Veterinary Q&A: How to medicate a pet

Seattle Times – 9/28/2012

Tails of Seattle: A pets blog

Posted by Neena Pellegrini


Dr. Kevin Wilson, a veterinarian at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital in Snohomish, talks about giving pets medication.

As veterinarians our job is not only to provide complete health care for our patients, but also to help cultivate the human-animal bond that forms between families and their beloved pets. Then we send home pills. And liquids. And pastes. Suddenly the bond is stretched thin by the battle over oral medications.

The pet feels threatened, the owner is traumatized, and sometimes the owner may give up or find a pile of pills hidden behind the couch.

Luckily, there are methods and products that can help de-intensify the battle and keep the human-animal bond intact.

My golden retriever, Quigley, will eat anything you put in his bowl. Pills, liquids, powders, capsules -- mix it with his food and he will take it. If only all pets were this easy.

My whippet, Walter, is a bit harder. Still, if you hide the medication in a piece of cheese, a meatball or a PillPocket, he will generally eat it.

My greyhound, Killian, is one of the difficult ones. He can find medication in anything and deftly separate it so he can eat the treat but leave the medication behind. Ultimately, I end up putting it down his throat, which results in him being upset and me being covered in thick saliva.

Cats are usually difficult, because they tend to be finicky and don't like to be messed with.

My cat Puddy (R.I.P.) would put up quite a fight including some screaming (her and me) and some flashing claws (her).

Luckily the options for medicating pets are almost endless. Many common medications now come in or can be made into many different forms:


Pills/Capsules: Many medications may be found in flavored pills, which pets may find palatable. Also medications can be made into flavored treats by a compounding pharmacy.

Liquids: Some medications come as a liquid or can be made into a flavored liquid by a compounding pharmacy.

Transdermals: A few medications absorb well through the skin and can be applied to the skin as a gel or a patch. Some are supplied this way while others can be made by a compounding pharmacy.

Injections: Some medications such as steroids and a newer antibiotic in the cephalosporin family are available in long-lasting injections. Owners may be able to give injections such as insulin and joint therapies at home.

If your pet's medication is supplied as an oral medicine (pills, capsules, liquids) and he/she won't take it willingly, you can try hiding it in a treat such as a little canned food, low-fat peanut butter, cheese, meatball, ice cream, or a PillPocket (a soft treat with a hollow core you can hide medicine in).

If your pet is suspicious, try giving a few of the treats without medicine, then give the one with medicine, then a few more without.

Some pills can be crushed, and some capsules opened to make it easier to hide the medicine.

However, some medications should not be altered -- especially coated medicines or time-release medication.

If the medicine's directions indicate it should be given on an empty stomach, unless they will take the medicine by itself you may have no choice but to manually administer it.

The old finger-in-the-throat method is usually effective with the right technique for pills and capsules.

The medication must be placed beyond the base of the tongue in the first part of the esophagus to prevent them from spitting it out.

In dogs, I generally enter from the side of the mouth, far in the back behind the last molars.

I also try to fold a little cheek in as well so if they bite down, they will bite their cheek before biting me.

With cats it is safer to go straight from the front between the canine teeth while stabilizing the head with your other hand.

Sometimes holding the head up and massaging the throat can stimulate a swallow response to increase your odds of success.

If you find it hard to master this technique, a variety of "pill poppers" are available. They are generally a device with a soft end that grips the medication and a plunger to push and deposit it in the back of the throat. This can keep your fingers at a safe distance too.

Liquids generally come with a syringe or dropper to measure and deliver the medication. Holding the pet's snout up and introducing the device between the cheek teeth gets the medicine closer to the back of the throat.

Continue holding their head up and steady until they swallow, otherwise they may shake or spit it out.

If it is eye drops or ointment, tip the head back so the eyes are facing upward and drip the medication in. You may have to hold the lids open.

If it is ear drops or ointment, hold up the ear flap and drip the medication into the canal, then massage to disperse.

It may take two people medicate some pets.

Remember, some animals can become protective or aggressive if you are trying to medicate them. If it becomes dangerous for you to medicate your pet, contact your veterinarian to see if there are alternate treatments you can try.

If all else fails, seek professional help. Your veterinary team has a lot of experience and can help you find the best way to medicate your individual pet.

Dr. Kevin Wilson  is a veterinarian at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital in Snohomish. He completed his veterinary degree at Oregon State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 2001. His special interests include dentistry and soft-tissue surgery, with a focus on disease prevention and pain management