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How to Get That Pill Down

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“Told you she wouldn’t take it!” There I was, sprawled on my exam room floor, desperately trying to coax a capsule into the maw of a beast known to many as Sugar Bottoms. I was losing this clash between canine and human that threatened to dethrone me as the Tamer of Tablet Takers. But this champion wasn’t giving up yet. I had yet to reach inside my left coat pocket.

The best medicine can’t help if your dog won’t take it. As Honey Princess (aka Sugar Bottoms) was proving, giving a dog a pill, tablet or capsule can be a challenge — and then some. Over the past 30 years of veterinary practice, I’ve identified three of the toughest tablet takers along with tips to get meds down the hatch where they can get to work healing your pooch.

Before we start, many of you are thinking, “I just pop the meds down, simple as that!” And to you amazing humans, congratulations. Even better when it’s the dogs who are awesome like that. For the rest of us, read on.

Prying open a dog’s mouth and shoving a pill down their throat can:

✤ Be terrifying for the dog

✤ Potentially cause injury during the struggle

✤ Create fear and distrust.

Did I mention it’s just not very nice? Let’s focus on less intimidating and more compassionate methods.

The Picky Pill Popper

Concealing your dog’s meds in a favorite treat is undoubtedly the easiest, and most successful, method. Coating capsules with peanut butter, spray cheese or honey or concealing them inside a veggie dog are my go-to tricks. Wrapping with cheese or stuffing in a banana or bread slice, baked tofu chunks or sausage also works for most puppers.

To amp the appeal for even pickier pooches, try burying the dose in a hunk of canned puppy food. Few can resist the aroma and flavors of a growth formula’s high fat levels. If that fails, try plopping in baby food or hiding within mixed-texture foods, such as a scoopful of rice and beans or meat. Sometimes by adding meds with mixed, crunchy consistencies and aromatic foods, they’ll forget a pill is in there.

The Spitter

The Spitter wins by either coughing up a pill you’ve worked hard to get down or after he dissects and devours whatever you hid the medication inside. If you know, you know.

The winning tactic with a Spitter is to make it nearly impossible to separate pill from pâté or make the taste so doggone irresistible, he wouldn’t dare miss a morsel. Most of the tricks used on Picky Poppers work here, but you may have to level up your game to win over a Spitter.

Sometimes, simply increasing the size of the food you hide the meds (half veggie dog to whole) helps discourage selective spitting (“It’s too much goodness!”) and other times a change in flavor profiles (more salty, sweet versus savory, etc.) is what the vet orders.

Regardless of your approach, always observe your dog until you’re certain the meds are on their way to the stomach. I once had a patient’s thyroid levels fail to budge after three increases in dosage. Turned out the clever Cocker was covertly chucking his meds behind the couch. Secret Spitters can be hard to spot.

The Clencher

The Clencher is without equal when it comes to refusing meds. He is infinitely picky, able to dig out the most cunningly concealed pills — and good luck if you try to wrest open these jaws of steel. This is when I reach into my left pocket.

Before I share my final measure to medicate, I’ve got to admit it’s not foolproof. I’ve found that if I try too many tricks, the Clencher becomes wary of my motives, and nothing will persuade that pill down. If this happens to you, I’ve discovered that giving a food reward (or three) without the meds and trying again in an hour or two is the only smart move. If you escalate your efforts and forcefully cram the pill down, you’re only going to make the next dosing more difficult.

When I’m out of options, flopped on the floor, unable to wipe the tears of defeat from my eyes because my hands are drenched in doggie drool, I crack open a can of the smelliest, goopiest, most succulent kitten food I can find. Rare is the dog willing and able to resist the wafting wonderfulness that awaits. I proudly proffer the pill in the tin of tastiness and move away. Nine out of 10, I exit the exam room a winner.

I hope these tips and tricks help you give your dog medication and crown you “Tamer of Tablet Takers.” Whatever type of dog you have or tactic you choose, make the experience as pleasant as possible. Many dogs needing meds may not feel well, making swallowing pills even more of a chore. Bring out your culinary creativity, take it slow, be patient, and always be kind when dealing with a tough tablet taker.

When You Gotta Give It

Inevitably there are times you have to “pop the pill” due to urgency or emergency.

  1. With one hand, gently grasp the muzzle from above, being careful not to place the dog’s lips or your fingers underneath the teeth.
  2. Gently tilt the head back, releasing the lower jaw. With the medication held firmly between index finger and thumb, use your remaining fingers or lower edge of your hand to softly open the jaw.
  3. Place the pill as far into the mouth as possible, aiming to drop it on the back third of the tongue. Immediately close the mouth, holding the jaw closed with your hand.
  4. Softly massage the throat to encourage swallowing and allow you to verify the pill is “bottoms up.”
  5. Finally, win the experience by offering a high-value food reward.

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