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,
Episode #137
how to give your dog a pill

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. 

What If Your Dog Won’t Take Pills Voluntarily?

If your dog won't take the pills on her own, here are the most important points to remember before you force-pill your dog. 

  1. Be direct
  2. Follow expert advice
  3. Warn your dog in advance
  4. Lubricate the pill
  5. Give your dog a treat

Let's talk more about these different steps.

1. Be Matter-of-Fact

Dogs are experts at reading our body language. When you need to pill your dog, keep your movements relaxed and your breathing calm. If you talk to your dog, use a low, soothing voice and speak slowly and gently.

Chasing your dog, cornering her, and looming over her are surefire ways to tense up the situation. Approach from the side, instead. Small dog? Put him on a raised surface with secure footing.

2. Watch Instructional Videos

Of the several videos I watched, I best liked this one, featuring Dr. Douglas Chang of Aloha Animal Hospital Associates. His model dog may be more relaxed than most, but that allows him to demonstrate the technique clearly and slowly. And I like Dr. Chang’s gentle, quiet demeanor.

In this video, a Chihuahua who’s obviously uneasy (watch the whites of his eyes, and see those lip licks?) gets a pill from a vet, while a second person restrains and gently strokes him. The little Chi isn’t having fun, but the gentle handling helps make the best of a not-great situation. Notice that although the assistant restrains him, he’s not being squashed.

Yet another alternative is to use a pill gun, which works like a syringe to place the pill at the back of your dog’s mouth. Pill guns are a safer option if your dog may bite.

Rehearse mentally before you go live. You could even practice on a stuffed dog – that may seem like overkill, but the calmer and more confident you are, the less stress you’ll convey to your dog.

3. Use a Warning Cue

A warning cue is just that – notice to your dog that you’re about to do something she isn’t wild about. “Pill coming!” might be a good choice for medication. If you use a warning cue consistently, your dog will eventually learn that it predicts having her mouth opened for a pill. And what is the point of that? you ask.

If you always give your dog a special pill warning cue before you give her a pill, and if you give the cue only at that time, she will learn that she doesn’t have to worry about you approaching her at any other time, and she can relax. For more about warning cues, see my blog post on The Quick and Dirty.

4. Help the Pill Go Down Easier

Coat the pill (or gelcap) thinly with butter or soft cheese. This isn’t to disguise the pill as a treat, since you already know that doesn’t work for your dog. It’s to help the pill slide down and to protect the pill’s own coating in case you don’t get your dog to swallow it on your first try.

Have a syringe of water or plain, unsalted meat broth ready in advance. As soon as you’ve given the pill, squirt the broth or water into your dog’s mouth. Aim from the side, not the front. Swallowing the liquid will help keep the pill from sticking on its way down.

5. Give Your Dog a Special Treat When You’re Done

After all, why not? He just put up with something unpleasant you did to him. Also, if pill-getting is always followed by a super-special treat, a game, or a walk, he may even begin to associate your pilling him with that good consequence. And I hope he feels all better soon!

Special thanks this week go to my friend Jessica, who is a vet tech at a specialty animal hospital and supplied or refined many of the pointers. You can follow The Dog Trainer on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thank you for reading!


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