As a last resort for getting their cat to take a pill, some owners will physically pry open their pet’s mouth with their fingers. The head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, thinks that’s a bad idea.
“If you resort to the jaws-of-life approach,” she says, “you’re fraying the bond.”
Moreoever, “pilling a cat forcefully is dangerous,” Dr. Borns-Weil points out. “Cats may be injured in the process if the owner is accidentally too rough. And there is a risk that the owner will get bitten. You can get away with it once or twice, but then, often, no. Cats are still close to their wild ancestors, and it’s hard to get them to do anything they don’t want to do. And a cat bite can be a serious medical issue. With their very sharp teeth, it’s like getting an injection of bacteria in a penetrating wound. If anybody gets a cat bite I recommend they talk to their physician immediately.”
So if your cat needs medicine in pill form and won’t take it willingly, what can you do? After all, even Dr. Borns-Weil concedes that getting a cat to take her pill is “a hugely vexing problem.” Fortunately, there are solutions.
Tricks of the cat-pilling trade
One or more of these tactics will help “convince” your feline to swallow her medicine.
Wet food works wonders. “One of the easiest ways to get a pill into an unwilling cat is to mix it in with wet food,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “Wet food, being relatively smelly, covers the odor of a pill better than dry kibble,” she points out. “It’s also easier to mix a pill into wet food than dry kibble,” she says.
When treats entice. Not all cats care about food treats, but if yours is one who does, you can put a pill in an edible pill pocket designed just for cats, such as Feline Greenies Pill Pockets. Treats like these, easy to find at the store, have a little built-in pouch that holds a capsule or tablet. Even a soft food of your choosing that you can wrap around a pill (like a small piece of cheese) can work for a treat-loving cat.
Compounding pharmacy. If your cat won’t take a pill voluntarily, even if it’s put into wet food or a pill pocket, you can go to a compounding pharmacy. This type of pharmacy can put the active ingredient(s) of the pill into a liquid that has a fish flavor, which cats generally like. Some also use chicken or beef flavor, or malt. “Cats seem to like malt,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. All you have to do is add the liquid to your pet’s food. Many find it quite tolerable.
In some cases, a compounding pharmacy will compound the medicine into soft treats so that the cat takes the drug as a treat rather than inserted into the pocket of one.
Transdermal options. If a cat is not going to take medication by mouth, no matter how deliciously disguised, you might be able to get it in transdermal form, which is to say you can get it in a form that reaches the inside of your pet’s body simply by rubbing it on her ear. Methimazole for hyperthyroidism is one drug that can be administered transdermally. Not all medicines will cross the skin barrier, but it’s worth asking your veterinarian.
Injections. Some cats mind injections less than they mind pills. “They find getting near their mouths so invasive,” Dr. Borns-Weil says, “especially if it’s two or more times a day.” And one injection might take the place of many days’ worth of pills. This is the case for certain antibiotics, such as Convenia. “The vet gives a single injection that is two weeks’ worth of pills,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “It’s worth asking about.”
A veterinarian might not offer an injection, transdermal option, or compounded version of a medicine on her own because she wants to politely prescribe the form of a drug that will cost the least money. But if you tell the vet that your cat has a hard time accepting medication, Dr. Borns-Weil comments, she will let you know if there are alternatives to pills.