“My sick dog stopped eating, what do I do?” is a question I hear frequently. Sick animals, like humans, often lose appetite and are reluctant to eat. There may be several reasons for this, but I am going to address only one.
One thing many people do when a dog or other pet is ill and needs medication is to start “hiding” it in the pet’s food. This is a huge insult and breeds mistrust, for both the owner and the food. Dogs’ sense of smell is many times stronger than our own, and they identify scents differently.
Take a bowl of stew, and hide a capsule in there. Give it a good sniff. We smell a bowl of stew. The dog smells potatoes, carrots, meat, fat, salt, pepper, etc, AND that capsule, each individually and distinctly. Considering that a dog can locate by scent something very tiny from a great distance, hiding a pill or other medication in the food fools no one. Sure, he’ll gobble up that bowl of food with that heartworm pill in it no problem, when he’s healthy and the appetite overrules the suspicion. But let that same dog be sick, with a questionable appetite, and that same bowl of food will be refused. It’s tainted. Something foreign, something that tastes bad is in there. The sick dog refuses, and gets worse. And worse than that, he or she loses trust in you.
Taking medication should always be a completely separate event from food, and should be identified as such to the dog. There are ways to make medicine taking more pleasant, and using peanut butter, bacon fat, cheese, or something else tasty can help soothe the bad taste. No, sticking a pill in a ball of cheese and offering it is not the same as hiding that pill in the dog's food bowl. Huge difference.
Identifying the act is important. “Time to take your medicine Sparky!” in an excited voice lets him know several things. Medicine is coming. Tone of voice conveys this is a happy event, no big deal, plus a yummy treat always follows and it makes Mom so happy. Rewarding the dog for taking the pill is important; both praise and a favorite treat should be offered.
My Rusty has to take an herbal tincture formula now and then for his cervical spasms. Nothing about alcohol tastes good to a dog, and nothing hides that taste. Yet Rusty comes willingly to me when it’s time, takes his medicine, and happily accepts his praise, hug, and treat that follows. I always dilute his tincture in a bit of water, suck it up into a syringe (no needle), and dose him with his mouth closed, the syringe inserted between cheek and teeth. The liquid is slowly squirted at a rate that doesn’t cause panic. He can take his time and swallow. He is not traumatized. His dinner is served separately and is always eaten with gusto. He trusts his food, and he trusts me.
Pills and capsules are easier. I like to lubricate them with a bit of fat; butter, bacon grease etc. Open mouth, insert pill to back of throat, close mouth. Wait for the swallow. Praise. Hug. Treat. Easy peasy. If he’s spitting it back out, you’re not hitting the sweet spot in the back of the throat, the place of no return. Once there he swallows automatically. Practice until you get it right. Or get a pill gun. Some pills taste really bad, and coating them with peanut butter or cheese helps keep the pill from contacting the tongue or taste buds. No, it’s not hidden, he knows it’s there, but he doesn’t have to tolerate the nasty taste. Again, follow with praise and a special treat.
Hiding medicine in a dog’s food is a convenience for us, doesn’t do a thing for the dog, and breeds fear of food and mistrust in the relationship. Then, when he’s really sick, when eating is so vital to recovery and health, he refuses food because he can’t trust it to be food.
Start now, while he is healthy, and never give him reason to mistrust you or his food, and when the time comes and he must eat, chances are far more likely that he will.