Getting a Cat Used to Taking Medications
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
We try to use as many alternatives to pills or tablets when treating your cat because we all know through our own experience that getting a pill down a cat is a feat of monumental proportions in most cases! Every kitty is different, but we thought we would share some tips that we have learned over the years to try to help get your cat take his or her medication more happily (okay, happily may be a stretch, but at least more willingly J)!
When Introducing the Treat or Pill Pocket Use a Three-Step approach:
1. Start with the promise of something yummy and special by introducing the treat or pill pocket without a pill.
2. Follow the decoy treat or pill pocket with one with the pill hidden inside.
3. Immediately follow the real medicated treat or pill pocket with another treat or pill pocket without any medicine inside.
Giving medications with the three-step approach works better because it is easier to trick your very intelligent cat using decoys! Cats are so smart that if you only give one treat, your cat may be more cautious about taking them, especially if they’ve found hidden pills in the past. The first decoy treat eliminates caution since it is something new and tasty and following up the hidden pill with another treat gets the cat more excited in anticipating the next treat they may get so they eat faster with less hesitation. By being excited about the treats and enjoying medicine-free treats before and after the medicated one, they will be much more likely to dive into eating the one containing the pill (which means they are less likely to discover it).
From a young age, get your cat used to the pilling motion. Part of the fear factor of being pilled is that it is scary to have your face held and head held back. However, if you start doing this with your cat from a young age using just treats then it gives your cat a chance to get used to this awkward handling and lets them start to associate it with something pleasurable. That way, when you have to actually give medication, it’s not such a big deal. To get to being comfortable with the pilling motion, first start to handle your cat around the face and mouth. Reward your cat while you are doing this with lots of happy talk and petting. Also, after you finish touching the face and mouth do something that your cat enjoys, like feeding them their meal of the day or playing with them with a laser or their favorite toy. As your cat gets comfortable with having its face and mouth handled, start working with lifting up slightly on their mouth with your thumb and middle finger, forming a C shape above the cat’s mouth. Immediately give a treat after or place a treat inside the cat’s mouth that’s extremely palatable to the cat that’s small enough it doesn’t need chewed. The goal is for the pilling motion and action to be associated with positive results.
It is also helpful to teach your cat to eat broth (low sodium chicken broth is best) or canned cat food from a syringe or pill gun. You can place liquid or soft treat inside of the syringe or tiny pieces of treat placed inside of the pill gun. Start by smearing a soft treat on the outside of the syringe or pill gun for cats to lick off to get them used to having the syringe or pill gun near their face. Take this process slowly because if your start too aggressively and your cat has a bad experience, they don’t tend to forgive or forget!
Once you have gotten your cat used to a syringe or pill pocket, you want to start working with them to tolerate something a little less yummy, such as a droplet of water from the syringe. When starting this, always follow the drop of water by whatever tasty treat the cat is used to getting. This is a good technique to master because it is sometimes very necessary to follow your cat swallowing a pill with liquid so that the pill doesn’t get stuck in the esophagus.
It is best to start working with your cat at a young age and continuing throughout life, before your cat needs any medication, so if you do have to pill your cat in the future they are familiar and comfortable with the process. If your cat does have a negative experience, even though they do tend to hold a grudge, with some patience you can help them to relearn the process of taking medications. It might mean starting over at the beginning, but you need to find the point at with your cat is still relaxed and enjoys taking the treats or pill pockets and slowly work back up with tons of positive reinforcement to keep the experience positive and stress-free.
Some Tips from the Trenches:
1. Most medications can be given with food, but be sure to pay attention to your label and make sure that the medication you are giving doesn’t have to be given either a certain time before or after meals. If the medication can be given with food, you may be able to find a treat or pill pocket (we recommend the Wonderbars that we have since they are easily molded around the pill) to hid the pill in. Cats are much better at getting their medications out of treats or pill pockets, so be sure that your cat hasn’t just eaten around the pill and be sure to try out different types of treats to find what works best for your cat.
2. If you have successfully found a treat or pill delivery system that works, have precut portions of the treats or the pill pockets ready when you’re ready to administer the medication so you can have easy access and can quickly have another ready since it usually works best to have some treats or pill pockets that don’t contain any medication at all so you will need to have several available.
3. To make your kitty more excited about getting his treat or pill pocket, randomize the number of treats or pieces of pill pockets you give and the order of which ones contain the pill to keep the clever kitty from learning the pilling order and turning her nose up at the treats. If your cat starts to refuse the treats or pill pockets, be sure to give more medicine free treats randomly throughout the day to try to gain back their trust!
4. Whichever hand you use to hide the pill inside the treat, use the other to seal the pill in the food so picky cats can find no trace of medication on the outside part of the food. You can also just wash your hands between hiding the pill and sealing up the treat!
5. Keep the portion size of the treat or pill pocket small enough or soft enough (warming up the treat or pill pocket in your hand often helps soften them) so the cat doesn’t have to chew. If your cat only has to lick and swallow then it decreases the chance of them chewing up the pill and getting a bad taste in their mouth.
6. If your cat does discover the treat and bites into the pill and gets that yucky taste in their mouth, it is important to chase the pill with some low-sodium broth to be sure to get all the pill down and be able to end on a positive note.