How to Give Medicine to a Cat—Even Skittish Ones

“How can I get my cat to take medicine?”

In this article:

Examining the Problem

When you bring a cat into your life, it’s pretty inevitable that at some point kitty will need some medicine. Unfortunately, giving cats medicine is much more easily said than done. How are you supposed to get the cat to take the medicine they need?

When one of our cats is given medicine at the vet, the vet tech always takes them back into the mysterious regions of the vet office that we never get to see. Apparently our fur babies put up less of a fuss when we’re not in the room, so administering medicine to your cat goes more smoothly out of sight. In no time, the vet tech returns with our kitty, who is looking a bit wide-eyed but otherwise unscathed. At that point I’m given some brisk instructions on medicine dose and frequency, and ushered out to the lobby to check out.

So now I’m home, and I have a sick cat, a bottle of medicine, and a pit in my stomach. Obviously, the most important thing is getting the medicine into my cat. After all, it was prescribed for a reason. But even knowing this, I dread having to do it. Part of the reason is that sometimes I end up with a few painful scratches. But by far the biggest reason I don’t want to give medicine is that I don’t want to upset my cat. As hard as it is on us, it can be harder on them. They run away and hide if I even think about giving them medicine. I swear, they must be psychic.

So, what’s a cat guardian to do?

After several frustrating experiences, I finally remembered to ask for advice during my appointment with the vet. Luckily, the doctor was more than happy to share some techniques for giving medicine to a cat, and over the years, I’ve collected more advice and experience. But first, some tips before you begin. These are a combination of our experience over 35 years as cat guardians and guidance from our vets.

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Tips Before You Begin

  1. Ask a friend or family member to help. If there is someone your cat trusts, ask them to help. An extra set of hands will make things go much more smoothly.
  2. Plan ahead. What position will your cat be in? Which hand will you use to hold the cat, and which to hold the medicine? If someone is helping, make sure each of you knows your job in the process.
  3. Lay out materials before you begin. You don’t want to get your cat into position and then find that the medicine dropper is just out of reach.
  4. Remain calm. Your cat is very tuned into your emotions. If you or your helper are anxious, it will increase your cat’s anxiety.
  5. Wait until your cat is sleepy. If you can manage to give medicine after gently waking your pet from a nap, the cat will be in a mellow mood. You might even be able to slip it in before your cat knows what’s happening. Conversely, avoid giving medicine when your cat is revved up from playing, or kitty will start the process with a lot of adrenaline on board.
  6. Give plenty of praise. Your cat responds well to reassurance and praise, so be sure to give loving words of encouragement both before and after.
  7. Notice what medicine got in and what didn’t. If your cat spits out some of the medicine, it’s a good idea to call it good and not give any more until it’s time for the next dose. The exception to this is if you’re quite sure kitty didn’t get any medicine at all.
  8. Have a few treats ready. Giving your cat a treat before and after the process will add some positive associations. Our cats won’t eat treats (weird, right?), so we use a little canned food.
  9. Know when you need something more. If you’re pretty sure your cat is going to be a real struggle, or if giving medicine is going to be a long-term part of life, you might want to get an inexpensive cat-wrap specially designed to keep a cat comfortable but unable to claw. Being compassionately restrained makes cats less anxious, because if fighting isn’t an option, they can relax and trust.

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Your cat will be able to manage liquids much more easily if they have an appealing flavor. Liquid medicine from your vet is unlikely to be flavored, but if you ask, they can prescribe the medicine to be filled by a compounding pharmacist that can handle more specialized ways of producing medication. A liquid medication that is flavored is worth its weight in gold, so we highly recommend asking your vet for a flavored liquid.

While some people find that cats will accept a flavored liquid mixed into their wet food, we have a cat who would rather starve than eat food with medicine in it. If you do want to go that route, be sure to use only a small amount of food. If you use too much and the cat doesn’t finish the food, you won’t know how much medicine your cat ingested.

Here are some vet-approved techniques for administering liquid medicine to your cat directly into the mouth. Each video has a different helpful take on the procedure. And all of them show how to medicate your cat without another person helping, so if you do have an assistant, it will be even easier to give the medicine.

Notice the differences in preparation, how to handle the medicine, how the cat is held, and how to encourage the cat to swallow. Some differences relate to how difficult the cat is to medicate, but some show handy tips that the others don’t, so we recommend watching them all.

The “Aloof, But If There’s Food Involved, I’ll Tolerate It” Cat

This one has the relevant information beginning at about 1 minute in.

The “I’d really Rather Not” Cat

The “Oh, Heck No” Cat

Finally, if you have a cat that really, really objects, you need to make what we call a “cat burrito.” It’s not always as hard to pull off as it is in this video, but we thought it would be good to show the high end of difficulty and how you can still accomplish your goal.

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Now if you’re lucky, your cat is so into treats that you can hide the pill inside a “pill pocket.” If you’ve never heard of these wonderful smooshy lifesavers, you need to try them. They come in salmon/tuna and chicken. They have the consistency of playdoh, so you just smoosh them around the pill, give the treat to your cat, and hope for the best. If your cat isn’t into treats or is talented enough to eat the yummy goodness and not the pill, then read on.

There are some weird “how to pill a cat” videos out there. I found one with a vet who said he was going to use his own saliva to help the cat swallow a pill. Yikes. I’m going to go ahead and assume you don’t want to drool into your cat’s mouth (which was, in fact, his advice). My point is that you can’t trust some instructional videos, even if they purport to be made by a vet. We’ve carefully chosen the videos presented here, and all techniques are vet approved.

Pills are more difficult than liquids, because pills are both harder to swallow and easier to spit out. You have to make sure the pill goes into the mouth behind the hump in the cat’s tongue. While you can manage this using your fingers, it’s much easier for both you and the cat if you use an inexpensive tool variously called a  pet piller, pill pusher, pill giver, pill gun, pill shooter…you get the idea. It’s sort of like a syringe, only instead of squirting a liquid, it pops a pill off the end and into the back of your cat’s mouth. You have to get the end of it into the back of your cat’s mouth, of course, but it’s skinnier than your finger and doesn’t mind being bitten. Be sure to get a small one with a soft rubber tip, because the ones that only say they’re good for dogs might be too large, and a plastic tip will be hard on your cat’s delicate mouth.

On to the videos. This first video is by a vet who has given his cat a pill every morning for years, so the vet is highly skilled, and the cat is used to the process. That said, the vet is an excellent teacher and very clear,  explaining and demonstrating his method several times. Even if you plan to have someone help you with the cat, we highly recommend this first video for the valuable information on how to get a cat to open its mouth simply by tipping its head back.

One-Person Technique


Two-Person Technique

This second video shows how to give a pill if you’re fortunate enough to have a helper. It demonstrates how to hold a cat without a towel, and with a towel, and it uses a “piller” or “pill giver.”  The title says this is for a difficult cat. The cat in the video clearly is not a difficult cat, but the technique is a good one for any kind of cat, including kitties who have a hard time tolerating pills. The relevant part starts at about 25 seconds in.

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Eye Drops or Eye Ointment

This video is excellent. Note especially:

  • The specialist gives a list of items needed, including a dampened cotton ball to clear any discharge from the eyes before medicating, and another to wipe away excess medicine after application.
  • The cat she is using to model the process is quite docile, but she demonstrates how to wrap the cat in a towel if needed.
  • She doesn’t actually apply ointment to the eyes, but does demonstrate the subtle motion of the tube applicator so that a short strip of ointment (not a blob) should be applied.
  • She emphasizes that the tube or medicine dropper should never touch the eye.

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Ear Medication

This video is excellent. Be sure to watch it all, and don’t skip past the beginning which has some important points. I list them here, but the visual is important.

  • Warm the medicine in your hands for a minute before applying.
  • The ear anatomy is significant in application technique.
  • Have cotton balls ready to wipe away excess medicine from ear and side of face, avoiding pushing it into the ear.
  • Only use treatments prescribed by a vet, and don’t use the medicine on more than one pet.
  • Position the cat so that its “bum” is against a wall or your lap so it can’t back up.

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In Conclusion

We have taken an in-depth look at the best practices for giving medicine to cats. Though the medicine types vary, most things are universal. Let’s go over the basics for giving medicine, regardless of type.

Preparing your materials

  • Confirm the dose to be given by consulting your vet’s directions and/or the directions on the medicine container.
  • Set out everything you will need in advance, in a place that will be easily reached once your cat is in position. If administering a liquid, measure the appropriate amount and set the syringe or dropper within easy reach. If giving a pill, take it from the pill bottle in advance and place it in easy reach. If giving eye or ear treatment, set the tube, dropper, or squirt bottle within easy reach. If giving ear medicine, also have cotton balls in reach, two dampened and two dry.
  • Prepare treats or wet food to be given before and after you give the medicine.

Preparing yourself and your helper, if you have one.

  • Relax.

Holding Your Cat

  • Hold your cat firmly but as gently as possible.
  • Position your cat so that their bum is against something like your stomach or a wall, so that they can’t back up.
  • If your cat is likely to move, hold her against your side or between your legs.
  • If your cat is likely to struggle or lash out, wrap him in a towel by setting your cat onto a spread towel and then wrapping the towel securely, leaving only the head exposed.

The ways to hold your cat when administering medicine depend upon how agreeable your cat will be to receiving their medicine.

We hope you’d found this overview of how to give medicine to a cat helpful. As always, consult your vet for specific recommendations and to answer any questions. We wish you and your pet all the best as you give them the medicine they need.

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