How to give a cat a pill
The biggest challenge related to giving a cat a pill is that he or she is a cat. If you have a dog, you can wrap a pill in almost anything: a bit of liverwurst, some shredded cheese, or a glob of peanut butter, and most dogs will gleefully consume it. Cats can be, shall we say…less cooperative.
Pills, unfortunately, are a fact of life for most cats at some point in their lives. It’s worth learning the tricks and techniques to administering them as easily and efficiently as possible so you’re ready if and when the time comes.
In what food can I hide my cat’s pill?
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Some food-motivated cats might accept a pill hidden in something they enjoy, such as a meat-based baby food or cheese. Cats who only get dry cat food might be enticed by canned cat food, or canned tuna or salmon. You can also try cream cheese, yogurt, or even butter, which has the added advantage of being slippery, making swallowing easier.
But cats are not easily outsmarted and I’ve known more than a few cats to consume the treat and then spit out the medication, but not necessarily right in front of you. Keep an eye on any cat you’re trying to medicate in this way, to ensure the pill goes down along with the treat and is not secreted away in some little used corner.
Can I crush a pill and put it in my cat’s food?
Not all medications can be safely crushed. For example, a pill with a special enteric coating is designed to be absorbed further down in the GI tract and crushing damages that protective coating, possibly causing harm to the lining of the stomach. Some pills are designed to release medication slowly, and crushing them could cause an overdose. Consult a veterinarian before crushing any pill.
If your veterinarian gives you the go-ahead, a crushed pill, or the contents of an opened capsule, can be sprinkled on food in an attempt to hide medication. However, some medications are bitter tasting and a cat will then refuse to eat his food. Now you have two problems.
Are there any other tricks to hiding my cat’s pill in food?
If you know in advance that you might have to give your cat a pill, start by giving your cat a pill-hiding treat at the same time every day for several days in a row, until she comes to expect a treat and suspect nothing. You might be able to slip a pill into the treat unnoticed when that time comes. Be sure to give a big enough treat to hide a pill in during the conditioning phase so that nothing changes (from your cat’s point of view) when it’s go-time.
If you don’t have advance notice that you might have to give your cat medication in the future, try a different conditioning trick. Give your cat several unmedicated treats in a row, and THEN slip in the medicated treat. Follow with a few more unmedicated treats so that he never grows suspicious about that slightly weirder treat in the middle, and remains focused only on the treat that comes next.
(If you're reading this post, you might be interested in, "How do you know if your cat is sick?")
I have more than one cat in my household. How do I give medicine to only one?
If you have more than one cat, it can be tricky ensuring that only the cat who requires the medication consumes it. In a multi-cat household, it is obviously impossible to hide medication in a cat’s regular food, for example. Hiding pills in treats can also be problematic if you’re only giving one cat the medicated treat. Competition can lead to a cat fight and the wrong cat may end up with the medicated treat. It is often best to give every cat in the household a treat, even if only one cat gets a medicated treat.
What if I still can’t get my cat to take a pill?
If you still can’t manage to get your cat to voluntarily take a medication-laced treat, and you don’t wish to forcefully pill a cat every day, you may be able to get your pet’s medication in a different form. Many pill-based medications can be made into a liquid, which can then be squirted into a cat’s mouth. Compounding pharmacies can add flavoring to the liquid, like beef, chicken, or fish, if that’s what your cat enjoys.
Some cats will still spit a liquid out, however, creating a mess and leaving you unsure about whether the cat has actually ingested enough. If you have a cat who loves his food and tends to eat it all, you can try mixing the liquid medication with the food in his dish. If you’re lucky, your cat won’t detect this new addition to his meal.
Some medications can be absorbed through the skin using a transdermal delivery system, which is like a sticker that is typically applied to the inside of a cat’s ear. If all else fails, see if the medication your cat requires can be prepared this way.
What if none of the pill-giving tricks work with my cat?
Sometimes, your cat is just too wily to fall for any of your pill-giving tricks and you just have to administer a pill the old-fashioned way: by hand. You may be apprehensive the first few times you try it, but eventually you’ll learn to administer a pill this way with some confidence and speed, making it less stressful for both of you.
I’m not a veterinarian and I don’t play one in any blog, so I’ll refer you to this excellent description of the steps to manually pilling a cat, provided by veterinarians Tammy Hunter and Ernest Ward for VCA Hospitals, and summarize their instructions here. I strongly suggest clicking this link for more detailed instructions.
- Wait until your cat is done eating, grooming, and using the litter box before starting. You don’t want begin a potentially stressful exercise with cat who is already startled or annoyed.
- Lubricate the pill with butter or margarine to make swallowing easier.
- Place the cat on your lap and hold the pill between your thumb and forefinger.
- Take your cat’s head in your other hand with your thumb on one side of her upper jaw and your finger tips on the other side of her upper jaw.
- Gently tip her head back so that her nose is pointing to the ceiling.
- Use the free fingers on the hand holding the pill to gently push on the lower jaw, opening it further.
- Quickly place the pill as far back on the tongue as you can reach.
- Close your cat’s mouth with the hand that had the pill in it, and return her head to its normal position.
- Stimulate swallowing by gently stroking her throat or blowing lightly on her nose. Your cat will likely lick her nose if she has swallowed the pill.
- Give your cat something to eat or drink (use a syringe of water, broth, or tuna juice if your cat won’t drink) after administering a pill.
Can a cat choke on a pill?
Yes, a cat can choke on a dry-swallowed pill. A dry pill could sit in her esophagus for minutes or even hours before finding its way to the stomach, causing discomfort at best and irritation and even an esophogeal stricture (a narrowing or tightening) at worst.
Step #10 above should eliminate the risk of choking, irritation, or stricture. A drink or treat can help chase the pill down the esophagus to its final destination.
Will my cat hate me for giving her a pill?
Probably the number one fear of cat owners is that their cat will “hate” them for giving them a pill. It’s true they may not enjoy the pill-giving, and they may even need to regroup and be alone for a bit after. But don’t be surprised if they suddenly reappear again, demanding some love.
Cats are social creatures and they often rely on us completely for love, comfort, and attention. If you’ve developed a strong bond of trust with your cat, a little unpleasantness will not spoil all the hard work you’ve put into your relationship with him.
Why is it important to be comfortable and confident with pilling a cat?
If you’re lucky, your beloved cat will live a long and happy life. But few living things who get the gift of years enjoy complete health until their final days. It is likely that as a cat owner that you will have to administer medication at some point in your pet’s life.
Medicating a cat – who does not know that the medication will help him – can be stressful for both pet and owner. But the long-term benefit for both of you outweighs the short-term stress.
To minimize stress, a cat owner needs to have the knowledge and know-how to perform this important task as quickly and efficiently as possible. Worry, insecurity, and lack of skill can draw the procedure out unnecessarily, turning a quick job into a battle. In the end, your cat might not end up getting the medicine she needs.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 “Medicating Your Cat.” Ryan Hospital, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, www.vet.upenn.edu/docs/default-source/ryan/ryan-behavior-medicine/medicating-your-cat-(pdf).pdf.
 Voglesang, Jessica. “Can I Crush Medication in My Dog's Food?” PetMD, 20 Aug. 2015, m.petmd.com/dog/care/can-i-crush-medication-my-dogs-food.
 “Can I Crush Medicines before Taking Them?” NHS Choices, NHS, 12 Feb. 2018, www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/medicines/can-i-crush-medicines-before-taking-them/.
 Hunter, Tammy, and Ernest Ward. “Giving Pills to Cats.” vca_corporate, vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/giving-pills-to-cats.