How to Give a Cat a Pill: Expert Tips and Tricks
This article was created in partnership with Ingrid Johnson, paid consultant for Covetrus.
It can be done. You can give your cat a pill! In fact, cats can learn to willingly take their medications. Even if they require pilling, it can be done in a way that keeps them coming back for more rather than running under the bed. Medicating cats can even be fun and positive (it’s true!).
Before You Give a Cat a Pill: What You’ll Need
Before giving your cat a pill, make sure you have everything you need within arm’s reach, including:
- An oral syringe
- A favorite wet food reserved for special treat time
- Your cat’s medication
- Pill popper for cats (optional)
- A towel or blanket (optional)
You might be wondering why you’d need a syringe if you’re giving a cat a pill. If your cat’s medication can be given with food, a syringe filled with an irresistible treat can help your cat swallow the pill more easily and serve as a reward for a job well done!
How to Give a Cat a Pill: The Cheekbone Technique
Tools like cat pill poppers can be helpful for medicating a cat. You can also gently wrap your cat in a towel before giving a pill if it makes them feel more secure. But if you have the cat positioned correctly, all you may need is the pill, your fingers, and some yummy food (if allowed).
The Cheekbone Technique allows you to control your cat’s top and bottom jaw simultaneously, which decreases your chances of being bitten. Here’s how to give cats pills using this technique:
Step 1: Position your cat on a tabletop or your lap so that they are facing away from you. Their backside and spine should be up against your belly.
Step 2: Use your non-dominant hand to find your cat’s cheekbones with your thumb and index finger. These two fingers should create a crescent shape in front of your cat’s ears. The remaining fingers should fan out and cradle the back of the head.
Step 3: Tilt your cat’s head back so their nose points toward the ceiling. In most cases, their lower jaw will drop/fall loose.
Step 4: Hold the pill between the thumb and index finger of your dominant hand. Then use your middle finger to pry your cat’s bottom jaw down, placing your finger on the incisor teeth between the lower canines.
Step 5: Place the pill at the very back of your cat’s throat where you can appreciate the center groove of the tongue. Poke the pill down. (Your finger should be wet with saliva from the back of the throat if you have done this correctly.)
Step 6: Use your dominant hand to squeeze some food from the syringe into your cat’s mouth to chase the pill. If your cat prefers, allow them to simply lap the food from the syringe, eat a dollop of food from a plate, or eat some tasty treats. (If food is not allowed, ask your veterinarian whether it’s OK to give your cat a drink of water after.)
Important note: DO NOT use hairball remedies to chase medications. These products are designed to bind and escort and will affect the absorption of the medications!
How to Get a Cat to Take a Pill on Their Own
Some cats can be trained (or rather guided) to take a pill on their own with a little blob of delicious food on top. Here are a few particulars to keep in mind to ensure success:
- Start with a textured surface. You MUST use a bathmat, towel, washcloth, rug, carpet, cat condo pile, etc., or this will not work in most cases.
- Place the pill/capsule on the textured surface.
- Squirt high-value, yummy food on the pill/capsule as if you were putting ketchup on a hot dog.
- Your cats will go to eat it, get it stuck on the barbs on their tongue, and swallow the pill.
- If they spit out the pill/capsule, quickly repeat the steps above until they take it.
If you need to give your cat more than one type of pill, ask your veterinarian if they dispense empty gel capsules that can fit multiple medications inside of them. A capsule can help disguise the bitter taste as well as the jagged cut edges of a yucky pill.
If Your Cat Still Won’t Eat a Pill
If need be, speak with your veterinarian or look for a qualified behaviorist or trainer to help you with training your cat. Some cats can even be clicker trained to accept the handling required for medicating and many other procedures.
Your cat is depending on you to help them live their best life, and that often includes giving medication to help them stay healthy and treat any chronic medical conditions that may arise in their life.
If you have tried these medicating tips and still find it difficult to give a pill to your cat, there are alternative dose forms made by compounding pharmacies that you might find helpful. Compounded medications are unique forms of medications that your veterinarian may prescribe when no commercially available form of medication can meet the unique dosing needs of your pet, or if your cat needs a special form of medication to help you be more successful administering. For example, if you cannot administer a pill to your cat, your veterinarian may prescribe a liquid version or seafood flavored soft chew—both of which are pet-friendly dose forms to make medication time a stress-free experience.
Another dose form that some pharmacies may carry are Mini-Melt tablets. They are easy to pill because they don’t taste bad, easy to mix in food because they are dissolvable, and easy to dissolve in water, tuna juice, clam juice, chicken broth, etc., and turn into a liquid medication. It is nice to have one pill with so many options and versatility!
Because all cats are different, your veterinarian will recommend a customized dose form that works best for your pet. Some pharmacies may offer a variety of different personalized and pet-friendly dose forms and flavors, so speak with your veterinarian if you feel there might be a better option for your cat.
Giving a Cat a Pill: Troubleshooting Tips
If your cat is one of those pets who run under the bed when they hear the pills in the bottle, it’s time to change up the routine. We have conditioned (trained) our cats to come when they hear the crinkle of a treat bag or the pop of a can of food, and we can use similar tactics with medications.
Here are a few useful tips:
- Change the vessel where you store the meds. Put the pills in a sandwich baggie, for example, so your cats no longer hear the sound they have come to associate with a hideous medicating experience.
- Store medications and food rewards in a convenient and safe location where you often spend time with your cat. This way, they are convenient and available whenever your cat comes to hang out with you, and you can lessen the “production.”
- Change the location or time of day you usually medicate.
- If your cat has developed a negative association with the sound of meds time, counter-conditioning training can be used to build their trust back up. Pair the sound they fear, very far away and at a low volume, with something they cannot resist. Slowly, over time, increase the volume of the noise and bring it closer to them, all the while constantly rewarding them for not running away or seeming scared. The goal would be for them to hear the pills rattling in the vial and come running as if it were that crinkly bag of treats!
Remember that prevention is the best medicine. Even if your cat does not need any medications right now, start training them immediately so you are ready when the time comes!
1. Leib, M.S., DVM, MS, DACVIM. Doxycyline esophagitis/stricture in cats. North American Veterinary conference, 2005 proceedings, Virginia Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.
Ingrid Johnson is a certified cat behavior consultant for Fundamentally Feline in Atlanta, Ga.