Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: May 2, 2023 by Crystal Uys
Written by Dr. Kristopher Chandroo
Maybe he’s a grumpy tiger you share a living space with. Or maybe you both live on a large park reserve. And you need the tiger to cooperate. The tiger needs to listen to you, and perhaps take food, a treat, or a medication from your hand.
The tiger is faster than you, and stronger. She could take control of the situation at any second.
What do you do?
You become a keen observer of a large cat. That’s what you do!
For people who are experts at watching the behavior of large cats, what do they discover?
When tigers are not properly stimulated, they sometimes don’t have the ability to cope with ordinary stresses in life¹. It becomes harder for them to adapt to something new. Stimulation that benefits cats (both big and small) is called enrichment.
When you want to make an animal-human interaction as positive as possible, you increase the enrichment for the cat. This means that you provide them with something that stimulates their senses and mental abilities² .
An enriched tiger is a flexible tiger – more able to adapt to situations or tasks.
Giving medication to a tiger is an animal-human interaction, and enrichment smoothes out the process.
Giving medication to your cat is also an animal-human interaction, in which enrichment plays a role. For what ever reason, we have, for the most part, forgotten about the role of enrichment when it comes to the process of asking our domestic cats to take medication. The instructions that come with medications rarely, if ever tell you what you need to do to prepare your cat before actually giving the medication.
Many of us have marshmallow cats. A marshmallow cat is simply a kitty that any minor change to the medication itself, like changing the flavor or hiding it in a treat, results in success.
But just as many of us have cats with a little tiger inside. They have their marshmallow side to them, but you don’t see it when it’s time to give them a pill, liquid medication, injection or subcutaneous fluids. And if we want them to cooperate, we need to do what we do for the big cats.
We can give them the best chance of success by starting the process off with enrichment.
Silver vine is an enrichment device you can use to improve your cat’s willingness to do something new (like take medication). Silver vine is a shrub that grows largely in Asia. A cat detects silver vine by smelling it, much like they would sense catnip. For big cats, branches of it have been used to enrich their living quarters.
For our domesticated cats, I use the dried or powdered form.
I often use this type of silver vine produced in the US..
So, how do I use silver vine to help medicate cats who show us their inner tiger? Maybe they’re a little feisty, grumpy or reluctant to try new things?
I enrich them first with silver vine, right before I begin the process of medicating them.
I want the enrichment to be focused on a specific location, so typically I sprinkle healthy quantities of the silver vine on a towel.
The towel is placed in a room that kitty likes to be in.
Some cats react immediately and vigorously (like a cat who responds to catnip), and some take about ten minutes to react. Others are more quiet in their reactions. Each cat is different.
The idea is that by providing enrichment, you change how they feel. This doesn’t take weeks or months. It often takes minutes. They may really come to like the towel, which can be used later to help them relax when giving them their medication.
With big cats, silver vine can be used to encourage them to interact with objects that we want them to get accustomed to. Let’s relate this back to our domesticated cats at home. Let’s say I have a bag of SQ fluids, or a pet piller. I need to use these objects to medicate my cat.
By simply placing a pet piller, or the bag of SQ fluids near or on the towel, while sprinkling my silver vine at that location, I increase the chances that we transfer good emotions to those objects. If I match up the silver vine with the piller or bag of fluids just right, I can achieve something called conditioning.
Conditioning takes something that could be considered scary for a cat, and makes them feel good about it. And this can only help us when it comes to using this equipment to medicate our cats. Your chances of success when medicating your cat increase when they feel good emotions prior to giving them the medication. They can be more curious, and less feisty or grumpy.
So, do you see how by starting off with enrichment, we start to nudge our cats in the right direction? Instead of an uphill battle, we create a slippery slope towards good feelings and less stress during the medication process.
I like to maximize my chances of success when working with cats. When they get sick, I want to make sure they get the best chance at accepting their therapy and medication. So I like to supercharge my enrichment by adding other ingredients to the towel as well. I call it the “Olfactory Kick Start.”
Want to learn how to do it?
Simply subscribe at iwillhelpyourcat.com, and I’ll send you a free email series that will show you how!
Dr. Kristopher Chandroo is a veterinarian, scientist, photographer, animal welfare advocate, and creator of Stress to Success (STS): The essential guide to medicating your feisty, grumpy or reluctant cat.
¹Skibiel et al. (2007) Comparison of Several Types of Enrichment for Captive Felids. Zoo Biology 26:371–381.
²Abramson et al. (2012) The Use of Silver Vine (Actinidia Polygama Maxim, Family Actinidiaceae) as an Enrichment Aid for Felines: Issues and Prospects. American Journal of Animal and Veterinary Sciences 7 (1): 21-27.
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.
My 10 year old Siamese has taken to biting me when she wants on my lap and the computer is there It is not a love nip it is quite intense. She is either very very lovable or bites. When we have left her with a cat sitter she and have returned. She kept me up all night just loving me and then the next day biting even if ignored. I do not have to over stimulate her for a bite, it seems to be a mood change and can be abrupt especially as she ages. I am at a loss as to what to do. The bites are intense.
I would take your cat to your vet as soon as possible. Sudden behavior changes can be an indicator of a medical issue.
Hi Casey! Yes, many cat’s are just like your girl. And I still keep on going with the olfactory stimulation. Keep it in place as the outward responses of our cats don’t always reflect where they are on the inside – they may be somewhere along hat journey towards acceptance, so we keep on stacking on the good. After stimulating them via olfactory, you can add brushing, play or anything you think your cat enjoys. For cats who still are not convinced, there are many other steps that can be tried from there…keep on trying 🙂
Hm. I understand the positive association thing, but my hard-to-medicate cat is a “non responder” to both silver vine and cat nip. She also will not eat any treat ever. Or human foods.
I think we’re going to have to associate things like play with pills.