No more must you gird your loins and prepare for battle; these tips will make giving your pets oral medications much easier.

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM
August 24, 2020
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You may be a fortunate owner whose dog or cat acquiesces to taking medicine as prescribed. But there is some truth to the funny stories, images, and cartoons floating around the internet that show bloodied owners, triumphant pets, and spit-out pills. Learn from a vet; it doesn’t have to be that way!

When medicating a sick pet, your first responsibility is to make sure you understand the directions given. One pill twice a day is not the same thing as giving two pills once a day. Additional notations may warn about the dangers of combining certain medications or direct you to give Charlie his pills on an empty stomach—or conversely, right after a meal. Read and follow them. If you aren’t sure what to do, call your veterinary clinic and speak with a veterinarian or a veterinary technician.

Hide Capsules & Pills in Food

The easiest way to get oral medication into your pet is to hide the medication in a highly desirable food treat. The key is to make your pet so excited about the treat that he eats it—along with the pill—quickly. That way he doesn’t bite into the medication and taste something bitter. (Capsules are notorious for breaking apart.)

Before you use any food, clear it with your veterinarian. Some drugs interact with certain foods. For example, you shouldn’t hide tetracycline antibiotic pills in dairy products. The calcium in the dairy product binds up some of the medication, which means your pet won’t get the full benefit of his dose.

You may already have some of the best food options for hiding pills in your pantry or kitchen. Here are some tips for using our favorites:

  • Peanut Butter: Hide a pill inside a sticky, fragrant dab of peanut butter (on a spoon) and let your pet lick it off. Or roll peanut butter into a small ball, insert the pill, and offer it to your pet as a treat. Make sure the peanut butter isn’t made with xylitol, an artificial sweetener, which is toxic to dogs. Study the labels! Three brands that don’t have xylitol: Smucker’s Natural, Jif Natural, Justin’s. (For an updated list of brands that do or do not contain xylitol, visit Can I Give My Dog.)
  • Liverwurst: This soft meat product works best as a rolled ball with a pill inserted into the center. You may be tempted to use your pet's canned food as a substitute, but resist. Biting into it as well as a bitter pill may create a taste aversion for his regular food.
  • Cheese: Choose soft, low-sodium, part-skim mozzarella string cheese to keep calories down and sodium at a reasonable level for your pet. Most capsules and pills slide easily into a small chunk of this cheese. If not, warm the cheese in your hand and mold it around the medication.

Slip Meds into Pill Pockets

In addition to food, there are a number of easy-to-use “pill pockets” or “pill pouches” available commercially. Each soft treat includes a hole sized just right for hiding medication. These treats, which come in different flavors, tend to be nutritionally balanced and lower in sodium and sugar than people food. Check the label before buying; some are made just for dogs, others just for cats. Look for a brand that’s lower in calories if your pet is plump.

Since you don’t want your pet to get suspicious, always pair a medicated treat with one that’s not medicated. Give your pet one or two plain treats, then a medicated one, then one or two more plain treats. If you do this rapidly, he will swallow the treats quickly without examining them. Having another pet nearby (competition for the food!) can increase your odds of getting your pet to grab and swallow quickly.

Make Them Taste Better

Another option: Ask your vet if it makes sense to have your pet’s prescription compounded to make its flavor more enticing. If she can't do it herself, ask her to refer you to an animal-focused compounding pharmacy in your area. Request tuna flavoring for your cat's liquid antibiotic, for example. The yummy tuna flavor may convince Fluffy that the medication she is being given is a special treat.

Three Important Rules for Pilling Pets

  1. Use Your Pet’s Medication as Directed. Read and follow the directions. Call your vet with any questions.
  2. Always Finish the Prescription. Unless your vet or the label states otherwise, plan to give the medication until it’s gone. Stopping an antibiotic early can contribute to the growth of drug-resistant bacteria.
  3. Never Share Medication Between Pets. It is especially dangerous to give canine medication to a cat, because cats metabolize drugs differently than dogs. Some medications that are safe for dogs can be toxic

A version of this article first appeared in Happy Paws Spring/Summer 2019.