Giving medication to pets is not easy. In a typical case of a dog with a skin condition, I may send the owner home with three types of tablets to be given twice daily for ten days. As I write up the final details of the patient’s file, I sometimes reflect that I have sent the owner away with a challenging task to complete.

When vets give medicines, we often use the easy route of giving an injection, usually into the skin at the back of the neck. Most animals do not even notice this happening, since the skin in this area is loose, with insensitive innervation. Long acting injections are sometimes available, such as an antibiotic that lasts for two weeks, or a steroid that lasts for a month, but these drugs are only effective for particular cases. In most instances, ongoing medication has to be given by owners at home, and this is usually via the oral route, using tablets or capsules.

The digestive system rapidly absorbs substances given orally, and high blood levels are easily achieved. But there is a problem: most tablets need to be repeated once or twice daily and it is not always easy to make an animal swallow that pill.

Taking the Direct Approach

I find the direct approach is the best route to try first. The animal is held firmly, the nose is pointed up to the ceiling, the lower jaw is pulled down so that the mouth is open, and the tablet is thrown to the back of the tongue. The mouth is then held closed until the animal swallows.

It helps to have an assistant to hold the animal, with a towel wrapped around the front legs so that the patient cannot use their paws to push you away. Of course, with a wriggling, strong, uncooperative animal, it is not always so easy to put this technique into practice. There are definitely some animals that are classified as “unpillable”. Cats in particular can present a huge challenge.

Using Food to Hide Medication

Tablets and capsules can also be given in the food. It’s best to give a small portion of food laced with medicine before the main meal, to ensure that it is all eaten. Otherwise pets can very cleverly eat all around the medicine, carefully avoiding the most important part. Tablets can also be hidden inside morsels of food, like pieces of sausage or cheese. The best idea is to give a few unadulterated treats first, to lull the pet into a false sense of security before offering the medicated treat.

Some tablets are designed to be “palatable”, with a sweet, non-bitter taste. The drug companies advertising these products  sometimes tell stories of cats devouring them hungrily like children with sweets. In reality, many cats seem to be too clever to be fooled so easily.

Persevere, Complete the Course

With all forms of medicine, it’s very important to finish the course. It can be difficult to do this, especially when it’s a daily battle to give the medication, and when the animal seems to be better. However, if you stop giving medicine when your pet is “half better”, the problem is much more likely to recur. I find that it helps to make up a “tick chart” at the start of the treatment, which I complete every time a dose is given. When I tick the last box on my chart, the course is finished.

I have a great deal of respect for owners who uncomplainingly carry out my treatment instructions. When the healthy animal returns for a final check-up, I often feel that I should present the owner with a medal, a prize and a “Congratulations” card for successful completion of the entire course of medication.

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