Administering oral medications to cats can be difficult for many pet owners. Whether it is a pill, capsule, or liquid, most cats will give at least some degree of resistance whenever anyone tries to put the medication into the cats’ mouths. Understanding how to medicate your cat successfully is important, because the effectiveness of the treatment depends on that medication getting in your cat’s system! If you have a cat who is difficult to medicate, do not despair. Read below for our suggestions on how to get your cat to take the medication more easily.
First – prepare ahead of time! If you have a kitten, then right from the beginning, train your kitten to allow you to gently handle the head, face, and mouth. This could simply involve rubbing the head and cheeks while offering praise for acceptance. Additionally, if you start brushing your kitten’s teeth early and keep up the routine, you are also training him or her to accept you working around the face and mouth. If your kitten is resistant to face and mouth handling, then go slowly and use lots of praise and treats to reward the desired behavior. These steps are helpful for the future should you ever need to give your cat an oral medication. Since your cat will be accustomed to handling around the head and mouth, he or she could be more tolerant to taking oral medications.
Another way to prepare your cat is to feed meals instead of allowing free-choice feeding. Training your cat to expect a meal twice daily will mean you have some things on your side if the time ever comes that your cat needs to take an oral medication:
1. Many medications should be given with a meal. If your cat eats throughout the day, it could be more difficult to ensure the cat takes a full meal at the time the medication is administered. However, if the cat is instead on a meal schedule, you can be sure your cat ate the meal when the medication was given.
2. Food can be used to your advantage for medicating your cat! We will talk more about this below.
Now, if or when the time comes for you to administer an oral medication, your success will increase if you can find a way for your cat to take the medication on his or her own. This typically means using food to your advantage. One of the best ways to time the administration of oral medications is to give the medication at the beginning of mealtime, before you put the entire meal out. Your cat will be more likely to be hungry, and therefore he or she could readily accept food or treats offered. Some cats are so food motivated they will take treats that have pills hidden inside. There are specially formulated treats that are soft and have a hole in the middle to insert the pill. Once inserted, you simply scrunch or smooth the treat around the pill and then offer the treat to your cat. You can also try hiding the pill in a small amount of a very tasty canned food, deli chicken, tuna, or salmon wrapped around the pill, or a small portion of something like cream cheese, yogurt, etc. If your cat has special dietary restrictions or needs, be sure to talk with your veterinarian about other super tasty treat ideas that would work for your individual cat. Some liquid medications can also successfully be administered by mixing them with a small amount of a tasty item. The key for any oral medication is that you put the tasty item with the medication out first – while your cat is hungry – so he or she is more likely to eat it without realizing the medication was inside. If you hide the medication in the entire meal, your cat is more likely to eat around the medication.
Sometimes, the food may not work to mask the medication. In that case, here are some other strategies to consider:
1. Administer the pill directly: You may have to try a few positions to see what works best for your cat. Placing the cat on a raised surface with a corner wall behind them can keep them from backing away as you come from the front to open their mouth. Some cats do well in their owner’s lap, but others may scratch your legs trying to get away. Wrapping your cat in a towel with only the head exposed can also help hold them still briefly. Use your non-dominant hand to lift the head gently and open the mouth from the top. Use your dominant hand to quickly place the pill at the very back of the tongue. This method certainly comes with the risk of being bitten. Furthermore, you want to “get it right” the first time if at all possible by putting the pill as far back on the tongue as you can so the swallowing reflex is triggered. Otherwise, that pill will come right back out! While this is disappointing because it means you have to try again, it also makes your cat even more wary about what is about to happen – which could increase their anger or defensive mechanisms.
2. Utilize a pilling device: These can be purchased online or from pet stores. They are helpful because they keep your fingers out of the cat’s mouth. They can be cumbersome to use sometimes, especially if the pill keeps falling out of the pilling device.
*Note that if you are administering the pill directly (either with your hand or a pilling device), it is always best to wash the medication down so it does not get stuck in the esophagus. You can either encourage your cat to eat something immediately after administration, or you can use a syringe and administer a few milliliters of water to your cat.
3. Liquids: Often owners have success with placing the syringe or dropper at the corner of the mouth and squirting the medication into the mouth. Depending on the volume of liquid, you may need to find a pace of administration that is quick enough for your cat to tolerate, but still long enough to allow your cat time to swallow and not just spit it out. Also, use caution and don’t squirt it all at the back of the throat – this could cause your cat to cough or even inhale some of the medication.
4. Different Formulation: Ask your veterinarian if there is a different formulation of the medication that you could try. For example, if you are unsuccessful with a pill, is there a liquid, injectable, or transdermal formulation available? Or is there a formulation with a different flavor?
5. Ask Us For Help: Our veterinary team is also available to assist if needed. You can schedule an appointment to bring your cat in for medication administration if all of these other tactics fail.
Once you have administered the medication to your cat (either in food, or directly), it is also very important to watch and make sure your cat does not spit the pill out. Remember, if your cat has been prescribed an oral medication, then your cat’s veterinarian feels it is important. We want you to have success in getting the medication into your cat! If you have any problems, questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact our team for help!
Author: Dr. Clarissa Noureddine, DVM, MS, MS