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Topical Medication for Your Dog or Cat

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Applying creams, ointments, and lotions

Applying topical medications to your cat or dog can sometimes be challenging.  You need to be able to handle your pet safely and prevent your pet from ingesting the medication.

Your veterinarian may dispense a cream, ointment, or lotion to treat skin conditions in dogs and cats.  Creams are non-greasy.  Ointments have an oily base.  Lotions are liquid preparations. All are for external use only, and are applied similarly.  Your vet may alternatively recommend an over-the-counter preparation (eg, hydrocortisone cream or triple antibiotic ointment), but do not apply any product without first consulting your veterinarian. 

Be sure to follow any directions concerning application of the product (eg, wearing gloves).  Most topical preparations work better if they are gently massaged in for a few moments after application.


If the skin is red, inflamed, or sore, you’ll need to apply the medication gently to avoid causing your pet additional discomfort.  If your pet is difficult to handle while you apply topical medication, you may want to have someone hold it.  Placing a cat or small dog in your lap may be easier.  You can also wrap your cat snugly in a towel with only its head and/or the part to be treated exposed.


If your pet licks the preparation off as soon as it is applied, try applying the medication just before feeding time.  Another option for dogs is to go for a short walk immediately after application.


If you still have trouble applying your pet’s medication, you may need to use an Elizabethan collar.  Your veterinarian will have these collars available in a variety of sizes.  Elizabethan collars are large plastic cones or “hoods” that surround the pet’s head and prevent the pet from licking at the affected area.  Although the collars can be awkward, most pets adjust to wearing one in a short time.

 

Q&A

What’s the difference between creams, lotions, and ointments?

Creams are non-greasy products with an emollient base, ointments are like creams but have an oily base, and lotions are liquid preparations. All are applied externally in a similar manner.


How should these preparations be applied?

The person making the application should wear rubber gloves and gently massage the product into the area.  Be very gentle on red, inflamed, or sore areas to avoid causing your pet additional discomfort.  


What’s the best way to handle a difficult pet?

If your pet is difficult to handle, you may want to have someone hold it while you apply the medication.  You can place a cat or small dog in your lap, perhaps wrapping a cat snugly in a towel with only its head exposed.  


How can I stop my pet from licking the medication off?

Try to distract your pet by applying the medication just before feeding time or a walk.  If you still have trouble, you may need to use a hood or Elizabethan collar to physically prevent your pet from licking at the affected area.  

 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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