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Giving Oral Medications to Dogs and Cats
Revised: July 21, 2023
Published: September 17, 2014

To heal, ill pets who are prescribed medication by their veterinarians really need to take those medications, even when the pet is resistant to taking pills - especially cats. Compliance with your veterinarian's medication plan requires both filling the prescription and getting your pet to take it. While medication is not the only thing that heals pets - sometimes time and sunshine will do the trick - but it is by far the fastest and best way to heal.

Sadly, some estimates of veterinary compliance are as low as 20% to 30%, which means many pets aren't healing as well as they could be, and money is being spent for little value.

One big mistake is not finishing your pet's course of antibiotics. If you only finish half of the prescription, you have merely succeeded in killing off only the weakest of the bacteria, leaving the stronger bugs around to live. That's how stronger strains of bacteria are created, some of which are resistant to antibiotics.

picture of various colored pills and capsules
Pills_Capsules image

Oral Capsules and Tablets

Most dogs are reasonably easy to give pills to because they'll take the pill when it's wrapped in food. Non-food-motivated dogs are a bit more difficult to pill, but they do eat. Even finicky dogs like to eat something. The trick is to find what works. It can be a frustrating process of trial and error, but eventually, you'll find a workable system, even if it doesn't involve food.

Some cat owners feel a sense of dread upon learning pills are necessary for their cat's health. Those sharp feline teeth are usually clamped shut tight, and many pet owners have difficulty finding an effective way to get pills in day after day. What works on Monday may not work on Tuesday. So what to do if your dog or cat decides they won't take those bitter pills?

Some tried-and-true methods that help medications get where they need to be - inside your pet - include:

  • Lunchmeat is the classic. Wrap the pill in low-fat deli meat such as turkey or chicken and many an unsuspecting dog will wolf it down. For dogs, the grosser and stinkier the better, so liverwurst may be the only thing that a dog without an appetite will eat.

  • Placing the pill in hot dogs, bread, meatballs, or whatever soft food your dog likes will usually get the pill down like a spoonful of sugar.

  • Canned cheese might work wonders. It is often the secret to getting a dog to take his medications.

  • Peanut butter and butter are tasty and have the advantage of lubricating the pill. It's a bit tricky if the dog spits it out, and you need to give it again when it's slippery. 
  • A ‘pilling gun’ has a rubber end that holds the pill, and a plunger to deliver the pill to the back of the throat. This way, your hands stay clear of teeth, and you have a better chance of getting the pill in the sweet spot where swallowing is easier than spitting it out. All clinics carry them, as do pet supply retailers. It's great for cats, who may not go for your attempts at bribery with food.
White cat wrapped in blue towel, owner or veterinary professional administers a capsule or tablet using a pilling gun.
Wrapping your cat gently in a towel can help you administer oral medications. Here, a pilling gun is being used to give a tablet or capsule.
  • Your veterinarian can order medications from a compounding pharmacy, which can place the medication into a meaty treat or liquid. Compounders are perfect for cats and even better for cats that need to be on chronic medications. The medication can be flavored with enticing flavors such as tuna, chicken, and beef. Liquids can be given using a syringe. It takes a couple of days for the compounded medicine to arrive.

  • Many medications already come in liquid, but a lot of them are just repackaged human pediatric suspensions, and some come in unappealing flavors like bubble gum. Still, many folks consider a liquid form easier to administer than a pill.

  • Pill Pockets and similar products are soft little edible pouches intended to be wrapped around a pill to hide the smell and taste and encourage pets to take their medicine. Most dogs will not think twice about snarfing them down, and even some cats will fall for this tactic. Many veterinarian clinics carry them, and pet retailers have them as well. Several brands exist, and they come in a variety of flavors to match your pet’s preferences.

Make sure any peanut butter you use is not "non-sugar" or "low-sugar" peanut butter, which may contain the artificial sweetener xylitol. Xylitol can cause severe reactions like low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).

Ask your veterinarian to have someone show you how to pill your pet while you’re still at the appointment during which the medication is prescribed. When you get home is no time to realize that you have to push that bitter little pill past all those teeth. If all else fails, there’s YouTube. There are many good videos on how to pill pets, and seeing it done may give you the confidence to do it yourself.

If you are going to skip the let's-pretend-it's-a-treat strategies, or they aren’t working well enough, here are a few tips on that, too:

  • For cats, gently push the cheeks against the molars as this will encourage them to keep their mouth open in order not to bite themselves (sneaky, but effective). Drop or place the pill as far back on their tongue as you can get it. As mentioned above, there is a balance spot on the back of the tongue where swallowing becomes almost a reflex, and spitting the pill out is less likely to happen.

  • Next, gently hold the pet's mouth closed and give a puff of air into the nose. This sounds silly, but it works. (Caution: Some pets won't like this and may bite your face. Some animals really do not like it.) When they lick their nose, the pill has gone down. I have no idea how this came about evolutionarily, but when a cat licks its nose after you have pilled it, it means the pill has successfully gone down the chute.

You can do it! You might need a little help in the form of liver sausage or a peanut butter sandwich, but it can be done.

Oral Liquid Medications

Liquid medications can come in various forms called solutions (a drug is dissolved into a liquid), suspensions (a drug is suspended in liquid and must be shaken prior to giving it), syrups (may have sugar, flavoring), or an emulsion (oily substance in water that needs to be shaken before giving). These medications are given using a plastic syringe or dropper.

Giving liquid oral medications can be a bit tricky for picky pets, those that don’t like their face handled, and those that must take medications that are bitter (like sucralfate for stomach upset). However, with some veterinary guidance and practice, it becomes easier.

If you are lucky, your pet may be prescribed something they like the taste of (as mentioned before, compounding pharmacies can offer some flavored medications), and they may take the medication via syringe quite easily. If not, using your dog or cat’s canine teeth (if your pet has them) and administering medication through the side of your pet’s mouth can be super helpful when medicating using a syringe.

Always follow your veterinarian’s instructions and what is indicated on the medication label. This may mean you have to refrigerate the medication, shake well before giving it, etc. If you are unsure of how much medication to draw up, check with your veterinarian first.

NOTE- Syringes for oral medications don’t have needles.

  • Draw up the medication first before getting your dog or cat ready to medicate. If there are many bubbles in the syringe, it can slightly alter the dose you are giving.
    • After you pull up the appropriate amount of medication, draw a bit of air into the syringe. Flick the syringe with your finger, tapping out any excess bubbles. You can then push the medication just to the tip of the syringe, removing the bubbles.
    • With droppers, this can be a bit more difficult. Try your best not to draw up air when pulling up the medication by ensuring the tip of the dropper is submerged well into the liquid.
  • If you have a small dog or cat, you may want to place a towel or rug on a table or countertop (unless your pet is difficult to handle) and have them sit in front of you, facing to the side with their back more towards you.
    • If you have a medium to large dog, have them sit on the floor, preferably on a rug or carpeted area, so they do not slip.
  • You will want to have the syringe in your dominant hand and your other hand ready to handle your pet's mouth.
  • Gently lift up your pet’s lip (on the side of their mouth) to expose the teeth. Look for the large canine teeth (if present) or, if they are missing some teeth, toward the back of the mouth.
  • Wedge the syringe gently into the mouth, pointing toward the back of the tongue, not deep into the throat, and press the plunger down on the syringe to administer the medication, and close your pet’s mouth, giving a chance for them to swallow.
    • If there is a larger amount of liquid to administer in one dose (more than 3cc), do not force it all into the mouth and down the throat at one time, as your pet may choke or aspirate (breathe the medication into the lungs).

It is ok to give a portion of the medication in 10-15 seconds, take a break, and then finish out the dose over a few minutes if your pet has any swallowing issues or gets upset by being medicated.

Transbuccal/Transmucosal Medications (Medications Absorbed Through the Cheek/Gums)

Sometimes your pet may be prescribed medications that are given in the mouth but to be administered into the mouth and onto the gumline (transmucosal) or inner cheek area (transbuccal) and are absorbed through the tiny blood vessels in those areas. For example, buprenorphine, a strong pain medication that is often given after surgeries, is sometimes administered transbuccally in cats.

In the grand scheme of things, these medications are less common when it comes to oral medications.

Administering transbuccally or transmucosally are simpler processes, in theory, and require a similar motion as before, generally using a syringe to draw up medication based on the label.

In this circumstance, focus on squirting the medication onto the side of your pet’s gums or into their cheek pouch area (as directed by your veterinarian). Sometimes, these medications don’t taste great to your pet, and you may have to gently close their mouths for a few moments after administering them to allow for better absorption.

In Summary

No matter what type of medication you are giving, always remember to:

  • Check the label each time you administer medications to ensure you have the:
    • Correct drug (If you have a pet on multiple medications, it can be stressful at times and confusing. Take your time and check labels each time.)
    • Correct dose (Do you need to split pills or are they already split for you? Do you know how to read and draw up a syringe correctly?)
    • Correct route (If it is a liquid, is it swallowed, or should it be given translingually/transbuccally)?
    • Correct time and frequency (check how often it should be administered and pay attention to how it should be administered: does this medication need to be given on an empty stomach, with food, at a specific time of day, etc.).

Again, always speak with your veterinarian if you are having issues with medicating your pet. There may be alternatives available depending on your pet’s specific issue and medication needs. The more you must medicate your pet in general, the better you both will get with the process. Make sure to praise your pet once they are done and give them a reward (treat, scratches, a toy) if you can so that the experience can be as pleasant as possible.


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