need to be eaten. Some medications are given as injections, either using a syringe or a blow dart when we need to keep a safe distance from a patient. When patients are either extremely ill or under anesthesia for examination, we can place IV catheters and give medications directly into the IV similar to veterinarians working with domestic animals and physicians in human hospitals.
In some cases we even rely on medications that can be applied topically like a spray, ointment or even eye and ear drops. These treatments can only be used on animals that are safely handled and/or appropriately trained to receive them. Just like in choosing any medication, we have to customize a plan specifically to each animal and each individual problem.
So next time you hear that familiar tune, Spoonful of sugar…remember, the penguins would prefer their medication hidden in a fish, the tamarin would rather a liver flavored medication if you have one, and the baboons have decided they like having their medication formulated into a custom-made granola treat. Mary Poppins was on the same page with our bears, however as honey, peanut butter, and jelly are often their favorite treats for hiding any medication.