Bitter Pills: How to Medicate your Pet Without Losing a Finger

If you've been given a course of oral medication for your pet, don't hesitate to request a demonstration from your vet on how to administer it. Source: Getty Images If you’ve been given a course of oral medication for your pet, don’t hesitate to request a demonstration from your vet on how to administer it. Source: Getty Images

And how often does he need to take this?” asks my client, with a flicker of hope crossing her face. I dim it with my answer of twice a day. “Forever?” she implores. I nod, and the wish that had been in her expression is replaced by dejection. Her cat has a thyroid condition and always will. I feel a bit guilty as she heads out the door, as if I’ve sentenced her to a lifetime of scheduled battles with a loved one.

Even simple disorders can become a source of angst when owners have trouble medicating their pets. It’s easy to write “one tablet twice a day” on a prescription label, but translating those directions into reality can be another story.

Honestly, this doesn’t happen too often with dogs. They tend to be a happy and hungry bunch, and it’s no big task to hide a pill inside a treat, like some peanut butter or a piece of cheese. But cats are notoriously discerning and may pick the food from around the pill, making a soggy mess of their medication. There may simply be no choice but to administer it directly.

With dogs you just place the pill at the back of the tongue, shut their trap, and wait a moment. The technique is similar for cats, but is often accompanied by hissing, squirming, and the brandishing of sharp teeth and claws. In these cases, a pill popper (also called a pill gun, a name I don’t much care for) can be useful. It’s a simple plastic tube with a rubber grabber at one end and a plunger at the other, and despite its energetic name, it gently deposits the pill. It takes some practice to get the hang of it, but it’s worth the effort. If the cat bites down, at least it’s not your fingers getting impaled.

Some medications are also available in liquid form. There’s no harm in trying that approach, but liquids can present complications of their own. If pets don’t like the taste, they can end up drooling half of it out, creating uncertainty about proper dosage.

It may also be worth looking into the services of a compounding pharmacy. It will cost a bit more, but they can wrangle medication into different forms and flavors that may be more palatable. Some tablets are designed to dissolve almost instantly, eliminating the pet’s ability to spit them out again. And some drugs are even available in topical forms. The hyperthyroid cat I mentioned might be happy to know that his medication can be made into a paste administered with a gentle smear inside the flap of his ear. In some cases, alternative dosing methods may reduce a drug’s efficacy. But that may still be a fair improvement over missing every other dose.

If you’ve been given a course of oral medication for your pet, don’t hesitate to request a demonstration from your vet on how to administer it. There’s a technique to pilling animals, and it’s easier to perform than to describe. Seeing it in person can be a great help. Above everything, though, it’s important to have faith in yourself and your pet, because you may be pleasantly surprised.

When my own cat developed a need for daily medication, I dreaded the prospect. Would she hate me for shoving pills into her mouth? But she took them with surprising cheer, and would walk away purring and expecting breakfast. Honestly, she made me feel bad for ever doubting her. I can’t promise it will always be that easy, but if it isn’t, it’s good to know you have options.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He has lived in Charlottesville since 2003, the same year he received his veterinary degree from Cornell University.

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