Administering medication

Administering medication

When your vet gives medication to put in your horse’s feed, they are hoping that you will do the following:

  • Mix it thoroughly with a feed that your horse enjoys;
  • Ensure your horse eats the entire dose in one sitting with little to no waste
  • Continue to monitor how well your horse eats the feed each time;
  • Make sure to alert them if your horse is not getting the entire dose; and
  • Watch for any adverse side effects like diarrhoea that may impact drug absorption.

Unfortunately, 99% of the time, even with our best efforts to follow the instructions above, our horse does not ingest the medication as he or she should. This is usually because the horse does not like the drug, you cannot be at the barn to monitor and give every feed, and the drug has not been adequately disguised by a sufficiently palatable food. As owners, we then spend the rest of the medication course trying to persuade our horse (mostly unsuccessfully) that they need to eat this medication whilst wasting vast quantities of costly medical product that our horse REALLY does need to ingest.

The good news is that taking care in selecting the right type and palatability of the feed to use, and presenting it properly to your horse right from the start, can make a huge difference as to how well your horse consumes it.

Here we look at how best to ensure your horse consumes the medication he needs from the outset.

Tip 1: Choose the right food

It is important that the food containing the medication is known and accepted by your horse. It must also be highly palatable. Experience suggests that molassed coarse mixes and molassed chaffs are the most palatable, plus they have the advantage of being sticky and ordinarily able to be fed in reasonably large quantities. Other palatable feeds include molassed sugar beet and some of the pre-soaked mashes. It may be necessary to obtain a bag of one of these quickly for the course of treatment so that your horse can start the food right away. As you will see below, it is not a good idea to try feed with ‘normal’ food for a few days, watch your horse reject the feed, and only then invest in the more palatable option.

Furthermore, the feed chosen for medication delivery needs to be fed in a reasonable volume to provide a large surface area to absorb the drug and dilute the taste adequately. Therefore, cubes on their own are not an appropriate feed for medicating a horse.

If your horse is not familiar with the feed chosen, then a dampened quantity should first be offered to the horse without any medication to see if he will like it and finish it. If this ‘taste test’ is not done, then it is possible to mistake a simple dislike of the food for a refusal of the medication.

Note: There may be a reluctance to use molassed feeds because of their sugar content. Usually this is not an issue because most medication courses are short, and the amount of sugar taken in is reasonably small. It is, however, always worth checking this out with your vet if you have concerns or your horse/pony is prone to metabolic issues like laminitis. 

Tip 2: Add flavour/odour

The sensation of taste is a complex interaction of the stimulation of taste receptors on the tongue, texture receptors in the mouth, and odour receptors in the nose. Therefore, some medications are rejected because of their smell (which may be subtle) rather than their taste. So, masking both smell and taste can be vital in making medicated feeds more attractive.

Molassed feeds therefore tend to be most attractive because of their smell and taste. However, you can also add molasses or black treacle to other types of feed, for example high-fibre chaff. To do this you should ideally dissolve a heaped teaspoon of molasses syrup of black treacle in a mug of boiling water, add to the feed and allow to cool.

Other common flavourings that one can use are apple juice or apple sauce, grated or pureed carrots, neat blackcurrant cordial, peppermint cordial, garlic powder, and fenugreek seeds. The horse’s response to the flavouring must be tested first.

Note: Do not change your horse’s regular feed when feeding medication, but rather add the molassed palatable feed as an ‘extra’ for the length of the medication course. 

Tip 3: Use a suitable feed receptacle

The medicated feed must not be wasted by the horse dropping it on the floor or knocking over the feed container. One should always offer the feed in a clean area of the box free from forage and bedding so that the horse can easily find and eat any spillage. The commonly used shallow rubber feed bowls are easily knocked over and can result in significant wastage. Feed bowls mounted in the corner of the stable or attached to the wall are resistant to the horse pawing and tipping them over, but this of course, relies on you having access to one of these.

A door trough is another option, especially if it is placed on the outside of the door rather than the inside so that you can see any spillage easily and quickly and pick it up and put it back into the trough. If your horse is a messy eater, you can even hold the bucket while he eats.

Tip 4: Trick of the trade

One trick that seems to work quite nicely is to allow the horse to take a few mouthfuls from the bucket before actually adding the medication. The bucket is then taken away, and the medication is quickly added and mixed, and the feed is offered again. The initial few non-medicated mouthfuls seem to create a surge in the horse’s desire to eat more and helps him to ‘forget’ that the medication is there.

Tip 5: Handling the first feed

One must always give the first feed under supervision to ensure the horse eats all of it in one sitting and doesn’t waste any. The feed should be made up in a reasonable volume, and a small amount of water added. The food and water should then be mixed before the medication powder is added. After the addition of the medication, the feed should be remixed before being offered to your horse.

A common mistake is to add medication to dry feed and then add water and mix. This results in a lot of the medication sticking to the side of the bucket and so the horse, at best, does not get the full dose and, at worse, rejects the entire offering.

Tip 6: Handling refusal

Refusal of the medicated feed tends to take two primary forms: rejection of the feed from the outset after just a few mouthfuls or, following initial acceptance, a gradual reduction in the amount of feed consumed over the next two or so days. In the first instance, adding more molasses to the meal can help. You then can try again for the next dose with a different palatable feed or more of the palatable feed than previously.

However, in the latter situation, the horse may become so suspicious of any feed that even changing it to something completely different may not persuade him to start eating the medication again. This will likely require the use of a different administration route by your vet. It follows that one must make every effort to ensure that the first feed offered to the horse is the one you think he will find most palatable.

Note: Horses who usually eat their regular concentrate food over a prolonged period of time (rather than all at once) are a particular problem when given a medicated feed as the level of the drug in the blood may never reach the target levels. These horses will need a different approach, so be sure to tell your vet if your horse is a slower eater.

Remember: Do not put two different drugs into the same feed, because this just doubles the chance of refusal.

Final thoughts

It is important that you notify your vet promptly if your horse will not eat the medication so that an alternative solution may be found. This may include finding a different version of the drug or making a paste.