How to Give a Cat a Pill—And Actually Get Your Cat to Swallow It

Cats are about as thrilled to take pills as they are to take baths. Yet the time may come when your feline needs medication and neither of you has a choice.

Cats don’t like surprises—especially when the surprise is a human hand prying their mouth open to shove down a nasty-tasting pill. On top of that, your little sweetie might be sick, which could make things even more difficult. And, of course, you don’t want to inflict any additional pain on a sick cat or make an already stressful situation even worse. Luckily, there are a few ways to help the medicine go down smoothly. Here are some veterinarian-approved, claw-ver ways that will help you successfully navigate how to give a cat a pill.

Cats aren’t easily fooled

It’s fairly easy to get dogs to take pills by sneaking them into dog food or treats, but cats are often wise to your tricks. They have fastidious taste buds and can often detect a pill in their food and eat around it—or worse, not eat the food at all. “If you medicate their food, they may never eat that food again, even if it’s not stained with drugs,” says Bernadine Cruz, DVM, a veterinarian in Laguna Hills, California. Instead, ask your veterinarian to show you how to give a cat a pill—but don’t wait until you have a prescription in hand. It’s important to purr-fect your pill-popping skills before there’s even a problem so it’s a lot less stressful when the time comes. Another thing to practice? Transporting your cat to the vet. But before you do, make sure you know how to get your cat in a cat carrier without getting clawed.

Ease into it

You’ll have more success giving a pill or liquid medicine to your cat if you do some role-playing ahead of time. It’s essential for your cat to be comfortable with having its mouth touched and manipulated. “Start by calmly petting your feline. Rub the head and face, and touch the muzzle and lips,” says Dr. Cruz. “If your cat balks, stop, let the cat relax, and try again later.”

But if your cat is loving the affection and is relaxed, it’s all systems go. The next step? Practicing opening your cat’s mouth. “Try popping down a very small piece of dry food,” advises Dr. Cruz. “Practice squirting a very small amount of water with an eyedropper by inserting the dropper behind the fang tooth.” If you think that your cat hates this, wait till you read the full list of things you do that your cat hates.

It’s not always torturous

Good news! There are cats who are totally chill with taking pills. “There can be a wide range of cat behaviors when trying to pill a cat. Some cats are so easy, and some cats are so hard,” says Karen “Doc” Halligan, DVM, a veterinarian who practices at the Marina Veterinary Center in Westchester, California, and the author of Doc Halligan’s What Every Pet Owner Should Know. “You just don’t know until you try. I have pet parents who give their cats pills on a daily basis, so it can be done with love, patience, and sometimes ingenuity!” But before you attempt any strategy, your cat’s nails should be trimmed, so if they do try to scratch, you won’t get hurt. Speaking of nails, here’s how to bathe a cat without getting scratched.

How to give a cat a pill with your own two hands

Approach the situation in a relaxed and positive way. That may be easier said than done, but if you’re nervous, your cat will sense it, says Doc Halligan. One way to make this easier? Swaddling your cat in a soft blanket. It can provide some comfort, as well as keep your cat still. And don’t forget to praise and pet your cat. Next, hold the top of your cat’s head with your non-dominant hand (your left hand if you are right-handed, for example). Your hand can firmly hold the cheekbone area without hurting your cat. Then, Doc Halligan says to tilt the head back, which helps to open the jaw naturally, and use your free hand to drop the pill as far back in the throat as possible. Massage the cat’s throat to encourage swallowing. Some pills require a small amount of water, which can be given with an eye-dropper. Be sure to offer a treat or food and plenty of praise after.

A spoonful of tuna water helps the medicine go down

A spoonful of sugar isn’t going to cut it with your cat, but tuna water might. Before you go this route, ask your vet if the pill can be crushed. If so, once the pill is in powder form, it can be mixed with tuna water or bouillon. Next, says Doc Halligan, put the liquid into the cat’s mouth via a liquid medicine syringe. For pills that can’t be crushed, try wrapping the pill in a small piece of meat or other food your cat craves and give it as a treat. You might also want to butter up your cat before pill day with these 13 strategies to get your cat to like you.

Tailor-made cat pills

If your cat isn’t fooled by your sneaky shenanigans involving tuna or chicken, enlist the help of a veterinary pharmacy to have your finicky feline’s pills compounded. “Compounded medication is a prescription that is filled by a pharmacy licensed to mix the active ingredient (the drug) with a liquid, or condensed into a smaller tablet or capsule,” explains Dr. Cruz. “[It’s] made into a favorable, chewable treat or a transdermal—usually applied to the inside of a pet’s ear.”

How to give a cat a pill with a pill pocket

If you can’t muster the courage to give your cat a pill manually, Doc Halligan says some cats (and pet parents!) really like pill pockets. A pill pocket is a flavored treat with a built-in pocket that holds the pill. Once the pill is inserted, pinch it closed and give it to your cat. Your cat will probably gobble it up, but stick around to make sure she doesn’t spit it out. If she spits it out, take a break and check out these hilarious cat memes before attempting a second dose.

How to give a cat a pill with a cat piller

A cat piller isn’t someone you hire to give your cat a pill, but it is a handy tool for pet parents. Doc Halligan describes it as “a wand with an opening at the end that holds the pill.” Some cat pillers have a dual purpose and can dispense pills or liquid medicine. To try this, hold your cat’s head with your non-dominant hand—with the cat’s ears under your thumb and index finger. With your other hand, use the piller to nudge your cat’s mouth open, just enough to get the piller inside and past the canine teeth. Then, gently push the piller to the back of the mouth, and push the pill by pressing on the plunger. Be sure to follow up with a bit of tuna water or chicken broth to encourage passage down the esophagus. See? With a little practice and patience, getting your cat to take a pill is totally doable. Next, check out how to train your cat to do these 5 life-changing things.

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Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and Realtor.com., among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center. Follow her on Instagram @lisamariewrites4food and Twitter @cornish_conklin.