[Updated January 9, 2019]
My Border Collie Daisy trained for the world record in the “hack put” event. This soon-to-be Olympic sport involves hacking pills from the back of the throat as far as possible across the room. Her record is 1.2 meters, even after a time delay of about two minutes following pill administration. Most of us are familiar with the tried and true ways of administering pills to our dogs – hiding them in food such as cream cheese or braunschweiger or vanilla ice cream, or using commercial products such as Pill Pockets. When my dog progressed to the end stage of her cancer disease, I found I had to approach giving medications a little differently; the usual methods ceased working.
1. Novelties and Diversity: Change the Foods You Put Your Dog’s Pills In
When Daisy’s appetite waned, I began scouring the grocery store for novel food items that she might find enticing: canned cat food, Velveeta cheese, meatballs, banana bread, muffins, tortellini.
A good friend recently went through end stage osteosarcoma with her dog; his pain medication was quite bitter, but much needed. After biting into the awful-tasting pill once, he became wary of treats. My friend discovered a great solution: she twisted off the top of a sandwich cookie (Oreo-type), placed the pill inside, replaced the top, and handed the cookie to her dog. Because it was novel, and the pill well disguised, cookie and pill were gone in a gulp.
At one point Daisy began to associate receiving one of her medications with making her feel sick; it was an antibiotic and antibiotics can often have this effect. (They have this effect on me, too!) Studies have shown that foods eaten in association with developing nausea can turn patients off of that food and sometimes food in general. This is a good reason not to place pills into meals at feeding time as well as to frequently change the food item you hide the pill in.
2. Try Flavored Medications or Non-Oral Options
More and more medications are being offered in flavored liquid suspensions ranging in flavors from chicken pot pie to cheddar cheese to strawberry shortcake. Drugs are suspended in palatable flavors (dogs prefer the meat, cheese, and sweet flavors) and are administered with an oral syringe. Flavored chewables are also great alternatives; the active drug is measured precisely to the veterinarian’s orders and then mixed with flavor base and gelatin.
With some medications, transdermal gels, custom creams, suppositories, flavored powders, and oral gels may also be options. Consult with your veterinarian and a compounding pharmacy that specializes in veterinary drugs to discuss those that might work for your pet. Be aware, though, that compounding costs more than standard prescriptions.
3. Gamify Your Dog’s Medication Time
Play can help boost not only your dog’s spirit but also your own. I found two play techniques to work quite well. The first was toss & catch. Tossing a treat to catch from a short distance away was a game I had often played with my dogs. Now it was repurposed: not only would I toss regular treats, but also the hidden pill. Watch carefully, though, to ensure the pill is caught and ingested! If your dog is not adept at catching, or doesn’t have the energy, you can roll the treats to her.
The other fun thing to do is use dog puzzles, especially if your dog is used to playing with them. The pill can be hidden with other treats and will be gobbled up along with the others. Again, monitor carefully to make sure your dog actually receives the medication.
4. Click and Treat and Pill
On a whim one day, I gathered a handful of really tasty treats (baked sirloin) and picked up the clicker. I had taught my dogs many things through clicker training; they thought it was a blast and eagerly offered behaviors in attempts to get the human slot machine to pay off. Every time they would hear a clicker, they would come running because it obviously indicated that a fun training session was about to begin.
To my amazement, this technique, instilled during puppyhood, became not only a great way to get Daisy to eat (even when she wasn’t feeling like it – as if the act of receiving the reward was greater than her lack of appetite), but also proved to be a great way to have her unknowingly swallow a hidden pill as I rewarded her for a behavior.
We also drew on our experience with the reward marker “jackpot” (where a bunch of treats rains down on the dog); I wouldn’t necessarily ask for a behavior to reward, but would just say the word excitedly and it would trigger an automatic seeking of the downpour of treats (which, of course, just happened to have pills hidden among them).
5. Wonder Bread, When All Else Fails
There came a time when all the tricks failed. To ensure her proper care and comfort, I had to resort to the standard technique of opening Daisy’s mouth and popping multiple pills down her throat four times a day.
Most pills by themselves can taste yucky and can get stuck in the mouth or throat; to avoid this, I used small pieces of Wonder bread (for some reason none of the other soft white bread brands work like Wonder bread – trust me on this) as a wrap around the pills and then quickly dunked these in water immediately before administering. The bread would turn slimy but add just enough protectant so that the pills would not start dissolving right away and allow them to slide easily into the digestive tract.
6. Appoint A Designated Pill Administrator
If you’re in a hospice or long-term care situation, giving pills frequently can become a chore. And if your dog is not feeling well or dreads the act of receiving the pills, it can begin to have an effect on your relationship; that’s the last thing anyone wants.
Consider finding someone who can administer the medications for you, such as a friend, family member or veterinary technician. It may not always be convenient and it may not be for every dose, but it can avoid you always having to be the bad guy and allow you to focus on having enjoyable moments with your dearest friend.
Barbara Dobbins is a San Francisco Bay Area dog trainer on hiatus. She isn’t sure what her life looks like without her girl Daisy, who lost her battle with cancer in July, but she knows it was made so much better because Daisy shared the journey with her.