Pilling Dogs and Cats

September 17, 2014 (published) | January 31, 2019 (revised)
Photo by VIN

Ill pets who are prescribed medication by their veterinarians really need to take it in order to heal, even when the pet is resistant to taking pills - especially cats. Compliance with your veterinarian's medication plan requires both filling the prescription and getting your pet to take it. While medication is not the only thing that heals pets - sometimes time and sunshine will do the trick - but it is by far the fastest and best way to heal.

Sadly, some estimates of veterinary compliance are as low as 20% to 30%, which means many pets aren't healing as well as they could be, and money is being spent for little value.

One big mistake is not finishing your pet's course of antibiotics. If you only finish half of the prescription, you have merely succeeded in killing off only the weakest of the bacteria, leaving the stronger bugs around to live. That's how stronger strains of bacteria are created, some of which are resistant to antibiotics.

Most dogs are reasonably easy to pill because they'll easily take the pill when it's wrapped in food.  Non-food motivated dogs are a bit more difficult to pill, but they do eat. Even finicky dogs like to eat something. The trick is to find what works. It can be a frustrating process of trial and error, but eventually you'll find a workable system, even if it doesn't involve food.

Some cat owners feel a sense of dread upon learning pills are necessary for their cat's health. Those sharp feline teeth are usually clamped shut tight and many pet owners have difficulty finding an effective way to get pills in day after day. What works on Monday may not work on Tuesday. So what to do if your cat (or dog) decides that he no longer would like to take those bitter pills?

Some tried-and-true methods that help the meds get where they need to be - inside your pet - include:

  • Lunchmeat is the classic. Wrap the pill in low-fat deli meat such as turkey or chicken and many an unsuspecting dog will wolf it down. For dogs, the grosser and stinkier the better, so liverwurst may be the only thing that an inappetent dog will take.

  • Placing the pill in hot dogs, bread, meatballs or whatever malleable food your dog likes will usually get the pill down like a spoonful of sugar.

  • Cheese in a can might work wonders. It is often the secret to getting a dog to take his meds.

  • Peanut butter and butter are tasty and have the advantage of lubricating the pill. It's a bit tricky if the dog spits it out and you need to give it again when it's slippery.

  • A ‘pilling gun’ has a rubber end that holds the pill and a plunger to deliver the pill to the back of the throat. This way, your hands stay clear of teeth and you have a better chance of getting the pill in the sweet spot where swallowing is easier than spitting it out. All clinics carry them as do pet supply retailers. It's great for cats, who may not go for your attempts at bribery with food.

  • Your veterinarian can order medications from a compounding pharmacy, which can place the medication into a meaty treat or liquid. Compounders are perfect for cats, and even better for cats that need to be on chronic medications. The medication can be flavored with such enticing flavors such as tuna, chicken, and beef. Liquids can be given using a syringe. It takes a couple of days for the compounded medicine to arrive.

  • Many medications already come in liquid, but a lot of them are just repackaged human pediatric suspensions, and some come in unappealing flavors like bubble gum. Still, many folks consider a liquid form easier to administer than a pill.

  • Pill Pockets and similar products are soft little edible pouches intended to be wrapped around a pill to hide the smell and taste and encourage pets to take their medicine. Most dogs will not think twice about snarfing them down and even some cats will fall for this tactic. Many vets carry them, and pet retailers have them as well. Several brands exist, and they come in a variety of flavors to match your pet’s preferences.

Ask your veterinarian to have someone show you how do pill your pet while you’re still at the appointment during which the medication is prescribed. When you get home is no time to realize that you have to push that bitter little pill past all those teeth. If all else fails, there’s YouTube. There are many good videos on how to pill pets, and seeing it done may give you the confidence to do it yourself.

If you are going to skip the let's-pretend-it's-a-treat strategies, or they aren’t working well enough, there are a few tips on that, too.

  • For cats, gently push the cheeks against the molars as this will encourage them to keep their mouth open in order to not bite themselves (sneaky, but effective). Drop or place the pill as far back on their tongue as you can get it. As mentioned above, there is a balance spot on the back of the tongue where swallowing becomes almost a reflex and spitting the pill out is less likely to happen.

  • Next, gently hold the pet's mouth closed and give a puff of air into the nose. This sounds silly, but it works. (Caveat: some pets won't like this and may bite your face. Some animals really do not like it.) When they lick their nose, the pill has gone down. I have no idea how this came about evolutionarily, but when a cat licks its nose after you have pilled it, it means the pill has successfully gone down the chute.

You can do it! You might need a little help in the form of liver sausage or a peanut butter sandwich, but it can be done.

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