Many pets are frightened by the medication process, so they react defensively by squirming, kicking, scratching, and biting. With the proper medication techniques described in this Somerset Animal Hospital guide, you can help your pet learn to accept medication without putting up a fight.

Pick your battles when it comes to your pet’s medication

If you are uncomfortable giving your pet a certain type of medication (e.g., pills, liquids, chewable tablets), let us know. Our veterinarian may substitute a different medication or formulation for easier success. Several common pet medications are available as one-time doses, eliminating the need for a prescription. While this convenience is not always an option, we will try to accommodate your pet’s preferences to keep everyone safe and successful.

Reward your pet for cooperating

To improve your pet’s relationship with their medication, building new and positive associations is important. The key is small, frequent treat rewards. Intentional rewards tell your pet, “Yes, you are correct” when they do something you like. Positive reinforcement drives behavior, meaning your pet is more likely to repeat actions that have earned them rewards in the past. Over time, you will see more appropriate behavior from your pet. 

Begin the process by rewarding small behaviors that are part of your larger goal. Some examples of rewardable behavior include:

  • Approaching you
  • Staying in place
  • Tolerating touch 
  • Looking at the medication bottle or pill
  • Letting you open their mouth

Make your pet a willing participant, rather than a passive victim. No matter the medication your pet needs, take your time, and build their trust first. Be patient if your pet struggles or becomes frightened—pets can sense their owner’s frustration and stress. 

Give your pet oral medication with food

Many owners complain that their pet can find a pill in anything. This can be a difficult habit to break, because pets learn to be wary after a negative experience. Pets often learn to find medication because their owners fail to do one of the following:

  • Use a high-value reward — Make the reward worthwhile for your pet. Check with us first, to ensure your food choice is safe for your pet’s condition. Some popular options include:
    • Peanut butter, cream cheese, or cheese spread
    • Deli meat or sliced cheese
    • Wet food diets or canned tuna
    • Marshmallows
    • Bread
    • Pill treats   
  • Hide medication appropriately — The pill should be barely coated, because large treats encourage chewing and mouthing. 
  • Feed treats before and after the medication — Make medicating your pet the best part of their day, with multiple treats fed in quick succession, to encourage rapid swallowing.
  • Keep preparations away from the pet — Do not let your pet see you hide their pills. Wash your hands after handling medication.
  • Reduce the pet’s suspicion with general rewards — If you were given candy only before something bad happened, you would hate candy. Feed small, special treats you give your pet only as medication rewards. 

Giving your pet oral medication without food

For pets who must take their medication without food, or those who will not accept a pill treat, manual pilling is the best option. With proper technique, pilling pets is safe and quick. 

  • Restraint — Some pets are more frightened by restraint, so unless you think your pet may injure you, try a less-is-more approach. 
  • Approach — Standing in front of, or leaning over, your pet is intimidating. Stand or sit alongside your pet, with a wall or couch behind to prevent them backing up. Use a towel wrap to restrain squirmy cats, if needed. 
  • Handling Use a gentle but firm touch. 
    • For dogs — Place your hand over their top muzzle, with your thumb and index finger behind the large canine teeth. Press in from the outside, so the gums contact the teeth. The dog will open their mouth in response to the mild discomfort.
    • For cats and flat-faced dog breeds — Place your non-dominant hand over the top of your pet’s head, with your thumb and ring finger on either side of their jaw.
  • Pilling — Follow these steps:
    • With your dominant hand, hold the pill between your thumb and index finger, and use your middle finger to put a bit of pressure on your pet’s lower incisors, to encourage them to open their mouth. 
    • Place the pill in the back of the mouth at the tongue’s base. Close their mouth, and rub your pet’s throat gently to stimulate swallowing. 

Use pet medication tools to keep everyone safe

For pets who need extra safety measures, to prevent biting, scratching, or fleeing, helpful products and techniques are available to improve safety and efficacy. 

  • Cat towel wraps — This economical restraint technique prevents cats from scratching or escaping during at-home care. 
  • Pet piller or pill gun — This plastic rod-shaped tool allows you to deliver the pill without placing your fingers inside your pet’s mouth.

Changing your pet’s mind about their medication won’t happen overnight, but taking the time to restore your pet’s confidence and trust will help them not only take pills, but also will improve their care compliance, ultimately leading to a longer, healthier life. 

If you would like us to demonstrate any of these techniques, ask us when you make your next appointment at Somerset Animal Hospital.