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How to Give a Dog a Pill

Pet owner holding out pill to dog
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If the thought of giving your dog a pill strikes fear into your heart, you aren’t alone. Giving a dog a pill can be tricky, especially if your dog is fussy or suspicious of new flavors. But if you’re prepared and confident, it can be done!

Read on to learn the best ways to give a dog a pill, as well as what to do if your dog won’t take their medication.

Why Dogs May Need Pills

Dog waiting to take prescription pill inside treat

There are a lot of different diseases and conditions that can be treated with pills and tablets of various types. Even routine medications like flea treatments and heartworm prevention may be given as a pill. In fact, pills are the most common form of oral medication prescribed to pets and humans alike.

In a lot of cases, drugs will only be available as a pill; they’re generally the default option for many drugs that need to be given frequently. Pills can be coated to make them absorb faster, taste better, or to help them get through the stomach intact so the drug isn’t changed by the stomach acid. Compared to a liquid, it’s also generally easier to be sure the whole dose has been swallowed, so pills are used when it’s important that the dose is correct. They’re also used when the drug could be toxic or harmful to humans—like chemotherapy— as it’s more likely the whole dose will be swallowed, rather than part of it being sneezed or spat out into an unsuspecting pet parent’s face. 

Some common pills your dog might be prescribed include:

In fact, for pretty much every condition or disease we know how to treat, a pill will be part of the solution.

How to Get a Dog to Take a Pill

So, you know you need to give your dog a pill, but getting it into them is another matter! If you’re a Labrador parent, you can stop reading now—chances are your pooch will quite happily scarf up anything you drop by “accident.” Simply drop their pills as needed and you’re done! For the rest of us poor souls, the following tips might help.

What You’ll Need

Exactly what you’ll need to give your dog a pill will depend on how badly they take it. It’s generally best to prepare for the worst, but start with the low-stress techniques. Gather the following together ahead of pill-popping time so they’re easy to grab when you need them:

  • Treats or pill pockets specially designed to hold a pill
  • A towel
  • A second pair of hands (if possible)
  • A pill popper (a tool that helps you put the pill on the back of your pet’s tongue)
  • A syringe of tap water

Once you’ve gathered your things together, try the following techniques. It’s best to try them in order unless you are absolutely sure your dog won’t take a pill with one of these methods.

How to give a dog a pill using treats

Pet owner giving dog pill inside treat

Most dogs are food-oriented, and very few will say no to a pill if it’s hidden in something delicious. This works best if the treat is something you can wrap around the pill ahead of time and set aside. Next, give your dog several “empty” treats to gain their confidence. Once they’ve enjoyed some tasty treats, give them the one with the hidden pill.  

Many dogs will swallow it down without even noticing that you’ve dosed them. However, some dogs might detect the switcharoo – especially if the treat is loose or easily dislodged — and spit out the pill. That’s where pill pockets provide a handy solution. For example, Greenies Pill Pockets are designed with a hollow center and soft, pliable sides you can mold securely around the pill, so it’s virtually undetectable.

Whether you choose the treat or pill pocket route, you can even make your dog do tricks so that they “earn” the treat to make them less suspicious. 

If your dog’s medication can’t be given with food, your veterinarian should tell you so. Make sure you check exactly what they mean by this. Very, very few medications can’t be given in even a tiny nibble of food. For most medications, a treat-sized bit of food is fine to give.

If your vet confirms that you can’t give any food with your dog’s pills, or if your dog refuses to take the pill inside a treat, you can move on to the methods described next.

How to give a dog a pill using a pill popper

Pill giver for dogs

A pill popper/shooter or pill pusher for dogs is a device that allows you to push the pill to the back of your dog’s tongue without putting your hands into their mouth. While it looks a little unpleasant, it’s actually a very useful, gentle, and easy way of giving a pill to a dog without food. Follow these steps:

  • Place the pill in the end of the pill popper so you have it ready to go.
  • Sit your dog with their back to a corner OR get somebody to hold them or sit behind them so they can’t reverse away. 
  • Hold your dog’s upper snout with your non-dominant hand. Gently raise their head and put your thumb and forefinger on either side of their mouth, at the gap in the teeth. This will cause the mouth to open. 
  • Using your dominant hand, place the tip of the pill popper into the mouth, aiming for the back of the tongue. Don’t go too far, as you can damage the soft tissues at the back of the mouth. 
  • Depress the plunger, emptying the pill onto the tongue. 
  • Quickly withdraw the pill popper and hold the mouth closed for a minute or two until you see or hear your dog swallow. 
  • You can follow the pill with a small amount of water from a syringe to help the tablet move swiftly to the back of the mouth.

How to give a dog a pill without a pill popper

Pet owner opening dog's mouth

If you don’t have a pill popper for dogs at home and you haven’t had success with the “treat” method, you can try giving a dog a pill using just your hands instead. The preparation is much the same as with using a pill popper:

  • Position your dog so they can’t reverse away. 
  • Hold the pill in your dominant hand and use your other hand to open the mouth (as described earlier).
  • Once the mouth is open, place the pill as far back on the tongue as you can. 
  • Close the mouth quickly and hold it shut until your dog has swallowed. 
  • You can follow with a small amount of water from a syringe to help your dog swallow the pill. 

What if My Dog Won’t Take a Pill?

Veterinarian holding pill in front of dog

Dogs don’t always know what’s best for them, and they won’t all take their pills on schedule. If you can’t get your dog to take a pill, talk to your veterinarian. There are always plenty of options, but we can’t offer them if we aren’t aware there’s an issue. Your vet might offer another medication or another formulation—such as a liquid, capsule, paste, or powder. They might be able to offer a technician or nurse appointment to give the medication for you. In some cases, a home visit veterinarian will be a good option. The solution will depend a lot on your dog and the medication they’re taking, so have a good chat with your vet and be honest about your capabilities.

Pilling a Dog FAQ

Can you dissolve pills in water for dogs?

You shouldn’t dissolve a pill in water for a dog unless your vet recommends it. Not all pills will dissolve, and some will be damaged by dissolving. And if your dog spits out some water, it’s impossible to tell how much medication they’ve taken. Check first before dissolving your dog’s pills in water.

Can I crush my dog’s pills?

You should never crush your dog’s pills without asking your vet first. Some pills are toxic to humans, and the hard coating is there to protect you from the contents inside. Others have a coating to help the pill get through the stomach before being digested. Some pills can be crushed but you should check with your vet to make sure you aren’t going to cause problems by doing so.

Can dogs smell pills?

In most cases, it’s likely your dog can smell his pills, even when they’re hidden in food. After all, drug detection dogs can smell pills hidden under many layers of plastic and food, so it’s likely that your dog can smell the difference in a treat. That doesn’t mean your dog will refuse the treat though—many will not realize the significance of the smell.