A time in your life may come when you'll need to give your dog some bad-tasting, bitter pills. Sure, there are certain medications such as beef flavored heart worm chews that dogs eagerly gulp down like there's no tomorrow, and then there are those bitter pills that turn Rover into the canine personification of a stubborn mule who won't budge no matter what, so how to give an obstinate dog a bad tasting pill? Fortunately, there are several tricks of the trade that can turn dogs into collaborative patients. So today we'll be discovering some of them that will hopefully turn pilling your dog into a breeze.
First Some Acknowledgements
First and foremost, let's give our dogs some credit. Dogs have no idea whatsoever that those pills are good for them no matter how much we try to persuade them into thinking that they'll help them feel better quickly. We also can't tell dogs to just take the pill and wash it down with a big gulp of water.
Dogs rely on their instincts and Mother Nature has developed their senses so that they could avoid eating things that can be potentially harmful for them. Eating a bitter pill is not only unpleasant, but a dog most likely instinctively "knows" to avoid bad tastes. Bad tasting things raise a red flag about something that can be harmful or even toxic and that therefore should be avoided. What looks like stubborn behavior to us is instead the clever work of nature and adaptive!
Just like us, dogs have several taste buds scattered on their tongues that helps them determine what and what not to eat. A dog's taste buds are equipped with special receptors that are meant to relay important messages to the dog's brain. What sort of messages are transmitted? If say, your dog detects something bitter or plain nasty, his brain will make a note of it and quickly evoke your do to spit it out. Bleeeeh!
Did you know? The function of taste is so important for survival that, in puppies, the sense of taste (along with the sense of smell and touch) is one of the first senses to be present, even though it takes a few weeks to fully sharpen.
"Sensations of pleasure and disgust provided by taste serve a survival function. A reasonable rule of thumb, at least for natural substances, is that bad tastes are a signal that the animal has encountered something that is harmful, indigestible, or poisonous..."~Stanley Coren
A Word of Caution
Hunting your dog down to give him a bad-tasting pill day after day, is not only a daunting and unnerving task, but it can also lead to problems.
All dogs CAN and WILL bite under the right circumstance (yes, even the angelic ones with halos over their heads.) While it's true that some dogs have a higher bite threshold than others, a time may come when that threshold lowers either because the dog is not feeling well, or because he's cornered against a wall and his "please-stop-that" signals given to you to as a plea to not make him bite are being totally ignored.
And if say, you manage to force a pill down his throat one time and he doesn't put up a struggle, keep in mind that things can change the next day once your dog discovers that you are trying to give him another pill. Of course, not all dogs necessarily think this way, but we can't say that giving them a pill is something dogs enjoy, so there's always a risk factor into play when doing things dogs don't understand or appreciate having done.
Giving your dog bitter, bad -tasting pills can therefore potentially negatively affect your future interactions with your dog. Next time you come close to him, he may be reluctant to open his mouth (crocodile jaws, anyone?) or he may even turn his head the other way or decide to take flight and hide somewhere. A dog reluctant to having his mouth handled, often translates into difficult future veterinary exams when the mouth needs to be checked.
So what's left to do? Keeping on trying to get your dog to swallow the bitter pill will only further convince your dog that you're not trustworthy, making matters only worse next time the infamous pill time is around the corner. Your dog may engage in avoidance or become defensive and even bite. A better approach is therefore to rely on the "catch more flies with honey than vinegar" philosophy.
Six Options for Giving Your Dog Bad-Tasting Pills
The best option in giving your dog a bad tasting pill is to simply camouflage it with food. Your dog's taste buds should be deceived as your dog wolfs the food down without giving his taste buds enough time to detect the bitter taste. The secret is to getting your dog to gulp the bad-tasting pill down quickly. Stanley Coren says that a dog's taste buds that sense bitter are located on the rear part of the tongue, therefore, "a fast gulp will not register the bitter taste," whereas, "prolonged chewing will let the bitter work its way back to where it can be tasted." So yes, covering the pill in food is the best way to go, but if your dog has allergies, a sensitive stomach or a medical condition, ask your vet first before trying any of these foods.
1) Wrap 'Em In Cheese
Does your dog adore cheese? If so, he'll love these cheese balls! Before trying this option though, make sure that your dog is not prone to getting digestive problems from eating cheese or milk products and that the pills are OK to take with dairy products. This latter piece of info should be found on the medication bottle's or the accompanying medical leaflet that comes with the medication. When in doubt, ask your vet.
Simply get a slice of cheese and wrap it around the pill, closing it tightly so it doesn't unroll in your dog's mouth. Even better, here's something I came up with when I was boarding a dog whose owner provided me with cheese slices to roll up to hide her dog's pills.
Basically, I had this slice of cheese in my hand ready to give it to the dog, when this dogs ran to the door to tell me he had to go potty. So I went out with him with the cheese in my hand and being that it was about 90 degrees outside and the dog took his sweet time to potty, the cheese started softening up to the consistency of play dough. So now, I was able to make cheese balls! I placed the pill in the middle and made a tight ball.
You can mimic my 90-degree adventure by leaving a slice of cheese out of the fridge for a bit and then warming up the sealed slice between your hands. This should the do the trick in turning the cheese into play dough consistency. Don't feel like handling cheese? Look up "Flavordoh" for dogs.
2) Hide 'Em in Hot Dogs
Many dogs won't turn down hot dogs when offered and hot dog chunks are often big enough to hide the biggest capsules.
If you are concerned about sodium, look for the low-sodium variety and look for some of the healthier varieties with no nitrites. Nowadays, there are also organic and grass-fed beef choices.
Just as with cheese balls, it's important to hide them well as all it takes is for the dog to detect the pill to start losing "trust" and even developing taste aversion which can lead to a dog refusing hot dogs even if he loved them all his life!
So make sure the pill doesn't stick out of the chunk of hot dog and that the hot dog doesn't break apart. If your dog ever happens to taste the hidden pill and all his alarm bells go off, scroll below for a few more tips on how to remedy this.
3) Hide 'Em in Meatballs
If you're not to eager about cheese ball or hot dogs, why not try meatballs? The best part is that you make them with different ingredients.
For instance, you can soak your dog's kibble in water and then make a ball to hide the pill inside. You can use dog canned food as well.
Dog having digestive problems? You can ask your vet about using something bland such as meat-based baby food with no onion or garlic mixed with some rice to make meatballs to hide the pill.
What if you feed your dog raw food? If you feed your dog raw, you can easily make a meatball with ground meat or you can just tuck a pill into a chicken heart. For a gourmet version, you can coat the meat ball with a touch of grated cheese.
4) Go With Creamy Textures
Some creamy foods come extra handy in hiding pills as they stick well to the pill and the dog will hardly detect it, plus it' s hard for the dog to separate the pill from these foods. And pitting the pill out is difficult when the creamy food sticks to a dog's mouth!
What creamy foods are we talking about? Peanut butter is an option, but make sure it's not one of these varieties which contain xylitol, which is toxic to dogs. Cream cheese is another option and for dogs who love pumpkin or dogs who are constipated, plain pumpkin (not the pie variety with all the added spices) can also come handy.
Veterinarian Karen Becker also suggests using coconut oil to hide pills.
5) Make Savory Toppings
For this option, make sure you carefully read your dog's medication label and enclosed instructions carefully as not all tablets should be crushed or capsules opened. If you're not sure, it's always best to consult with your vet.
If that's fine, then you can simply sprinkle the ground tablet or content of a capsule onto your dog's food in hopes that he'll eat the whole concoction. This method may work with some dogs, mostly those dogs who gulp down food with no questions asked, but be aware that some finicky fellows may nit pick and separate the topping from the food, and even if you mix them throughout, you risk your dog refusing the whole meal.
Some dogs though will have no problems eating if the powder is well mixed within some tasty dog canned food. Also, it's close to impossible separating the two once mixed!
What If Your Dog is Sick and Won't Eat?Look for a Compounding Pharmacy
6) Try Pill Pockets
Don't feel like touching sticky foods or want a quick solution to conceal those pills? Pill Pockets are an option. Produced by Greenies, Pill Pockets are hollow treats sold at most veterinary offices nowadays and they come in tantalizing flavors such as chicken, peanut butter and hickory smoke.
For allergic dogs, there's even a hypoallergenic version made with duck and peas. How to use them? Simply place the pill inside the Pill Pocket, pinch it shut, and feed it to your dog. The texture is like playdough, making pills easy to conceal. There are Pill Pockets for capsules and Pill Pockets for tablets.
Tip: have some nasty tasting pills? You can also try inserting them into empty gel caps that are safe to use in dogs so to mask the bitter taste.
OK, not always things go as planned. Your dog may be outsmarting you and you are not sure what to do next. Many dog owners have a hard time hiding pills in food, so rest assured, you're not alone. Your dog may not eat all of the food in one sitting or the bitter medication can make the food taste bad. Don't give up! Here are a few tips for those challenging cases. Consult with your vet if you cannot get your dog to get his pills no matter what.
What if Your Dog Discovers There's a Pill Inside?
So your dog has been doing great taking pills and now he accidentally chewed up one and he is suspicious, carefully sniffing the food and looking at you as if saying ", Hey, who are you trying to trick?"
Here's a way to solve the problem. Offer your dog a small piece of food WITHOUT the pill inside, just a small piece that he can sniff and see that there's nothing inside. Let him eat it. Then, gradually give bigger and bigger pieces shaped as if there was a pill inside but always without the pill. Give them quickly in a row, praising lavishly for eating them. Then, within this series, casually offer a pill covered in the food, IMMEDIATELY followed by one without it.
Feed them one at a time as you show him the next piece coming. The secret is making him gulp the pill down in his eagerness to eat the next piece of food. Prepare these pieces in advance and lie them on a table so that you're ready. Preferably feed them in an area away from the place where your dog discovered the bitter pill in the first place.
Another option if your dog loves catching food, is to toss the pieces of food in the air and letting him catch them with his mouth. As he's catches the one with the pill, get his attention to another piece of food without the pill coming his way. In his eagerness to catch them and eat them, chances are, he won't notice the pill. Some dogs will be more eager to get their "treat" if they're asked to perform a behavior first such as doing a "sit" before being given the food-covered pill.
Did you know? According to research conducted by AAHA, the American Animal Hospital Association, the rate of compliance from dog owners giving their pets medications for chronic conditions is just 76 percent, which means an astounding 24% of pets aren’t being treated with the medications they need!
If your dog has lost his appetite, or you need to give him a pill prior to surgery and he needs to be on an empty stomach, things can get challenging. In this latter case, ask your vet. Sometimes vets will allow you to give just a teeny piece of food if it's only to give the pill. However, there may be pills you cannot give with food or your dog is strictly NPO (nothing by mouth). If your dog won't eat or can't eat, things can get more challenging.
Sure, you can always hold your dog's muzzle upwards facing the ceiling while you quickly push the pill as back as possible while you gently massage your dog's through to encourage him to swallow as seen in the video below, but this may not be easy with some dogs.
You can work in advance on making giving your dog pills relatively more acceptable by gradually conditioning your dog to associate a tasty treat every time you grasp and open his upper jaw. Chirag Patel of Domesticated Manners has a great video on getting dog used to having their mouth handled: Getting Ready for Vet Visit which can turn handy. Then, when the day comes to give your dog a pill, chances are, your dog may be more collaborative.
If this is your only option, make sure you praise your dog during and afterward and if your dog is healthy and active, you can even play a game with him. It's important to ensure your dog swallows the pill, as some dogs astutely hide it in their mouth, only to spit it out later.
An alternate option is to use what's known as a pill popper. It's simply a syringe that delivers the pill, without the need to pry your dog's mouth wide open to push the pill down.
Finally, for desperate cases, you can always pulverize the pill into a powder, mix it with meat-based baby food with no onion or garlic and pass the mixture over the gums. Once on the gums, it is difficult for the dog to spit the creamy mixture out and he or she will likely instinctively lick his lips and swallow.
Warning: If you are afraid your dog might bite you, skip trying to give the pill and inform your vet! If worse comes to worse, you can always take your dog to the vet and have him or a technician administer the pill for you for a small fee. Don't be ashamed to do so, it's very important that your dog gets his medication! Alternatively, your vet may offer the option below if feasible.
Veterinarian Shows Different Ways to Give Dog a Pill
Wouldn't it be great if bitter tasting pills could turn into tasty treats dogs won't object to eating? Well, maybe it's time to visit an apothecary! What is an apothecary? It's simply a pharmacy that formulates and dispenses medications and specializing in compounding medications.
When working for the vet, I often referred owners of finicky cats and dogs to skilled pharmacists, and from what I heard they really did their magic. We used to refer to Pleasant Hills Apothecary back then, and they were even able to transform pills into transdermal gels that could be absorbed by the skin. Ask your vet if this is an option for you.
Wedgewood Pharmacy is a great place offering creative alternatives to bitter tasting pills. From gourmet tasting medications (Gourmeds) to medications smaller than a tic-tac® (Tiny Tabs) and melt-in-your-mouth options (Medi Melts) things are really on your side when it comes to getting compliance from your dog with these tasty options. Don't have a compounding pharmacy near you? You can always look if your local Walmart, Walgreens or CVS pharmacy offers the Flavorx System for pets and ask your vet if the prescribed medication is eligible for that special touch...
Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be used as substitute for professional veterinary or nutritional advice. If you need help giving your dog a pill, please consult with your vet for options.
- Albers J, DVM, Hardesty C.Compliance: Taking Quality Care to the Next Level, Lakewood, CO: AAHA Press; 2009:5
- Psychology Today, How Good is Your Dog's Sense of Taste, retrieved from the web on October 23rd, 2016