By:  Margaret A. Wissman,  D.V.M.

Diplomat, American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, Avian Practice


Those of us who share our lives with our monkeys and apes will be called upon, from time to time, to give medications, antibiotics, supplements or dewormer to our charges. We want to be good caretakers, and want to follow the directions given to us by our veterinarians, but that is often easier said than done, for several reasons.

Many medications are quite bitter in the tablet form, and veterinarians not use to working with monkeys will often have good intentions in prescribing certain drugs, but because of the problems in dosing bitter pills, it may be impossible to get the correct dose down the monkey more than once. Monkeys are very smart and it can prove quite taxing to try to outsmart a primate to try and get it to consume something it is adamantly opposed to. For example, ciprofloxacin, commonly called cipro, is a very bitter antibiotic. The pills are coated for a very good reason, as they taste horrible. While cipro is a very good antibiotic, if pills must be cut and divided for dosing, it will be darn near impossible to get a monkey to voluntarily consume this nasty stuff. I have tasted cipro, and the bitter taste lingers on the tongue for quite some time. The canine tablet, Baytril (enrofloxacin), is equally as bitter and difficult to dose.

Baytril is available in other countries in a water-soluble liquid, which is easier to dose, and can be used in the drinking water for easier administration. Unfortunately, this liquid is also unpleasant tasting, and its flavor must be masked by adding artificial sweetener or a strong fruit juice to it to make it palatable enough for a monkey to drink. But, it sure tastes better than the tablets.

Another horrible tasting medication is Flagyl (metronidazole). This medication is commonly used to treat protozoal infections (giardia, trichomonas, and others) and anaerobic bacterial infections. Giardia is fairly common in non-human primates and causes diarrhea, weight loss and malodorous feces. It is a very effective medication, when the owner is actually able to get it into their monkeys. I have dosed Tamarins with tablets crushed up and mixed with sweet syrup, and actually gotten them to ingest one dose of this nasty stuff. They foamed at the mouth, shot me dirty looks and refused to take treats from me for a whole week afterward. I canít say that I blamed them, since I tasted the stuff, and you couldnít make me taste it a second time, either.

Fortunately, there is a palatable oral suspension of metronidazole available in Mexico that is citrus-flavored. Most of my patients love the taste, and I actually have to take it away from them as they will fight one another to get to the syringe of it when I am dosing them. This a very effective and safe preparation to use in our primates. Too bad it is not available in this country.

The good news is that there is now a pharmacy in Des Moines, Iowa, called Mortar and Pestle, that will compound any drug for your veterinarian. Their phone number is: 800-279-7054. They can make banana-flavored metronidazole suspension, or grape-flavored enrofloxacin, for example. They can make any strength your vet may need, and in any flavor. They are not inexpensive, but it is worth it to be able to effectively medicate our monkeys. Other pharmacies may also be able to compound drugs for your vet, as well. Check in the yellow-pages, as some pharmacies advertise that they will compound drugs. Some antibiotics, such as Amoxicillin and Keflex, come in pediatric suspensions, that are flavored for administration to children. Often, monkeys will readily accept these antibiotics, making treatment simple.

Some medications are bland-tasting. These may be difficult to administer to monkeys, so tricks can be used to get them to take their medication. A good percentage of my exotic practice is devoted to small primates. so I have developed some unusual techniques for getting my smart patients to consume their medication. Fenbendazole (Panacur) is the dewormer of choice for the pancreatic worm that is responsible for serious weight loss and disease in Callitrichids. It is, however, a chalky paste or liquid, that is not readily consumed. To get my patients to take their dose, I instruct owners to put the calculated dose on a marshmallow or other favorite treat. If the monkey is wise to that trick, I can have the owner inject the dewormer, ivermectin. Panacur now comes in an apple-flavored paste, which monkeys seem to like.

I think the best trick that I have come up with is a fairly simple one (for the non-squeamish, anyway). When I shared this technique with a researcher at a University, she was amazed and intrigued. For liquid medications that donít taste too bad, I will calculate the necessary dose, then inject it into one or more mealworms for the monkey to consume. For example, I recently treated a pygmy marmoset for pneumonia. Her favorite food is mealworms, so I took the oral diuretic, furosemide, that she required, and injected it into three mealworms, which I handed to her, to ensure that she, and not her mate, ate them. She would lap her antibiotic out of a syringe, so that was easy. With this method, I was able to medicate her without stressing an already compromised animal by catching her up and forcing medication down her throat.

If you have a sick primate, or one that requires deworming, talk to your vet about options for medications. If your monkey wonít take the prescribed drug, see if you can have it compounded into a palatable liquid for administration. There is no need to struggle with your monkey to try and trick it into accepting nasty-tasting medication, since there are always options available to you by way of compounding or by the use of drugs from other countries. It is vitally important that you give the prescribed medication for the correct length of time, or your monkey may suffer from a relapse, or the disease may not be cured. There are many methods that can be used to ensure that your monkey is properly medicated, so donít hesitate to ask your vet if you are having problems.

 Please note: Although drugs available in other countries may not be purchased in the U.S. for use in animals, many vets do prescribe them. The FDA is aware that these medications are prescribed, and there should be no legal problems with their use, as directed by a licensed veterinarian.