Taking medication is not pleasant for anyone, and when it comes to administering that medication to animals, it’s not so fun either. Fortunately, zoo staff is always trying to find new solutions. Whether it's hiding medication in pieces of food or training for certain behaviors that allow the administration of injections. Historically, giving injectable medication as part of veterinary treatment or prophylaxis in zoo animals involved manual restraint or darting as the first approach. Training the animals for the potential need of carrying out veterinary procedures is essential if we want to avoid stressful situation and improve animal welfare.
An orangutan takes its oral medication at the Seneca Park Zoo. © Photo by Seneca Park Zoo (http://www.senecaparkzoo.org)
Training should aid doing procedures like venipuncture for blood collection, administration of injectable and oral medications and visualization of a specific body part, for example. This is especially important in animals that need lifelong medication. For example, it is not uncommon for pinnipeds to develop ophthalmologic conditions that require daily administration of topical ophthalmic solutions.
Targetting an object seems to be the go-to behavior to get the animal to position in a way that allows injections. Systematic desensitization is the gradual presentation of, for example, medical equipment used in the event of veterinary treatment. In a situation like this, the objects won’t be so strange to the animal, which will allow the execution of the procedure with less stress. Depending on the animal, sometimes these objects should be presented exactly like they would be in a real situation. For example, if we are administering a pink injectable solution some animals will refuse the procedure if that object, with that color, was never previously presented by the keepers.
Administration of oral medications can also be tricky, especially if the substance has an unpleasant flavor. The animal care staff who formulates or prepares the medication for the animal should try to mask the taste of the medicine or the keepers should try to hide it in the animal’s favorite treat. Primates, for example, are usually pretty good at finding pills that where hidden in their food. They will spit them out right away or hide them in their cheekpouches. It is not uncommon for a zookeeper or a veterinarian to end with a face full of medication that was spit out.
By following the animal training golden rule - positive reinforcement- we will improve the health and welfare of the animals, and these will benefit from stress free medical care. And most importantly, imagination is a big part of the job.
Deane, K. (2017). Training zoo animals for better welfare, better nursing. The Veterinary Nurse, 116-122.
Thompson, R. D. (2013). How do we get the animals to take their medicine? Retrieved from MinnesotaZoo: http://mnzoo.org/blog/how-do-we-get-the-animals-to-take-their-medicine/
Young, Robert & Cipreste, C.F.. (2004). Applying animal learning theory: Training captive animals to comply with veterinary and husbandry procedures. Animal Welfare. 13. 225-232.