Putting the Treat into Treatment: Getting Medicine Into Pets Effectively but Kindly

Dog getting eyedrops
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Need to give your dog ear or eye drops? Try distracting him with something tasty.

We love our pets and we will do anything for them — including giving them medication when they need it. But if you've ever tried to put drops in a squirmy dog's ears or get a finicky cat to take a pill, you know that the struggle can be very, very real.

It can often seem easier to give up and hope that your pet will get better on his own. Even worse, though, many pet owners are often too embarrassed to let the veterinarian know the pet isn’t getting all of his medication. And that means the dog or cat isn’t getting the most effective treatment.

Veterinarians want to make sure your pet gets the full dose of any medication that has been prescribed for him. After all, the medication won’t do a dog or cat any good if it just sits inside your medicine cabinet. Here are some simple strategies that may make giving medication less stressful for you and your pets.

Eye and Ear Drops

Does your pet need eye or ear drops? It may seem like your only option is to hold him down and force him to let you medicate him. But there's a better alternative — if you distract him with something tasty, he might not even notice what you’re doing.

For instance, smear a small plate or bowl with some peanut butter or canned food — something your pet thinks is delicious. Put the dish on the floor or have a helper hold it and let your pet have at it. While he's relishing his treat, you can be applying a spot-on treatment or putting in ear drops and then giving him a nice massage to work them in. This technique can also work with eye drops.

Another method is to use a clean squeeze bottle or food tube to deliver canned food or a treat with similar consistency. As you slowly squeeze out the food above his head, your pet will likely hold his muzzle upward and focus on the food instead of on what you’re doing to him. By the time he’s finished, you should be done administering the medication. Then give him another treat to leave him with a happy association.

Pills

The easiest way to give a pill is to hide it inside something your dog or cat will be happy to swallow. Butter, peanut butter, canned food and commercial pill pockets are all possibilities. With some medications, you can open a capsule or pulverize a pill and sprinkle it on a pet’s food.

Unfortunately, these strategies don't always work. Some pets will eat around the pill and then spit it out or refuse to eat food that has been dosed with medication. Your veterinarian may also recommend against pulverizing a pill or emptying the contents of a capsule if a pill has a bitter flavor or if it’s essential that your pet get every last bit of the medication. In these situations, the following techniques may help.

  • Make the pill smaller. Use a pill cutter to break it into halves or quarters and then give it inside a ball of canned food or other sticky substance (but check with your vet first to be sure your pet's pill can be cut up).
  • Hide the scent. Dogs and cats have it all over us when it comes to sensitive scent receptors, so make every effort not to let them smell the medication inside the treat. With a gob of peanut butter (or the treat of your choice) in one hand, use tweezers or a spoon to smush the pill into it and cover it up. Use the hand in which you held the food treat to give the goodie to your pet — instead of the hand that touched the medicine. 
  • Play the shell game. Give your dog a piece of cheese or other treat that’s not laced with medication. Then give a piece that does contain the pill. Follow up a final treat that doesn’t contain medication.

Here’s a hint: Any time you give your pet a pill, using any method, follow it up with a chaser of H2O. Using an eyedropper or needleless syringe, squirt a little water into the side of your pet's mouth. The liquid helps to wash the pill down the esophagus.

For hardcore “I don’t wanna take it” cases, talk to your veterinarian about other options. Some antibiotics are injectable and will last for up to two weeks. And some medications can be compounded by a pharmacist into flavored chews or liquids.

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