Gelatin Capsules and Combining Medications

Anyone who has lived with cats can tell you that they can be pretty particular and like things on their terms. Medication usually doesn’t fit those terms. While there are a bunch of strategies for giving liquid medications, this post describes simple strategies for using gelatin capsules to make your life as a cat owner a lot easier.

Why Capsules?

I’ve previously posted on a better way to give a cat a pill. Even if you follow those instructions, it can still be a challenge with some cats. With our cat Maggie, it can even result in some bloodshed (our blood– not hers). Depending on your circumstances, you may want to just stick with the form of medicine you have. But here are some reasons to consider capsules.

  • Easier to Swallow. A smooth gelatin capsule can often be much easier to swallow– particularly if you use my water strategy that I described earlier.
  • Less Pills. If you pet needs to take three small pills, it may be a lot easier to combine them into one small capsule. That’s easier for both you and your pet.
  • Less Messy. Oil based medications tend not to dissolve gelatin capsules. That means that a messy dropper can be replaced with a less messy capsule.

Always chat with your vet, however, before pursuing these ideas. First, some medications need to stay in the format that they are dispensed. This is particularly true for enteric-coated pills, which are designed to stay intact until they reach the intestinal tract. Second, some medications should not be combined or taken at the same time. Again, your vet would know best.

     Types of Medication: Pills, powders, and oils

3 Pills Pills are easier ground into powders. Medication in capsules is usually already in powder form. If you use a mortar and pestle, you can easily combine medication into one capsule and save yourself a lot of headaches.

For instance, shown here on the left are three pills that Rudy had to take every day. They are three entirely different medications– two for his heart and one for his stomach.

Rather than torture my cat three times, I could make our life a lot easier just by pulverizing the medication with a mortar and pestle and combining the powders together. Ground PowderThe photo on the right shows how this is done. You don’t have to be too picky about your choice of mortar and pestles, but I’d opt for something small and made of glass. The reason glass tends to work better is because less powder will tend to cling to it. But there’s nothing wrong with using a ceramic mortar and pestle– I started with ceramic and moved to glass just because it was cleaner. Also, you’ll want something small, unless you have a VERY large pet. I bought a glass one from Amazon that did the trick well for about twenty bucks. I’ll show you an easy way to use that powder below but first we have to talk about the kinds of capsules you can use.

Know Your Capsules

Before I began this adventure, I never knew there were so many different kinds of capsules! Here’s a brief buyer’s guide.

     Capsule Sizes

Different Capsule SizesParticularly when dealing with a cat or other small animal, the first factor to consider is capsule size. On the smaller end of the world of capsules are six sizes commonly available through online sources.

On the left is a photo showing the different capsules with size “0” on the left and size “5” on the right. I’ve also included a quarter and a popular Greenies Pill Pocket in the lower right side. As you can see, the Pill Pocket can easily be mashed to fit a size “5” capsule and even a size “4.” Almost any cat will take a size “5” capsule in a Pill Pocket and many will accept a size “4.” Getting a cat to nonchalantly swallow a size “2” or “3” can be difficult or impossible with some cats. In some cases– particularly with not-so-finicky cats that are highly food motivated, you can get them to accept the medication. Other cats will quickly notice capsule when they bite into the Pill Pocket and reject it.

Because size “5” fits so easily in a pill pocket and is accepted by even the most suspicious cat (assuming you have a yummy Pill Pocket around it), I would recommend that every cat owner have a bag of number “5” capsules in the house– you never know when you may need them!

     Regular or Enteric

A second factor in your capsule-buying decision is whether you want “enteric” capsules or “regular” non-enteric capsules. If your pet vomits shortly after receiving its medication or has other digestive issues, the medication may be disturbing her stomach. Enteric capsules are designed to pass through the stomach and dissolve in the intestinal tract– and thus may solve some of these problems. But one downside is that the slower digestion of enteric capsules means that the medication will take longer before it can be effective. Again, a discussion that should be best had between you and your veterinarian.

As I learned more about capsules, I developed a basic (possibly incorrect) layman’s understanding that I’ll pass on. One way that enteric capsules and pills work by coating the filled capsule or pill in a substance that both seals the contents and protects the contents as it passes through the stomach. A second way the enteric capsules (but not pills) can work is by making the pill out of a substance that does not dissolve in low pH environments (like the acidic stomach) but will dissolve in other pH’s (e.g. the relatively neutral pH of the intestinal tract. The first strategy often works better and provides a waterproof seal but it’s also more vulnerable to cracks, which may develop if the capsule is crushed (e.g. in the jaws of a cat chomping down on a capsule hidden in a Pill Pocket).

Enteric capsules are readily available from online sources– but usually only in larger capsule sizes. While I was prepping Rudy’s medication, I never saw enteric capsules smaller than size “3” (sizes “4” and “5” were only regular non-enteric capsules). But your mileage may vary.

Note that enteric capsules doesn’t mean time released capsules. Time-release medication is designed to dissolve slowly and evenly– given a relatively even dose of medication over time. Enteric capsules or enteric-coated capsules and medication simply delay dissolving until they pass the stomach.

     Colors and materials

Capsules come in a variety of different materials. Most are made from gelatin but often they are made from other chemicals and sometimes even plant-based sources. I’ve never noticed much of a difference between them in terms of functionality or digestion. Again, your mileage may vary here. If you live in a Vegan household, you may want to steer clear of gelatin but that’s a very personal decision that you and your cat need to discuss.

Capsules are also colored (or not colored). Again, I’ve never noticed much of a difference. I tend to like colored capsules just to make them easier to distinguish.

Filling Capsules

Pouring Powder on a Folded PaperIf you search through Amazon, you’ll find a plethora of different capsule-filling devices. These work great if you’re filling lots of capsules with a single substance. But if you are combining medications into a single capsule, that strategy won’t work because you can’t guarantee that each capsule will have the right proportions and dosages of each medication. The strategy also doesn’t work if you need to be exact in measuring doses. In other words, in 99% of cases, these capsule-filling devices won’t work for you and you’ll have to fill capsules one at a time.

Filling capsulesIn the photo above, I’m taking the powder that I ground up from my glass mortar and pestle and pouring it onto a folded sheet of paper. You’ll want a fairly sharp crease here so the powder stays in the “trough” formed by the fold. Then take the bottom (longer) portion of the capsule and align the open end facing the powder. Then, gently tip the paper, encouraging the powder into go into the capsule. Finally, as shown in the photo on the left, use some blunt device (a small stick or anything with a tip that fits inside the capsule) to push the remaining powder into the capsule. Once it’s all inside, push the top part of the capsule down (making sure to push hard enough so it “locks”) and you’re done. Well, except for the part of actually giving your cat the pill.

Empty capsules make life so much easier for all pet owners. I talked about this trick with a local specialty pet store– and gave them a small supply of each capsule size. They report each time I go in that they are a real life saver for their customers.

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