How to Give Your Dog Pills

The easiest way to get a dog to take pills is to hide them in food. But if your dog sniffs them out, you need fancier tricks. This week, 5 tips to get your dog to take medications voluntarily (and by force).

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #137

Into every dog’s life, some pills must fall. Most of you don’t need me to tell you that the easiest way to get a dog to take medication in pill or tablet form is to hide it in food. But if your dog’s one of those who sniffs out the pill and rejects it, you need fancier tricks. This week, 5 tips to get your dog to take medications voluntarily, and 5 pointers for force-pilling if all else fails.

Let's start with the best-case scenario. 

How to Get Your Dog to Take A Pill

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Your dog may love food and treats as much as the next pup, but there are still a few tips and tricks you'll want to know about disguising a pill in a treat. Here are the five most important ones: 

  1.  Pick the right snack
  2.  Make your dog work for the snack
  3.  Make the pill as tasty as possible
  4.  Avoid the bitter taste of typical medication
  5.  Catch your dog at the right moment

Let's talk more about these below. 

1. Choose Super-Smelly, Tasty Food

Even if your dog loves cream cheese, its mild taste and odor may not mask the taste and odor of a pill. Butter can work well because even though it’s bland, it’s rich and slippery. Or this may be Dogalini’s big chance for Limburger cheese or liver pâté. Experiment. If a puddle of drool forms under your dog’s chin while she watches you prepare the medication treat, you’re on the right track.

Make your coating just thick enough to disguise the pill, so the whole “treat” is small and Dogalini is likely to swallow rather than chew.

Commercial pill-hiding products are also available. They’re not cheap, but if your dog likes them and has to take several pills a day, they can simplify your life.

Try sneaking a pill into one of several delicious treats you throw for your dog. Force-pilling can be an absolute last resort.

2. Play the Treat-Catch Game

Make 5 or 6 fingertip-sized balls of soft, tasty, smelly food – you may or may not need to go with the nuclear options mentioned above. Toss them to your dog, one at a time, so he catches them and swallows them. Oops, did Smelly Food Ball #3 just happen to have his medication in it? Fancy that.

Really sneaky pill-givers will play the treat-catch game at random times regardless of whether Zippy actually has any medication to take. This way, treat-catching has no particular significance – it’s just a fun thing that happens occasionally – so your dog is more likely to suspect nothing when you use the game to deliver meds. And if he’s got the habit of gulping down the treats you throw, he’s also less likely to notice if one of them tastes a little funny.

If your dog has poor eye-mouth coordination, toss or roll the treats on the ground. Toss them fast and make them skip a little, which will encourage your dog to chase and grab them.

3. Try Flavored Medication

A number of common meds come in flavored forms that dogs may accept as treats on their own. Some examples: Rimadyl (carprofen) and Deramaxx (deracoxib), often prescribed for arthritis; oral flea preventives; and Reconcile (fluoxetine), which (along with behavior modification) is a standard treatment for separation anxiety.

Your veterinarian or a compounding pharmacy may be able to custom-prepare meds in flavors that your dog is willing to accept. This isn’t possible for all medications, and it costs extra, so you’re probably better off with some version of hiding pills in treats.

4. Try a Cover-Up

Some common meds are bitter – metronidazole and tramadol, for two. You can buy plain gelcaps at a pharmacy and put the tablets in those. Moisture makes gelcaps sticky, so lubricate them (see below) if you must pill your dog by force.

5. Pick a Time When Your Dog Is Distracted

The veterinary behaviorist Ilana Reisner suggests giving meds during a leash walk, when Dogalini is likely to be happy and preoccupied with wonderful smells.

These tricks are all well and good if your dog can be distracted enough to take the pill, but what if Dogalini just won't fall for it? On the next page, I'll talk about your last resort in this case: force-pilling. 


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).