Conscious Cat

April 9, 2012 49 Comments

How to pill a cat

Posted by Ingrid

cat with medication

Rumor has it there are some cats who take their pills without putting up a fight, but based on my experience, both personal and during my years working in veterinary clinics, most cats don’t like to get pilled, and some have elevated the act of refusing to take medication to an art form.

If you’ve never had to pill your cat before, try the “proper way” first. Maybe your cat will be one of the compliant ones.

  1. Hold the cat securely in your left arm (or right, if you’re left handed).
  2. Gently grasp your cat’s head by the side of her cheeks with your left thumb and index or middle finger.
  3. Gently tilt your cat’s head back.
  4. Take the pill between your right thumb and forefinger.
  5. With your right middle finger or little finger, gently press down on your cat’s lower front teeth to force his mouth open.
  6. Fling the pill as far back into your cat’s mouth as you can.
  7. Gently press your cat’s mouth close.
  8. Stroke your cat’s throat a few times, and/or blow on her nose. This will trigger the swallow reflex.
  9. Let go and watch to make sure that your cat doesn’t spit the pill out.
  10. Reward the cat with a treat if you were successful so she associates this procedure with something pleasant.

If this approach doesn’t work, you have a few other options:

  • Enlist a helper. One person holds the cat, while the other person gives the pill, following the above steps.
  • Use the “kitty burrito” method: securely wrap your cat in a towel
  • Use a pill gun.

The Cornell Feline Health Center at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has an excellent video on giving your cat a pill or capsule on its website, featuring both the finger and pill gun methods.

If none of the above works for you, there may be other options for the reluctant feline.

Liquid medication

Some cats take liquids more readily than pills or capsules. Most medications can be compounded into a flavored liquid. Check with your veterinarian whether your cat’s particular medication can be given in liquid form.

Transdermal medication

Some medications can be compounded into a transdermal gel that is applied to the inside of the cat’s ear. Not all medications are as effective when given this way, so check with your veterinarian.

Compounded chewable treats

Some medications can be compounded into soft, chewable chicken, beef or fish flavored treats. Check with your veterinarian to find out whether this is an option for your cat’s medication.

Pill pockets

Pill pockets are soft treats with an opening in the center. You put the pill or capsule in the hole in the center and mold the treat around it. Most cats will think they’re just getting a great and eat the “treat” readily.

Mix the medication with food

Mix the medication with a small amount of food. Once your cat has eaten the medicated portion of her meal, feed the rest of the meal. This is the least desirable method to give medication unless your cat is a good eater and you can be sure that she always eats the entire portion of food that has the medication mixed in. Additionally, some medications have a bitter flavor, and your cat may stop eating altogether because she may think a food she formerly liked now tastes different.

Injections

Some cats may be amenable to get an injection rather than taking medication orally. If that’s the case, and if your cat’s medication is available in injectable form and you’re willing to learn how to give the injection, this may also be an option.

When cats refuse to take medication

And then, there are some cats who just refuse to take medications. This can be very frustrating for their guardians. When a cat runs from you as soon as she sees you coming because she thinks you’re going to “torture” her again, it can completely ruin the bond between cat and human. In a situation like that, a guardian may need to make the difficult decision to stop the medication.

I had to make this choice with Buckley when I decided to stop treating her restrictive cardiomyopathy. She was on multiple cardiac meds, and for several months, she happily took them with pill pockets. Once she started to refuse the pill pockets, the only way I could have gotten the meds into her was through force. Buckley was the kind of cat who, at a mere seven pounds, needed multiple veterinary assistants to restrain her to get anything done. I don’t think she ever had an exam that didn’t require at least mild sedation. There was no way I could have pilled her, nor would I have wanted to put a cat with heart disease through the twice daily stress of it. I also knew that she would come to dread contact with me, and I knew I couldn’t have handled that. I made the choice to stop her heart medications knowing full well that it would shorten her already much too short life even further. But I also knew it was the right decision for her, and for me.

Have you had to pill your cat? Do you have any tips you’d like to share?

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49 Responses to “How to pill a cat”

  1. sue says:

    I tried all those methods Ingrid, Benji is particularly muscular, and the only thing I could do was get help from a friend I held him and she popped the pill – whew what a job thank goodness its not too often!! thanks for your tips though!

  2. JaneA says:

    My cats do fine with being pilled … when they’re feeling lousy. I know they’re feeling better once they start fighting with me. However, I’ve found that the best way to pill even a getting-better cat is to vary the time at which I give the pill so they don’t automatically know that 7 a.m. or just after breakfast is pill time.

    I’m getting all kinds of experience giving pills and liquid meds to my Dahlia right now.

    • Ingrid says:

      You’re so right, Janea, the worse they feel, the easier it can sometimes be to pill them. I’m so sorry for everything you’re going through with Dahlia.

  3. Amy Sikes says:

    Casey refuses to be pilled, so when I HAD to give her an appetite stimulant, I crushed it up (after making sure with the vet that it was okay to do so), mixed it into a little blob of the spreadable cheddar cheese she loves, and used that. At first, she ate it off my finger, but then she figured out that I really wanted her to eat the cheese, so she started refusing. Then I made it into “paw cheese”: I smeared it onto her paw, which made her immediately groom herself! I’m thrilled to say that she’s eating just fine on her own now, so no need to “paw cheese” her!

    I also had to make the decision a month or so ago to stop giving her liquid antibiotics. I know it’s not a smart thing to stop early, but we’d finished two 10-day courses already, and I just couldn’t see putting her through another one. She’d started hiding from me and flinging her head around when I tried to get the liquid into her. Fortunately, her next blood work showed that the infection was completely gone, so I breathed a sigh of relief.

    I hope I never have to pill Squeaker, Lucky, or Zanzibar, because they WILL bite and/or claw me if I try! Casey is an angel in comparison – she gets passive/aggressive about taking meds, but she’s never bitten or clawed me to make me stop.

  4. Mary Sue says:

    One thing to be sure to do after giving doxicycline, but also some other medications, is follow the pill with either some water or canned food to make sure the pill has gone down. Some medications can cause burning of the esophagus which then will need another sort of medical treatment.

    One trick I have found is to wrap the pill in butter and then put it in the freezer just until the butter has rehardened. You then have to give the pill quickly before the butter softens. This helps hide the pill taste and helps it go down smoothly. The butter ball can also be administered with a pill gun. Always ask the vet if a cold pill is okay to administer.

    • Ingrid says:

      That is a very good point about doxycycline, Mary Sue – and there are a few other meds where this is also a concern. The butter ball trick is a good suggestion, too!

  5. Kate Bombard says:

    My cat Tigger has asthma. He takes a pill (predisolone) in the morning and liquid (albuterol) morning and evening.
    I use the salmon pill pockets, cut one in half, and wrap the pill in that. Every so often he turns his nose up and I crush a soft cat treat, wet my fingers, and roll the pill pocket/w pill into the cat treat, he thinks hes won, and eats it right down. :)

    The liquid is very bitter, I mix that with chicken baby food. He was eating the beef baby food but grew tired of it and now is having the chicken. but loves it! snacks it right down.
    I also make a big deal out of it telling him that its his medicine time and how special he is to have his medicine, I use that term a lot so he now knows the sound of medicine so well we cant say it or he thinks he will get some, closing his eyes with that ‘Im special, I love you’ look..hehe…

    So far so good, hes been taking these two for over a year now and Ive not had any trouble.

    • Ingrid says:

      Sounds like things are working well for you, Kate. Fingers crossed that Tigger will continue to cooperate!

      • Kate Bombard says:

        Thanks Ingrid. He so far feels like it is his special time. He is obese and the other cat and he are fed different foods. She eats on the window sill and he on the floor with the water they both share. So when its medicine time, he knows that she wont get his special treats.
        Hes a very smart cat, and that is why I cant try to trick him, I put it right in the open and he is pavlof’ed to the noises of medicine time.
        The liquid is 8cc and I mix that with the baby food maybe a teaspoon .. and he just loves it.

  6. Kevin says:

    I’ve learned that trying to pill my cat is like taking money and setting it on fire.
    The last medicine that came in pill form was able to be dissolved in a tiny bit of water and mixed in with her food and she took it. This is a smart cat who figures out very quickly she’s being tricked, so I was very happy for her to not suspect anything.

    She took liquid meds fairly easily, once her and I figured out the easiest way to administer it from the dropper. Put the dropper back fairly far, on the side of her cheek, and only squeeze a small amount, pulling the dropper out, as you go, or you’ll suck the medicine back in. Repeat this a few times and all medicine will be gone. I tried squeezing a lot more in at once and she was letting it drip out of her mouth, all over her face. It seemed she tolerated and would eventually swallow if I gave her small amounts at a time.

  7. Memory Russell says:

    Start the pilling process with a hungry cat. Put extra good food in the bowl and allow cat to take ONE bite. Grab cat from behind and put butter wrapped pill in back of throat and then put cats head back to the food bowl – gently, of course.

    Another trick I read was to put cat up to a screen door and let cat latch onto the door – release cat a little so that it clings to the door and then pill – at least the claws will be busy and not trying to scratch you.

    • Ingrid says:

      I wouldn’t recommend your first suggestion, Memory. I’d be concerned that over time, this will create food aversion in a cat, even if done gently.

      And I really hope that second suggestion was meant to be a joke.

  8. Ziggy says:

    I am an expert at pilling cats! I have 12 cats, and recently they all had a viral infection. I had to give them all anti-biotics twice daily, for 10 days to prevent a secondary infection. Excellent advice in this article.
    The only other thing I could add, is to “scruff” them. Grab them gently on the back of the neck, near the head, while tilting their head back. Poke or very quickly drop that pill down their throat! Some cats are tougher to pill than others, for sure! Always give treats and chin scratches! :)

  9. Tami Amburn says:

    It sounds nice but you obviously never tried this with a 15 lb cat…..very difficult.

    What I found works is a little butter on the pill…..Success…as long as it gets in the mouth it usually goes down. MEOW

    • Kate Bombard says:

      Tigger is 19 pounds an on steroids…lol
      I would NEVER try to towel him… haha..
      I have to make him believe that his medicine is a special treat. I get all excited with my voice and actions as I would with a new toy or cat treat and he follows suit.

      I personally wouldn’t want to use butter as I would be afraid he would investigate to the counters to find it. His baby food is in the fridge so he knows when I get that and play with the pop lid its time for medicine.

    • Ingrid says:

      Butter is a good option, Tami. Cats like the flavor, and it makes the pill nice and slippery.

  10. Kate Bombard says:

    I really am shocked how violent some will get to give meds to their cats. It bothers me that they cant find a more easy way to administer without holding them by the nap of the neck or forcing it down their throats. Ive never had to do that with the two past cats nor the two cats we have now.
    I find that to work with them and find their likes and desires is a more peaceful way to make medicine time a happy time :(
    Just me I guess

    • Ingrid says:

      You’re absolutely right, Kate, forcing meds into a cat is never a good idea. Using too much force will only result in your cat hating you.

      • Kate Bombard says:

        I don’t worry so much of the cat ‘hating’, but mistrusting in all other areas along with meds. I find to gain the trust and work with the feline to see how they enjoy things is the easiest way to go…
        I have gone to far as to cook fish, chicken, beef, and process them, none of which worked. I have gone just about every avenue to find that the baby food is what he liked and now giving his liquid meds are a breeze.

        I guess I bend over backwards too much, and maybe even a lot can be that I have been lucky with the cats Ive had too. Its pretty bold to think that all cats are alike as I know that they arent any more so than dogs or humans are. :)

        When we go on vacation we leave him at the Vets and he wont as he said, ‘fool around’ he just squirts the meds in his mouth and goes about business. He said he takes it fine, just hates the taste (very bitter). Maybe that is why he appreciates the way I do it..hahaha..

  11. Eric says:

    I love most of the ideas here for pilling a cat (excluding a couple) As a Vet Assistant I have dealt with many different cats and have to use a variety of ways to have cats take their meds. Getting them used to the term Medicine and Treat in the smae phrase is a great idea. Cats are smart and will learn words that way. For my personal animals I use a product called Lax Aire, it helps with hair balls and assists with them taking their pills.

    Kate, I know that it may seem “violent” how people administer meds and the goal is to try to make it a good experience, sometimes there just isn’t another way. I know from the many cats I’ve had to have help with that everyone has a different state of mind and some will just have none of it. My own cats hate to have their nails trimmed at home, it takes two of us to do it. However when I take them to our Vet and get it done they are perfect angles for the Doctor. Interesting how they will get used to certain things.

    • Kate Bombard says:

      The cat can sense our inner confidence. If you feel that the feline may not like you doing the nails they will balk, its like a lack of trust.
      If your a familiar stranger that clips the nails every time you see them, they expect it from you.
      I find that if you balk at giving meds, make it sound horrible, well common, why does the feline want to partake? But they always want join in on a new toy or a new treat. So make it sound like its a very special time and they will think they are being spoiled..lol

      and I was VERY bold of me to think that all cats are the same, I just got lucky is all. Cats are a unique breed and that’s why we love them. :)

  12. Michelle Profant says:

    My Hannah takes a few pills daily due to kidney failure & high blood pressure. I take her pills, roll them in a small amount of butter & freeze them. I won’t lie, she still yates taking pills, but they go down easier this way. And I always “chase” them with a dropper of water.

    • Ingrid says:

      Michelle, I like the frozen butter idea – I would imagine that makes it a little easier to maneuver than room temperature butter. Chasing with water is always a good idea, and a must for certain medications.

  13. Pam says:

    My cat is certainly one of the feisty ones who will fight being given medication, and many other types of handling … except at the vet, where he is perfectly compliant!

    The thing that works for us is the “cat burrito,” wrapping him securely in a towel. Since he is a large cat, his rear half can’t get all in the towel. I get on my knees, with knees open and feet closed. I nestle him in there, with his front part wrapped in the towel. He can’t back out, because my feet are closed, and can’t go forward because of the towel.

    Then I quickly administer the medication and immediately release him. That seems to work for us.

    • Ingrid says:

      Pam, I’ve seen many cats like yours and Eric’s in my years working in veterinary clinics: they won’t stand for pills or nail trims at home, but take them to the vet, and all of a sudden, they’re totally compliant. That “white coat effect” at the vet’s is powerful, even for cats! :-) Of course, then there’s also the opposite: totally sweet at home. At the vet’s? Not so much!

  14. Icky says:

    I dissolve it in a few drops of water and mix it with about a 1/2 teaspoon of wet cat food to make sure she doesn’t pick around the area where the medication is. I’m not sure I’m supposed to dissolve her medication, but she seems a lot healthier.

    • Ingrid says:

      I would doublecheck with your vet to make sure it’s okay to dissolve the medication your kitty is on, Icky. It sounds like it’s working, but always better to be sure.

  15. After a year of daily pilling with my first Siamese, practice makes perfect. Now I find it easier to grind pills in a mortar & pestle, adding a little water and using an eye dropper. A quick squirt into the side of the mouth, chin slightly raised and it’s over. Add praise and sometimes a treat. The extra prep time is worth it, especially with more rambunctious cats. Having confidence and a positive attitude/intention helps.

  16. Bron says:

    I’m either incredibly lucky or I have a good teacher with my cat. All I do is scruff him, put the pill gun into his mouth and shoot. He takes his meds easy as. I pill him when I’m going to feed him because he loves his food and he’s so focused on his food he’s not worried too much about what I’m doing. It’s also a positive reinforcement for him to let me do what I need to.

  17. Laurie says:

    Interesting. All our kitties are feral rescues. Our most recent still isn’t comfortable with hands. But none will eat “adulterated” foods or treats, period. I have no trouble pilling cats (liquid is a different issue for me – I will always take the pill option if possible!). But the method I use hasn’t been mentioned, unless I read too quickly. I simply sit on the floor with my butt on my knees, knees out in a “V” behind the cat. Put down a treat. Hold kitty’s head with my left hand – hinge the mouth open with my forefinger, pop the pill in with my right index finger. Their natural instinct is to back up – but as I’m behind them, there’s nowhere to go. Put down another treat – happy kitty, and you’re sure the pill is down. Takes a few seconds!

  18. Hi Conscious cat

    I have also tried gel caps, http://mistresskalpanasrealm.com/store2/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=100. You can trim the caps for the desired size.

    Off to feed the Cats

    • Ingrid says:

      Thanks for the suggestion! Gel caps can work very well, especially when you have to give multiple medications: you can put all of them in one gel cap. It also helps to coat the gel cap with butter.

  19. Sherry says:

    My Abby cat is a real joy to give pills to. At 19pounds she is quick as whip. When I do get he i have to put her in my lap , grab the pill popper and open her mouth. That’s the easy part. Getting her to swallow is the hard part. She can hold a pill in her mouth for 15minutes and still spit it out. She also gets leary of me so I’ll go a day or so between doses.

    • Ingrid says:

      Be careful about skipping days in between doses of medication, Sherry. Depending on the type of drug and what it’s given for, that may be doing your Abby more harm than good.

  20. Doodle Bean says:

    Before Pill Pockets came along, my oldest cat was impossible to medicate with pills or liquid, no matter what method I used. He also wouldn’t come near food which had any meds in it.

    He eats meds in Pill Pockets, but only the duck and pea flavor. Sadly, Greenies has just discontinued that flavor so I’ll be sunk in a couple of weeks when this bag runs out.

    I did buy some chicken flavor Pill Pockets and am going to try adding a pinch of the duck pocket to the chicken pocket to see if I can transition him to the chicken flavor (he won’t touch the salmon flavor). Wish me luck!

    Also, if anyone knows of other brands of Pill Pockets which come in duck flavor, please let me know! The stinkiness seems to be the factor which makes him happy to eat that flavor.

  21. [...] month, I published a post on how to pill a cat, filled with tips and tricks to help even reluctant felines take their [...]

  22. [...] cats can be challenging, to say the least. Even if you mange to get your cat to take pills by popping them directly into her mouth, you may be doing more harm than good. This practice is [...]

  23. Sammi says:

    I am alone and have been trying to get my cat to take Cephalexin following surgery. The first 3 days were no problem. Then she got wise. This pill, even halved as directed, is very large in my opinion. I have tried pill pockets, which barely covers the pill, placing it in a small mountain of her favorite food, wrapping it in deli meat, putting the pill in cream cheese, butter, to no avail. Today, I gave her the pill directly in the back of her mouth. I quickly massaged her throat, saying “Good girl!”, then spotted the pill on the counter. I can’t fight with her anymore. With only 2 more days of medication left, I don’t know if starting her meds up again would cause more harm than good. I will call the vet tomorrow, which is Monday. She is healing very nicely and is acting lively, with a good appetite. Any feedback is appreciated.

    • Ingrid says:

      I would check with your vet this morning, Sammi. Usually, it’s very important to not stop a course of antibiotics before it’s finished. They may be able to offer it in a different form that may be easier to give (liquid, compounded treats, or transdermal gel).

      • Sammi says:

        I appreciate your response, Ingrid. I do understand the theory and mechanics behind completing a course of antibiotics, so I made sure to check with the prescribing surgeon this morning. Because my cat has been recovering extremely well, is eating, is lively, and the wound site looks excellent, the surgeon said it’s not necessary to finish the course. Both my cat and I are extremely relieved! BTW, I once had a compounded liquid (fish flavored) for another one of my cats. It smelled vile and my cat wouldn’t go near it. It was very expensive too.

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