Your dog won’t take pills? As I pried my dog’s jaws open to give him his medicine, I realized that, as a vet, prescribing the appropriate medication for your dog is only half of the battle! What about YOU– standing ready, holding a pill, looking at your dog while your dog looks back at you, both wondering who’s going to win? The answer, my friend, is YOU! As an integrative veterinarian and mom of three dogs, here are five of my favorite tips, tricks, and techniques for how to get your dog to take a pill.
1. The Bribe : For the food-motivated dog who won’t take pills
If your dog is food motivated, this technique is the obvious choice. You can simply hide the pill in:
- a dab of peanut butter—please make sure that xylitol is not on the ingredient list! It has become a common sweetener in peanut butter, but it’s highly toxic to dogs. Also, I prefer “chunky” peanut butter because it’s easier to disguise the texture of a pill among the chunks.
- plain yogurt
- a cube of boneless chicken breast
- hot dog pieces
- Pill Pockets®—this brilliant invention is a chewy dog treat with a hole inside for the pill or capsule. You insert the medication into the pocket, and then press the malleable treat around the pill to hide the evidence. Dogs generally love them! The downside is that they are not cheap, nor something you would normally have handy in your kitchen. Pill Pockets are sold through veterinarians and pet supply stores.
Above all do no harm.
The reason I left cheese, cream cheese, and ice cream off my “recommended” list, is because I don’t want to take the risk of triggering pancreatitis through rich foods. Pancreatitis in dogs is a painful, serious inflammatory condition of the pancreas which can be caused by a dog eating high-fat foods.
My personal favorite “bribe” in which to hide pills is marshmallows (or mini-marshmallows, depending on your dog’s size). I don’t worry about them causing pancreatitis, and it’s an inexpensive, low-calorie treat.
2. How to get your dog to take a pill using “the bait and switch” method
For dogs who are tempted by “The Bribe”, but too smart for their own good, I employ “The Bait and Switch” method of getting dogs to take pills. This technique becomes second nature to most veterinarians who have learned the hard way—after scraping saliva-covered, mostly dissolved pills off the floor after a dog has spit them out—that it’s very important to have success on the first try. Trust me, round two is ten times harder than round one, because of the state of the pill and the heightened state of the dog’s radar.
So unless I know the dog will basically eat anything, I always administer pills in this fashion:
1. Hide the pill in treats/food.
2. Wash hands. (Yes, seriously. It’s amazing how you can ruin the whole process by having the smell of medication on your hands. Remember, a dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 times better than yours.)
3. Get two more of the same treats used to hide the pill in. For example, if I’m using hot dog pieces, when I’m ready to give the pill, I approach the dog with three hot dog pieces–and an innocent look.
4. Give the first treat without a pill in it. THE BAIT!
5. Give the second treat with the pill in it. THE SWITCH!
6. Give the third treat without a pill in it. THE HAPPY ENDING!
3. How to get your dog to take a pill using the “trick and treat” method
Occasionally, we have to up the ante. The “Bait and Switch” may have run its course and your dog has become wise to your antics, or your dog never fell for it in the first place. To have success giving medicine to these dogs, we must employ mind games.
- I do not recommend letting these astute dogs see you preparing the medication prior to administration. You will have to put the pills in the treats while your dog is occupied elsewhere. Do not let your dog see the medication bottle or hear it being handled. Remember the advantage of the element of surprise!
- Wash your hands after working with the pills. This step is critical.
- The Goal: make your dog feel that the treat is an earned reward or special treat and there is nothing to be suspicious about. There are a few ways to do this:
- Have your dog perform a trick or two, for which he typically earns a treat. We’ve now put him in the mindset to expect/ask for a medication-laced treat. Give the spiked treats (ideally in the “Bait and Switch” sequence) as his reward.
- It’s key for the dog to swallow the treat rapidly, without taking time to chew. If your dog bites into the pill, certain medications like Tramadol and Metronidazole are so bitter that your dog might even foam at the mouth. To avoid this, you can toss the treats to the dog and have him catch them. Speak to your dog in a happy, excited voice and build anticipation for the treats you are about to toss, so that he eagerly snaps them up and looks for more.
- Just like us, dogs are tempted by the forbidden. Feeding your dog his disguised medication off of a fork or spoon, or off of your own plate (strategically placed on the floor immediately after a meal) can yield uncanny success.
- Let’s face it. Dogs read us like an open book. If you approach getting your dog to take a pill with a guilty look or even feeling guilty, your dog will be suspicious. Project confidence, joy, and fun in the “pilling” process and your dog will be more likely to be cooperative.
4. How to get your dog to take a pill using the “JAWS” method
Disclaimer—Do not attempt this technique if you cannot utter these words with confidence: “Under no circumstances would my dog attempt to bite me.”
The technique I used on my dog tonight was the “Jaws” method. Here’s the technique:
- I grasped the upper jaw just behind the canine teeth (the big fang teeth) with my thumb and first two fingers on either side, while my hand rested on the top of his nose.
- I did the same for the lower jaw just behind the lower canine teeth.
- Once I had my fingers safely in place, I gently (but firmly) pulled the jaws open. (My dog is a pit bull mix with exceptionally strong jaws, so this took some coaxing.)
- As soon as the jaws were open two to three inches wide, I took the pill between my pointer finger and thumb in my dominant hand and swiftly pushed it down the tongue until I deposited it at the very base (back) of the tongue. In fact, I pushed it over a decisive edge, down the hatch.
- As I pulled out my hand, I felt my dog swallow. He then licked his lips. At that point, I knew the mission had been successful.
The most common mistake people make in this technique is putting the pill ON the tongue. Unless the pill is very pleasantly flavored, the typical dog is going to spit it right out. Success depends upon getting the pill as deep as possible in the throat as quickly as possible.
Also, because certain pills can cause damage to the esophagus if left to sit in the throat, I always follow the “Jaws” technique with either administration of a few treats or syringing some water into the dog’s mouth.
5. Your dog still won’t take pills? Enlist an accomplice—the pharmacist
If all else fails and your dog will not take pills, while you’re at the vet (check out my tips on utopian vet visits here), ask about getting your dog’s medication compounded and flavored. Specialty pharmacies (not the kind at grocery stores and big box stores) can pulverize your dog’s medication, mix it with a potent flavoring, and provide it to you in liquid form which you can give orally via syringe or add to your dog’s food. And you can have a say in that flavoring. Does your dog LOVE bacon? Mention it to your vet. There are several options, so you should stack the odds in your favor, by expressing your dog’s preference if you know it.
Do you have a tip on how to get your dog to take a pill?
Please comment below! May we always learn from each other!
Looking for more practical ways to help your dog live the happiest, healthiest life possible?
With over 20 years of experience helping my veterinary clients tackle everything from giving a dog a pill to keeping an aging dog’s mind fit, I’m passionate about helping you help your dog have the happiest life possible. Please check out these additional resources:
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