Administering oral, topical, ear and eye medication to cats and dogs

At some point in every pet’s life, they will need at-home treatment for a chronic or an acute illness, recurring infection, parasite control, wound care, etc. This is why it’s important for every pet parent to know how to give pets medication at home to complete their treatment. These are basic methods that are generally applicable to dogs and cats under average circumstances – we understand that some pets may be easier to handle or more relaxed than others, but we hope these tips will help most pet parents to better administer their pets’ medicines.

Tips for giving pets a pill

Most pet medications the vet will send home with you are given in pill format, and the easiest way to give your pet a pill is to disguise it in something yummy. You could wrap a dog treat around the pill, stick it in a piece of cheese or cold meat, or cover it with peanut butter or yoghurt – anything to make your dog think he’s getting a treat rather than his medication. Cats may be more difficult to fool because they tend to chew their food and treats more thoroughly, and if they find a hidden pill, they will most likely just spit it out. Avoid giving your pets human foods like avocado, anything containing xylitol, chocolate, and grapes/raisins. If there’s a risk of your pet realising they’re being duped, prepare three treats: feed them the first one, pill the second one, and follow it up straight away with the third one. In their anticipation of the third treat, your pet will swallow the pilled treat without noticing something 'a little different' in it.

If your pet is relaxed and used to being handled, you could simply open their mouth (gently opening their lower jaw instead of trying to raise their top jaw) and push the pill towards the back of their throat. If it’s far back enough, the animal’s natural reflex will be to swallow. To ensure it goes down the hatch, you could push the pill in, then quickly but gently hold their mouth closed and blow a little puff of air at their nose, which will stimulate their reflex to swallow.

If you’re nervous of putting your fingers in your pet’s mouth, the next best option is to use a pill popper, which is available from any vet shop or online pet store. It looks like a peashooter and is designed to be placed into the pet’s mouth, ejecting the pill far enough towards the back of the throat without your fingers getting in the way.

If you need to give a pill to a difficult cat or small dog, gently wrap a blanket or towel around them to keep their paws and claws out of the way. Hold the wrapped pet against your body with your non-dominant arm and administer the pill with your dominant hand. If your pet gets angry or shows any signs of being in pain, rather stop and wait until they are calm and/or sleepy before trying again.

Do not assume you can simply crush the pill and mix it in with your pet’s food. There are two risks associated with this: Some medication is designed to be absorbed further along the digestive tract, so crushing the pill will result in premature absorption, which will lower or eliminate the efficacy of the function of the medication – i.e. it won’t work. Also, if your pet doesn’t eat all their food, they won’t take in the required dosage of medication.

Tips for giving pets liquid medication

Similarly, ensure your pet is calm or sleepy before giving them liquid medication. The medication will usually be in a syringe, which can be inserted into your pet’s mouth from the side and squirted across the tongue. Don’t tilt your pet’s head back and aim the syringe directly into the back of the throat – there is a risk that it can enter your pet’s airway. Their head should be level and their lower jaw should be the ‘moving part’. Once you have squirted the liquid medication, gently keep their mouth closed and stroke their throat to stimulate them to swallow.

Liquid medication can also be mixed into a palatable treat like peanut butter, cream cheese or a pet food topper (sauce). Once again, the risk is that your pet won’t consume the whole dosage of medication, but this is an effective way to administer a liquid medication if your pet’s mouth is difficult to handle.

Tips for administering topical medication on pets

Topical medication is usually prescribed for wound care or skin infections and is quite simple to apply. The tricky part is ensuring your pet doesn’t groom immediately after application or try to lick off the medication. Since a lot of topical medications contain steroids, always use latex gloves when applying the ointment. Steroidal creams should never be administered by pregnant women.

To stop your pet from trying to lick the ointment off the treated area, apply it immediately before their dinner time or have a play session with your cat or take your dog for a walk afterwards. This will give the ointment time to absorb and get to work while your pet is distracted. If all else fails, it’s time to use an Elizabethan collar (or ‘cone of shame’) to discourage your pet from licking at their topical medication.

Tips for administering eye medication to dogs and cats

Dust, pollen, genetics or traumatic injury may make it necessary for your pet to get eyedrops. Before using the eyedrops on your pet, first clean the area around the eye with warm water and a ball of cottonwool. Make sure your pet is calm or sleepy – administering eyedrops to an excitable dog or to a cat who wants to be anywhere but there will make it all the more difficult.

Position yourself behind your calm, relaxed pet and keep the bottle of eye medication out of their sight. Hold your non-dominant hand under your pet’s lower jaw and tilt their head slightly upwards – this opens their eyes naturally. Holding the bottle of eyedrops/medication in your dominant hand, place the side of your palm on the top of your dog or cat’s head, which will give you some leverage to also gently pull the scalp back, opening their eyes even more. The position of your hands means that if your pet’s head moves, your hands move with it. Try not to force their head to stay in one place as this will make them anxious. Gently squeeze the recommended dosage of drops from about 2cm above – do not hold the nozzle too close to the eye as there is a risk of injury if your pet suddenly jerks their head. To prevent your pet from rubbing at their eye, hold your hand over their closed eye for a few moments, allowing the medication to get to work.

Tips for administering ear medication to dogs and cats

Some dogs are more susceptible to ear infections than others and will need their ears to be cleaned regularly. When they are used to this treatment, it becomes easier and quicker to clean their ears. All that’s required is a cotton ball and some ear cleaner. Do not use earbuds to try to clean inside the ear canal, and do not force the cotton ball into the ear. To apply the ear cleaner, hold your pet’s ear flap open and carefully insert the nozzle of the bottle into the external ear canal. Squeeze some liquid into the ear and gently massage the base of the ear to help the liquid penetrate into the canal. Be warned: Your pet may shake their head vigorously, which may send excess ear liquid flying. Have a towel and some cotton wool ready, and don’t medicate your pet’s ears near any expensive décor or furniture.

Prescribed medication for ear infections can be applied in the same way, but always read the instructions to ensure you administer it correctly.

General tips for administering pet medication

  • Keep calm. Your pet can sense your emotions and will respond accordingly. Approach the process calmly and confidently to ensure the correct application of the medication.
  • Speak to your pet in a soothing manner and give them verbal praise for being a ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’ throughout the process. If they become agitated; stop. Rather try again later.
  • If you are really struggling to administer your pet’s medication, ask the vet for advice, as each individual pet may have a different reaction to receiving their treatment.
  • Make sure your pet receives the full required dosage of medication as prescribed.
  • When your pet has received their pill, liquid medication, eye or ear treatment, or the topical medication has been applied and they are suitably distracted, lavish animated praise on your pet. This positive reinforcement will help them to associate receiving medication with feeling good.
  • Do not share medications amongst pets.
  • Always finish the full course of medication as prescribed by your vet.

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