There are four basic ways to give your cat a pill. Which is the best method for you and your cat? The best way to pill a cat without making him mad (and getting yourself scratched or bitten) depends on a couple of factors:
- How nasty-tasting is the pill?
- How strongly does your cat object to medication?
- And how many pills do you need to get down past those pointy fangs?
But if you want your cat to keep liking you – especially if you’re looking at a long-term program of medication, as for a feline with a recurring infection or chronic condition that needs meds by mouth – then you’ll want to develop a ninja set of cat-pilling skills for the long haul.
Here are 4 different ways to pill a cat, one of which is bound to work for you:1
Train your cat to take his pills
Can you imagine, you rattle the pill bottle and Kitty comes running as if you’ve pulled out the can opener or the catnip? The first way to pill a cat is to teach your cat to actually like taking his meds, so it’s not a battle.
Believe it or not, it’s possible.
The ASPCA has directions for how to train a cat to accept pills without complaint, and a friend of mine did teach an old half-feral tomcat to take his life-saving meds just by clicker training (the same way we train dogs), so I know it works. And that’s a great long-term strategy if you’re up for the challenge.
But for most of us, frankly, that’s just not going to happen. Maybe you don’t have time for training your cat to gobble down whatever you dose him with. Or maybe you’re blessed with the world’s most finicky cat who thinks the pills are the most disgusting thing ever, and no way he’s going to swallow one voluntarily. I hear ya.
No problem, there are a few other ways to get your cat to swallow a pill.2
Do it like a veterinarian
You can pill a cat in the same way that vets and vet techs do it – by opening the cat’s mouth, dropping in the pill, and holding his mouth closed until he swallows it down.
Step 1: Calmly take hold of your cat. Some people wrap the cat in a towel, but I’ve found that restraining most cats in that way can just make them struggle more, and it tends to work better just to hold the cat still on a good solid flat surface, like a table or the floor.
Step 2: Gently pry open the cat’s mouth by putting a little pressure on the hinge of his jaws with your thumb on one side and your middle finger on the other side. This can take a bit of practice, to find just the right point to apply gentle pressure. One vet I know has a slightly different method, where he fits his hand around the back of the cat’s head like he’s holding a baseball, then tilts the head back until the cat’s mouth opens – I haven’t got the knack of that method, but it might work for you.
Step 3: Tip the cat’s head back just enough to get gravity working on your side, so you can see into the back of his mouth. Quickly drop in the pill, right in the middle, as far back as you can get it, and very quickly close the cat’s mouth again, holding it closed. Blow on his nose and gently stroke the underside of his throat to stimulate saliva and encourage him to swallow.
If you follow up with a bit of salmon or other soft delicious treat with a lot of moisture in it, that will go down smoothly and help the pill to go all the way down and dissolve. Some people like to follow up with a little bit of of water from a syringe, too. If you don’t have a syringe on hand, you can dip a drinking straw in a glass of water then put your finger over the end to keep the water in while you move it to the cat’s mouth, then release your finger to let the water flow out.
Some cats are not at all happy about having your fingers in their mouth. I had a cat like that – he was really good about everything else, but no way was he going to let anyone open his mouth. He would clench his jaw tightly closed, and if you did succeed in opening it, you’d get a feel of his pointy teeth for your troubles!
If you have one of those cats, and there’s no way you can get the pill down by this method, then it is time to get sneaky.3
Hide the pill in a tasty treat
Canned cat food, soft treats, cat pill pockets or pill wrap paste
Some tablets can be crushed up and hidden in wet cat food. Personally, I have never found this a very effective way to pill the truly difficult cats in my life. They always know I’m trying to “poison” them and won’t touch the medicated food.
Also, some kinds of medicine taste really bad to cats or there is some scientific reason why they need to be swallowed whole in order to work. You’ll need to ask your vet if it will be okay for you to crush the pill, if you want to try mixing it up in your cat’s food, and be prepared for a finicky Kitty to refuse the food if it has a pulverized pill mixed in it.
Pill pockets have worked well for me, for giving pills to cats – especially when I have to medicate someone else’s cat who doesn’t much want to be handled by a stranger, or when I’m in a rush and short on time, but it’s absolutely vital that a pill gets into the puss. Pill pockets are just soft treats shaped with a hollow in the middle where you can hid the pill.
Pill pockets need to be small enough for the cat to be able to eat before he realizes that his medicine is hidden inside, and they need to be a flavor he really likes. I’ve found that most cats are keen on the Greenies pill pockets in salmon flavor, but you can also try making your own pill pockets from canned cat food, cheese, salmon or tuna, or whatever other squishable food your cat likes best.
Some cat owners have had good luck with one of the pill-masking pastes, like Flavor-Doh or Vetoquinol’s Pill Wrap, but it’s going to depend on whether your cat likes the taste of the particular product.
There is just one drawback, with hiding pills in treats.
If your cat is on meds for any length of time, it’s very likely that he may start to refuse the pill pockets or even the most tasty goop you can find to wrap around it. Especially if the medication has a strong taste or strong smell, you may find your cat starts to turn up his nose at even his favorite pill pockets after a while…4
Pop it in with a pill gun
For cats who are mouth-sensitive or not fooled by treats, I’ve had a lot of success with a simple (cheap) pet pill gun. Nowadays, in fact, I just go straight for the pill gun if I know that pilling a certain cat is going to be a real battle. Pill guns are also known as pillers or pill poppers, and they work like a charm on uncooperative cats.
This handy tool is basically a syringe with a tulip-cut end on it (ladies, a bit like a plastic tampon applicator but with a solid plunger in it). You put the cat’s medicine into the pill gun, slide the end of the pill gun into the cat’s mouth, then depress the plunger to push out the tablet or capsule. For a difficult cat, this can be very effective.
Remember my cat who clenched his jaw shut and just wouldn’t open his mouth for anything?
A pill gun was perfect for giving meds to that guy, because I could just wiggle the tip of the pill popper into that little space at the corner of his jaw, and if he bit down on it then no harm to my fingers. The pill gun places the pill into the back of the cat’s mouth, at the back of his tongue, just where it needs to be. Then all you’ve got to do is slide the pill gun quickly out of his mouth and hold his mouth closed, rubbing his throat until he swallows, just as you would as if giving the pill by hand.
At one time it was hard to find a pill popper like this in any of my local pet stores, but now all the stores seem to have them in stock. If you are anxious about how far in to push the pill gun into the cat’s mouth, look for a slim pet piller with a soft tip. Sometimes you can get away with using a slightly larger one, made for small dogs, if you put the cat’s meds into a gelatin capsule first and then put the gelatin capsule into the piller. This can also be handy if you need to give more than one pill to your cat, or if you need to cut a tablet in half to give him the correct dose.
It may take one or two tries at first, to get your pill-popping technique down, but soon you’ll wonder how you managed without a pill gun.
So there you have it – four ways to pill a cat.
Which cat-medicating methods have been the most successful for you?