Take Your Medicine

Here’s how to get your cat to swallow her pill without turning it into a battle.


Few words fill cat owners with more dread than “She needs a daily pill.” Not always the most compliant companions, cats spit pills out. They run from the room when the vial of pills appears. They refuse to open their mouths.

Some owners give up — a bad idea because if a veterinarian prescribes a drug, it means the cat needs it to recover from an illness, or she needs it to keep a disease from progressing. Too many cats experience medical setbacks because their “parents” give up trying to get them to cooperate.

Other owners resort to the “jaws of life” approach, working to pry open their pet’s mouth with their fingers. That only frays the bond between a person and her cat, and it also puts the owner at risk of being bitten and ending up with an infection-laden wound that requires antibiotics.

Neither solution is necessary. There are plenty of ways to help a cat accept medication willingly.

Does it have to be in pill form?

If your cat is pill-averse, ask your veterinarian if the medicine comes in another form. Often, a compounding pharmacy can put the active ingredient(s) of a pill into a liquid that is flavored like fish. Some also use chicken or beef flavor, or even malt, which many cats seem to like. Then all you have to do is add the liquid to your cat’s food. Many tolerate it quite well.

Sometimes, a pharmacy can compound the medicine as a soft treat. What wouldn’t have been accepted as a pill can now be enjoyed as a snack.

Another option might be to apply the medicine transdermally, meaning it reaches the inside of your cat’s body simply by being rubbed on her ear. A drug for hyperthyroidism, methimazole, can be administered that way. Not all medicines will cross the skin barrier, but it’s worth asking the vet.

Yet another non-pill possibility comes in the form of injections, which many cats would prefer to someone getting near their mouth. An added bonus is that sometimes one injection can take the place of many days of pills. In the case of certain antibiotics, a single injection replaces two weeks of daily pills. It’s worth finding out if that’s an option if your cat is a staunch pill rejecter.

Note that the liquid, transdermal, or injectable form of a medicine might be more expensive than the same drug in pill form, and out of respect for your pocketbook, a veterinarian might not offer it up front. But if you tell the doctor your cat has a hard time with pills, she should gladly let you know if there are alternatives.

If it must be a pill

Sometimes there is no choice for a cat other than to swallow a drug in pill form. If that’s the case, there are a number of ways to make that more acceptable to her.

  • Mix the pill into wet food. Wet food has a stronger scent than dry kibble and may cover the pill’s odor much better.
  • Ask if you can grind up the pill into your cat’s food. Some pills have to be swallowed whole to be properly absorbed and assimilated by the body, but there are certain pills that can be mashed to bits and hidden in food.
  • Try edible pill pockets. Some cats will accept their pills in little treats that are essentially pouches. The pouches envelop the pill and thereby disguise its taste while it is being swallowed.
  • Coat the pills in butter. This might work especially well if your cat gets, say, half a pill at a time. She might find the pill “dust” on the side that was split very bitter, and the butter contains the dust as well as masks its flavor and odor.
  • See if a pill shooter will work. A little plastic plunger, a pill shooter sends the pill immediately past the tongue and to the back of the mouth. That keeps the cat from tasting it.

You can also make pill time fun time. Give your cat a wonderful treat that she really enjoys, then another one, then the pill, and then a final treat. It’s a form of counter-conditioning. She will learn that when she opens her mouth for you, good things happen — mostly — and that three out of four times is worth the compromise. (If the cat has to take the pill for the rest of her life, be sure to adjust portions of food at meal time so that the treats don’t make her overweight.)

To make it go even more smoothly, don’t chase the cat to go through the ritual. Wait until she comes over to you. Most cats demand some attention at certain points throughout the day, and if you let her choose the moment, she will feel more comfortable. She may even start to come to you because she wants the treat-pill-treat sequence.

If Your Cat Starts Refusing the Pill Out of Nowhere

Sometimes a cat has been accepting her medicine just fine, and then bam, one day she simply starts refusing it. Why?

It’s often because she tasted it on the last try, says the head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. If you have always wrapped it in a piece of cheese, for instance, she may have inadvertently bitten through the cheese and into the pill.

The solution is to create a new ritual. Your pet is no longer going to trust the old one.

It can be as simple as changing the type of cheese, or switching to very thinly sliced meat, or going to an edible pill pocket. Whatever new routine you and the cat settle on, keep it predictable. Cats don’t enjoy surprises.


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