the scientific study of pet nutrition by veterinary nutrition specialists and experts.

Pill-popping pets: Are the foods you use to give pills safe?

Pill-popping pets:  Are the foods you use to give pills safe?
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Have you ever tried to give your dog or cat medications?  Most pets will need to take medications at some point in their lives and some pets will need multiple medications long-term to treat chronic medical conditions.  For some, pill time is a piece of cake and the pet willingly gulps down the medications.  I once had a dog that loved pills so much, I needed to watch that he didn’t eat pills dropped by my other dog!  For many, however, it can be a heated battle of trying to first catch the pet, pry open her jaws, and give the pill without having it spit right back out (or finding it on the floor later in the day) or trying to hide pills in some sort of food.  Either way, it can be a challenging process, sometimes requiring multiple people along with blood, sweat, and tears!

How do you give medications?

I’ve been interested in how owners give medications to their pets so that it can be safe and less stressful to everyone involved.  In one of our studies, 60% of dog and cat owners reported using food to give medications to their pets!

What are the risks with using foods?

Giving medications in food can make things easier, but we found in these studies that the foods owners use are often not ideal for their pets’ underlying medical conditions.  As an example, I work with many dogs and cats that have heart disease.  One of the important nutritional goals for these patients is a low sodium (salt) diet.  Many of the foods owners use to give medications – cheese, peanut butter, cream cheese, deli or lunch meats, rotisserie chicken, and bread are very high in sodium which can be harmful.

Similarly, for pets with kidney disease, dietary restriction of nutrients such as phosphorus, sodium, and sometimes protein has important benefits, but many of the foods used to help give pills are high in these nutrients.  A variety of other diseases also benefit from dietary changes, such as liver disease, certain bladder stones, or gastrointestinal disease.  So, even when an owner is conscientious about the pet food and treats, he can counteract all the good he’s doing by giving medications in foods with properties that don’t match the overall nutritional goals.  Another concern with giving medications with foods is that the food and medication can interact with one another (for example, calcium in cheese, milk, or other calcium-rich foods can interfere with the absorption of certain antibiotics).  Finally, the calories from these extra foods can add up and cause a pet to put on the pounds.

To be sure you’re helping your pet with medication, here are some tips on easy ways to give medications – with or without food!

Tips for giving medications to your pet:

  1. Have your veterinarian or veterinary technician teach you how to administer the medication directly into your pet’s mouth at the back of her tongue without using foods. Practice with your vet so you can perfect your technique before you go home. There are also multiple YouTube videos on the various techniques that may be helpful to you.
  2. Reward your pet after getting the pill with something he enjoys. That may be a yummy treat (be sure that treat has the appropriate properties that match his nutritional goals), or something else he enjoys, such as brushing, playing with a favorite toy, or going on a walk. That will make pill time a more pleasant experience.
  3. Try using a pet piller or pet pill “gun”. These can make giving medications much easier for you and your pet.  You can purchase these from your veterinarian or online.
  4. Talk to your veterinarian about using a flavored, compounded medication or treat from a reputable compounding pharmacy instead of a pill. Please note that a compounded medication can have different absorption and metabolism than the original tablet or capsule so the effectiveness may change.
  5. The absorption and effectiveness of some medications can be affected by being crushed or by opening the capsules. Also, some medications should be given on an empty stomach while others must be given with meals to be most effective or to minimize side effects.  Be sure to talk to your veterinarian or a veterinary pharmacist about the appropriate way to give all medications.
  6. If you have to give multiple medications, try putting several smaller pills into an empty gelatin capsule so you only have to give one gelatin capsule instead of multiple individual pills. Capsules can be purchased from your veterinarian or online.
  7. Be careful about putting any medications into your pet’s food. While some pets do not mind taking medication in their food, the taste can negatively affect appetite in others and could lead them to stop eating their regular food.
  8. Use a flavored pet treat designed to hold a pill, such as a pocket, wrap, or pouch. However, it is important to talk to your veterinarian about which specific product is most appropriate for your pet’s underlying medical conditions. For example, some commercial products of this type are very high in sodium and would not be ideal for a pet with heart disease, kidney disease, or high blood pressure.  Other products are high in copper, which should be restricted in a dog with copper-associated liver disease, or phosphorus, which should be restricted in a pet with kidney disease.  No matter which product you select, try to use the smallest portion possible to cover the medication – just a small piece of the total treat or you can even ask your vet if using a flavored treat designed to hold pills for a cat would have the right nutritional profile for your dog to minimize the size.
  9. Put medications into foods that have the appropriate properties for your pet’s underlying medical conditions (for pets with heart disease, see the Cummings School’s HeartSmart website for additional suggestions). With any of these foods, be sure to use the smallest amount necessary to give the pills. Even these good options can become a problem when they’re given in large amounts.

Food suggestions for giving medications:

  • Canned pet foods (talk to your veterinarian for specific recommendations that meet your pet’s nutritional needs)
  • Fruit, such as banana, orange, melon, or berries (avoid grapes or raisins)
  • If your pet does not have kidney disease, a small amount of home-cooked meat or fish can be a good option for giving medications.  Avoid prepared meats, deli or lunch meats, canned meats or fish, or rotisserie chicken which are all high in sodium.  Whipped cream works for some pets.  And peanut butter is another option (be sure it is labeled as “no salt added” or “unsalted”)
  • If your pet does not have diabetes, some good options include mini marshmallows, whipped vanilla cake frosting, or whipped cream cheese. For the frosting or cream cheese, check the label to be sure the brand you select contains less than 100 mg sodium for every 100 calories as some products can be high in sodium.
  • With any of these options, put the pill in a small amount of food and be sure your pet eats it all.  Otherwise, he might not get enough of the important medicine inside.

With a little training, patience, and creativity, you can ensure your pet gets all of her important medications with much less stress for you and for her!


Dr. Freeman is a veterinary nutritionist and a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. She is on the cutting-edge of science, with hundreds of articles in prestigious journals, speaking engagements at national and international conferences, and awards for her scientific achievements. However, she also is passionate about providing objective and accurate information on pet nutrition to veterinarians, pet owners, and other animal enthusiasts.

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