How to give a cat a pill or tablet – safely.
Using my 35 years of experience as a veterinary nurse, shelter manager, and animal handling trainer, I’m going to explain why cats hate medication, tell you how to work around this, and help you to make the medicine go down!
Did you know cats are way less likely to be poisoned than dogs? That’s because clever cats are suspicious of anything new – including smell and taste. Tablets, pills, and syrups are oral medications that have to be eaten (taken by mouth).
All of these products have a scent and despite the manufacturer’s attempts to improve palatability, generally taste bad. They are going to appear highly unusual to your cat and therefore, something that should be avoided at all costs.
Cats also learn fast and have terrific memories. A particular smell may trigger a recollection of a painful or threatening event. In these circumstances, your cat has three ways to respond: fight, flee or freeze.
If your cat has been forced into a carrier, taken on a bumpy car journey to the vets, sat in a waiting room full of noisy dogs, and then had a tablet forced down its throat, as soon as it smells anything vaguely resembling anything in that experience, it will respond accordingly – scratch, bite, run or hide.
In an ideal world, we would prevent negative events from happening in the first place. If we did this, we could end up with kittens that would quite readily enter their carrier, enjoy a trip in the car, take their medications happily, and enjoy being groomed. The technique used to develop this behaviour is referred to as fear-free handling.
I would highly recommend any new kitten owner, breeder, shelter worker, or cat rescue to look into this further. If however, you have an adult cat, who has already experienced ‘treatment trauma’, but needs essential medication, my first piece of advice is about slow reintroduction.
Capsules, tablets, powders, granules, liquids – there are many types of oral medications. Speak to your veterinary professionals about the options you have. Can the medication can be split, crushed, or mixed with food? This can be particularly useful but don’t make assumptions.
Splitting or crushing some medications (especially coated types) can be harmful if done incorrectly and in doing so, may actually increase the smell or bad taste experienced by your cat. Some medications must be given with food whilst others work best on an empty stomach.
First things first
Once you know how the medicine can be presented, let your cat have a gentle whiff of it whilst associating it with something pleasant. This could be as simple as having the medication nearby when you are playing or relaxing with your cat or, if safe to do so, leave the medication near to your cat’s food or treats.
Do this over a period of time. The aim is to build familiarity without fear. If you’re lucky, your cat may eat the medicine as if it were part of its regular meal. You’ll be surprised how often this works.
If the medication is left untouched, my next suggestion is concealment. There is a limit to a cat’s near vision so this is less about your cat seeing the medication and more about their ability to smell it. Cat’s olfactory organs are much better than ours so although we may not be able to perceive any scent from a tablet, to your cat, it may smell highly pungent.
Our aim is to overpower the medicinal smell with something much stronger. Every cat differs in what it finds most tasty from pilchards in tomato sauce to roast chicken. There are also specific ‘treat’ like products designed to hide the tablets in. Whatever their favourite, lightly heating this concealer food will increase its aroma helping to disguise that of the medication. Makeup five tiny servings.
Only the fourth needs to have the medication inside. Offer the first helping to your cat when you know that it’s very hungry. If it eats it, continue with servings 2, 3, and 4 (medicated) following up quickly with the fifth.
Top tip: Insert the medication into the warmed food using tweezers being very careful not to leave any tablet residue on the surface of the serving!
Was everything eaten except for the tablet? The issue here could be the taste. In these instances, you may have the option to change the format of the tablet to a capsule. With the approval of your vet, empty gelatin capsules may be bought, the two halves pulled apart, medication inserted, and then the capsule put back together.
Thinking back to my first point, a gelatine capsule suddenly appearing could well be something new that your cat will wish to avoid so start with empty capsules until you know that these are being eaten.
How to use a Wrapsio
Still no luck? Then the medication will have to be given by hand. For a calm and safe method, it’s best to have two people present. One person to gently swaddle the cat and the other to give the medication.
Wrapsio Cat Wraps are specifically designed for this purpose and not only help calm your cat but also provide certified protection from paws and claws. Also referred to as a Purrito, encasing your cat within this cozy but slash-resistant Pro-Tex fabric keeps your cat still and much safer. Make sure that you have everything to hand so that the whole process can be carried out quickly, efficiently and without fuss.
A feline calming pheromone or valerian can be sprayed onto the Wrapsio 15 minutes before use. Check that you have your cat’s correct medication and dose. Smear the tablet or capsule with a little lubricant like butter to help it to slide down your cat’s tongue and throat.
With the Wrapsio on your lap and the cat on top, slowly swaddle so that your cat is completely covered with only its head exposed. The legs and body should be tucked within the Wrap with a gentle but firm hold.
The person giving the medication should sit to the side of the cat (less intimidating for the cat) and place their hand over the top of the cat’s head. The thumb and forefinger extend downwards to either side of the jaw to the corner of the cat’s mouth whilst gently tilting the head upwards.
With their free hand, they should hold the tablet between their thumb and forefinger and use the middle finger to pull down the cat’s lower jaw to open its mouth. Drop the tablet as far back on your cat’s tongue as you can and then immediately gently close the jaws and rub the cat’s throat to encourage swallowing.
If the cat licks its nose, the medication has likely gone down however, it’s important to continue to observe for a moment or two just to confirm that nothing is subsequently spat out! Finally, praise the cat and slowly unfold the Wrapsio and release the cat immediately offering a treat.
Top tip: A dab of water to the cat’s nose can stimulate it to swallow.
Clever cats will start to make a link between the medication, the tablet giver, Wrapsio, and any other paraphernalia needed to give treatments. To help maintain positive associations, use the Wrapsio as your cat’s everyday bedding where treats and other goodies can occasionally be found by your cat.
It’s sensible to keep medicines contained safely but rather than bringing the whole ‘medicine box’ into the room, only bring the individual items. Remember that although your cat may be somewhat perturbed immediately after medicating, getting them doing something that they enjoy soon after will help restore their natural state and maintain your important bond with them.
Always try for a means of medication that requires the least physical intervention first. Some people mistakenly believe that their cat would never eat a tablet of its own accord so never try. If you have a cat that is on long-term treatment, it’s certainly worth trying the non-evasive techniques over several days. You might just get lucky!
This is my first blog on this topic. What do you think? Do you have a top tip that I’ve missed? Let me know. Or maybe you know someone that could benefit from this information – if so, then please share!