How to give your cat or dog their medicine

April 3, 2024 - 6 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
Dog sniffing pill

So, you're trusted to give your pet their medicine, and the instructions make it seem so easy. But any pet owner will know this struggle: sometimes, your cat or dog will refuse to take it. 

You try putting it in their favorite treat or using a pill popper, but it isn't working. What can start as a funny game of medical deception soon turns serious since vets don't prescribe pills without reason.

Don't worry, we're here to help. 

Below, we describe what to consider before giving your pet tablets or pills, how to give them to a cat or dog, and share tips on what to do if your pet sees through your methods.

What to consider before giving your pet tablets

We recommend chatting with your vet before giving your cat or dog medicine. Ask questions like: 

  • How should I administer the medicine?

  • Can I mix it with food?

  • Should I crush or divide the medicine? 

  • What's the recommended dosage?

  • How often should I give this medication?

This will make sure you're supplying the medicine in its most effective form. For example, you can't crush some pills as that may damage the outer layer of the pill, which can lead to overdose from rapid absorption or side effects. 

Knowing the rules for administering each particular medicine narrows down your options. If you know your cat or dog's pills don't mix well with food, you can rule that out. 

After that, read the instructions before giving medicine to your pet. The guidance should cover everything you need, like if you need to wear gloves and tips on preparing it.

How to give a dog medicine

Many common health issues in dogs need regular medication to manage symptoms. Here are some of the most common methods on how to give a dog medicine.

How to give your dog tablets with food

As mentioned, check you can mix the tablets with food first. Sometimes, a dog needs to take medications on an empty stomach.

To hide them in food, we recommend: 

  • Placing tablets in their usual food at a regular mealtime. It works best if you conceal it in a small amount. 

  • Putting it in one of their favorite treats. Dogs normally wolf these down without much thought or chewing. Try to give a normal treat first with lots of praise, followed by the medication one and then a normal one after. This makes it harder for your pet to spot the tablets. 

  • If they're spitting it out, try a different food such as cheese. Coating medications in peanut butter (xylitol-free) can be another good option. 

If this doesn't work, you have other options.

How to give your dog tablets without food

There are two main ways to do this: with a pill popper or a pill crusher. 

Using a pill popper

You should only use a popper if a vet has shown you how. You put the medication in the device and push it down, which releases the tablet into the back of your dog's mouth. 

It takes some getting used to, and incorrect use can hurt your dog.

Using a pill crusher

This is fine to use as long as you're allowed to crush your dog's medication. You crush the tablet, mix it with food or water, and give it to your dog. 

The device allows you to control dosages without losing any medication, which manual crushing can cause. 

There's then the trickier option of feeding them by hand, which needs some explanation. 

How to give your dog medicine by hand

  1. First, make sure your dog's comfortable. We recommend doing this in an area where you can safely handle them. 

  2. Put something tasty around the pill, like dog food gravy, wet food, peanut butter (xylitol-free) or cream cheese. Only do so if the pill's instructions or your vet says you can mix them with food.

  3. Hold your dog's muzzle from above with one hand and place the thumb behind its upper canine teeth and your fingers on the other.

  4. Tilt your dog's head gently upwards, then, with the hand you have the pill in, use your little and ring fingers to open the mouth more. 

  5. Put the pill as far back over the tongue as possible. Don't place your fingers too far back, as it'll make them gag.

  6. Remove your hands, close your dog's mouth and keep your dog's head slightly elevated until they have swallowed. 

  7. You can gently rub your dog's nose or throat to help them swallow.

  8. Use positive reinforcement afterwards, like treats and praise.

This is the most difficult method of giving your dog medicine, so expect some friction. Consult with your vet if this doesn't work, as other options are available.

How to give your dog liquid medicine

You need to supply liquid medicine in a dropper or syringe. Simply put the correct amount of medicine in the device, then ask your dog to sit. Hold their head, but don't tilt it too far back; this can cause them to inhale the liquid and sneeze. 

Put the device in your dog's mouth, near the corner. We recommend doing this between the cheek and teeth and, with the tip pointed towards the back of the mouth, empty it slowly.

You can massage their throat if needed to help them swallow it. If your dog doesn't like the taste, you can add a little honey to the outside of the syringe to help. 

Safety tips when giving a dog a pill

  • Don't hold their head too far back when supplying medicine, as this can cause inhalation problems.

  • Always hold over the top of the dog's head, as this reduces the chances of getting bitten. 

  • Give your dog a break if they're visibly stressed and try to soothe them. 

  • Have another person help to calm your dog or hold them in place.

  • Make sure to use positive reinforcement and supply the medicine in a place where the dog is comfortable.

  • Don't crush the pill unless your vet says it's fine. Similarly, always follow dosages and instructions to the letter.

Dogs pick up on your stress levels, and it can make them more anxious. Try to take some deep breaths to calm yourself before trying to give medications. If you get anxious, ask a family member to step in for you to see if your dog responds better to their approach. 

If something goes wrong, contact your vet, and make sure you know how to conduct dog first aid

What happens if my dog still spits out their pill?

If none of the above options work, then chat with your vet. It's frustrating when your dog won't cooperate, but it's better to defer to a professional instead of losing your temper or patience. 

A vet can find alternative medications and treatment options for your dog, so they're the next stop if at-home medication isn't working.

How to give a cat medicine

Common cat health issues regularly require medication at home. A cat with a long-term medical condition, like diabetes, may need daily medications. This can mean around 3,650 treatments throughout their lifetime if given daily! 

The types may be the same, but the method of giving them is slightly different.

How to give your cat tablets with food

Only do this if your vet has confirmed you can mix your cat's medication with food.

If the tablets are small enough, put them in their favorite food or treat. However, make sure the food or treat is small enough so the cat doesn't have to chew it. Smelly food such as tuna or pate is helpful to hide the smell of the tablets and makes your cat more likely to eat it. 

We recommend giving them a usual treat, then the treat with a pill in, followed by another treat. This will reduce the chances of them spitting out the tablet.

Don't put the tablet in a food bowl. They can leave it there for a while, and you can't always confirm if your cat has taken the right dose. 

How to give your cat tablets without food

Like dogs, you can give tablets to cats using a pill crusher or popper. 

As we said above, you MUST check if you can crush the pills first, as breaking the pill seal can cause side effects.

How to give your cat medicine by hand

Cats are notoriously difficult to give tablets, especially by hand. Like dogs, you should: 

  • Make sure your cat is calm. Perform this in an area they like and put a towel on the floor to stop them slipping. 

  • Face your cat away from you to reduce the chances of getting bitten. Always step away if your cat's getting distressed. 

  • Hold the pill in one hand. Put your other hand over your cat's head with your thumb and index finger on either side of their jaw. Open it and face their head upwards. 

  • With your pill hand, use your index finger to place it in the middle of your tongue.

  • After placing the tablet in the mouth, you can rub their throat to help them swallow it after their head returns to its usual position.

  • Check their mouth to see if they've swallowed the pill, while looking in the corners of their lips and mouth. 

  • Some tablets dissolve easily when trying to administer them. If you notice the tablet start to crumble, use a fresh tablet to make sure your cat is getting the correct dose.

How to give your cat liquid medicine

As with any other medicine, read the instructions before use. 

To give your cat liquid medicine, we recommend making them comfortable first, then holding them with the cat facing away from you. 

After that, put your hand under your cat's chin and use a dropper or syringe with the medicine to put it in your cat's mouth. Aim for the corner between their molar and cheek. Try to give the medication slowly. If given too quickly, it can startle your cat and cause stress. It also increases the chances of the medication being spat back out. 

Face the syringe to the back of their mouth, use it and then reward your cat with praise or affection.

Remember not to put their head too far back; it can cause them to inhale it. 

Safety tips when giving a cat a pill

It's like our safety tips when giving a pill to a dog. But cats are difficult to give medicine to, and if you're bitten, contact your vet for advice, no matter how small the bite mark looks.

Cat mouths contain a lot of bacteria that can cause serious infections in your hands, and you may need antibiotics.

We recommend working with a veterinary behaviorist to teach your cat to tolerate daily medications if your cat has a long-term illness. They can help create coping strategies and desensitisation techniques to improve your cat's quality of life. They can also reduce your stress from having to struggle to give daily medications.

What happens if my cat still spits out their pill?

If you still can't get your cat to take medicine, visit your vet. They can suggest alternatives, like special treats or other treatment options.

For some conditions, like hyperthyroidism, there are other treatments, such as radioactive iodine treatment. It's worth revisiting the vet for a chat about treatment options. Your vet cares about your pet's health and wants you to succeed.