Pills and medicated liquids don’t look or smell like food, so no wonder your pets aren’t interested. Here’s how to fool them for their own good.
Published January 28, 2022

All of us at some point will face a domestic task that ends up far more difficult than it should be. Folding a fitted sheet or applying sunscreen to a squirmy toddler are 2 examples. But even among these challenges, getting a dog or cat to take medication can be uniquely tough.

The problem is that pets don’t realize medication is good for them. They hear pills rattling around in a bottle or catch a whiff of the tablet you’ve hidden inside a hot dog, and the next thing you know they’re backed against a wall with locked jaws.

To help you avoid a pet showdown, we asked veterinarians for their best tips to get your bulldog, beagle or Bengal to open up. And to save money on pet medication, just use our coupon search tool. We may be able to locate a pet-friendly discount at a pharmacy near you.

Strategy #1: Hide the pill in some tasty human food

It’s hard for dogs to resist a glob of peanut butter or a rolled-up slice of American cheese. In many cases, this is all it takes to get your pet to take a pill.

“A number of pet medications are beef-flavored, but many pets still won’t eat them willingly,” says Erica Esser, DVM, a veterinarian based in Chicago. She recommends trying a few foods to see what works.

A marshmallow or chunk of hot dog may do the trick. And while cats won’t likely go for the peanut butter, they’re usually suckers for cream cheese.

Strategy #2: Try a sneaky pet treat

If the DIY method of hiding food isn’t working, try a pill pocket or pill pouch. These are pet treats designed specifically to hold tablets and capsules. You’ll find them in flavors such as salmon, chicken and tuna for cats, and peanut butter, chicken and cheese for dogs.

In most cases, pill pockets and pouches are moldable, so they can be pinched shut to hide the medication. Look for them sold by companies such as Greenies™ and Milk-Bone®.

Related reading: 4 ways to make pill swallowing easier for humans

Strategy #3: Use your hands

If your fur baby refuses to swallow your tasty decoy, you may need to get your hands dirty, says Jerry Klein, DVM, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club. Here’s how:

  1. Firmly but gently place 1 hand on top of your pet’s muzzle and insert your thumb and index finger behind the canine teeth.
  2. Once you have a firm grasp, use your other hand to gently but firmly pull open the lower jaw.
  3. Quickly place the pill in as far back as possible. “You’ve got to get it past the hump in their tongue,” Dr. Klein says. “If you don’t, they will get it out. Dogs and cats use their tongues a lot better than we do.”
  4. Close the mouth and rub your pet’s throat. As you soothe them, make sure they’ve swallowed. Some crafty pets will stash the pill until you’re not looking and spit it out.

You can try this method for liquid medications, too. Or you can simply pull your dog’s lips back on 1 side of the mouth, find a space between 2 teeth and squirt the medicine onto the tongue. “This prevents gagging, and dogs will lap it up,” Dr. Klein says.

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Strategy #4: Reach in with a pill popper

Pill poppers resemble syringes, but instead of a needle, you’ll see a grasper at the end. This is designed to hold pills and capsules.

These tools are also called pill guns or shooters. To use one, you’ll need to manually open your pet’s mouth, put the popper in as far back as possible (past the hump, remember) and shoot. Some pill guns can deposit water in an animal’s mouth at the same time, which helps with swallowing.

(Is your pet hunching over and refusing to eat? Here’s how to tell if your dog or cat is in pain.)

Strategy #5: Crush the pill and blend it with good food

Especially finicky pets may need you to pulverize their pills, according to ASPCA Pet Health Insurance. Once the pill is in powder form, you can mix it into a moist food such as ground beef, which will absorb it.

This technique can also work for capsules filled with liquid medication. Just puncture the capsule with a clean, sharp knife and drizzle the medication over the food. But always check with your vet before trying either of these methods. Tampering with some medications will change the way they affect your pet. In some cases, that could be dangerous.

Strategy #6: Try a compounding pharmacy

Compounding allows a veterinarian to create custom medication that fits the specific needs of your pet. Say your pill-hating cat has hyperthyroidism and needs to take medication every day. A compounding pharmacist could turn it into a liquid or even a topical medication that can be rubbed into your kitty’s ears.

Compounding pharmacists can also create rapid-dissolve versions of certain veterinary medications. These will start to melt as soon as they hit your pet’s tongue, making them harder to spit out.

Dr. Klein adds that compounding can also be used to flavor bitter or icky-tasting pills. Depending on the pharmacy, the choices can sound drool-worthy to fur babies: Alfalfa, anchovy, apple-molasses, bacon, cricket, peppermint and venison are a few possibilities.

If you’re interested in this method, ask your vet for the name of a reputable local compounding pharmacy.

All in all, medicating your pet may not be the most fun activity, but it needs to be done. “It’s about bucking up, recognizing that you’re helping your pet and finding a method that works,” Dr. Esser says.

To save money on medication for either pets or humans, you can rely on the Optum Perks mobile app. Download it now and you can use it to search for discounts before you even leave the vet or doctor’s office.

Additional sources:
Pill tips for pets: ASPCA Pet Health Insurance
Compounding pharmacy overview: American Veterinary Medical Association