How to give a cat a pill (part 10)

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Give your cat a tablet or pill, an invaluable skill that will make life easier for both you and your cat.

There will be times throughout your cat's life when you will have to give him medication. The likelihood is that this will be some form of regular preventative medication such as flea and worming treatments, as well as unplanned-for medication as a result of injury or illness.

Giving your cat medication does not need to be stressful for you or your cat. You can help prepare your cat for this process by undertaking simple training steps regularly.

You may ask why you should spend time training if you can just hide a tablet in food or physically hold your cat. Often we find that these tricks only work temporarily, after which time most cats will catch on and manage to eat all of the food and spit out the tablet, or begin to increasingly struggle during restraint. Thus, teaching your cat to accept medication through fun and games can be an invaluable lifetime tool.

Oral medications

One way of giving your cat medication that he needs to swallow is to use a syringe - this allows you to feed liquids or powdered pills easily. Some capsules can be opened and the content mixed with food or liquid and fed via a syringe too. However, we would always recommend seeking advice from your vet before manipulating any of your cat's medication.

The first step is to teach your cat to happily accept liquids and soft solids from a syringe. This may be easier with kittens and younger cats. If you have a cat that has had previous negative experiences with a syringe then it may take slightly longer to change the already-present association he has in his mind of syringes. However, with regular practice this should be achievable.

We would suggest you start by placing something tasty into a small syringe, such as the gravy from your cat's usual meat (if fed wet food) mixed with a little water. If your cat is only fed dry food, offer a little meat paste loosened with a small amount of water. Present this in front of your cat (about 15cm away) and allow him to investigate at his own pace. If you see him investigating or licking, praise him. You can even reward him with a different type of treat or whatever your cat likes best - a game with a toy or fuss and praise, for example.

Do not press the syringe plunger and squirt out more meaty mixture while your cat is licking or sniffing the syringe at this point, as the pressure of food coming out can be off-putting. Instead, move the syringe away after your cat has had a lick, then press the plunger a little and present the syringe again.

Once your cat is confident with this, start to slowly apply pressure on the plunger so a little more food comes out while he is still licking (be careful not to scare him, so be very slow). If you practise this exercise before a mealtime, it will create an environment that will help set your cat up for success.

Keep the sessions short so that you finish leaving your cat wanting more, rather than ending because he has become fed up and left!

Adding texture or taste

The next step is to start adding a different texture or taste to the mixture in the syringe. We would suggest that you start with a different taste to the one you have been using to get your cat accustomed to licking the syringe. Try gravy from a wet cat food sachet with a different flavour or a different type of meat or fish paste.

The goal is for your cat to happily accept the substance in the syringe, even if it is only a very small amount to start with. You can offer your cat a favourite treat or another reward, only after he has accepted some of the substance in the syringe first.

Over time, see if he will take more of this substance before he receives his chosen reward (for example, a solid food treat or game with a toy). Remember, some cats enjoy attention, praise and petting as a reward so you should limit how much of this you give him during a training session to reward him once he has accepted some of the substance from the syringe.

It's a good idea to also teach your cat to take liquids, adding this training to your daily routine. Add more water to give the meaty mixture a more liquid texture. Remember, short and frequent training sessions work best.

Don't wait until you need to give your cat medication before you start training; begin today so that you are prepared when your cat next needs oral medication.

Learning to pop a pill

If your vet advises that the medication you have is not suitable for crushing and placing in a syringe with a liquidised food, your cat will need to accept it whole. Again, with a few simple steps, you can prepare your cat for this too.

Choose a time to begin training when your cat is relaxed and resting. Your first training goal is to be able to place one hand around your cat's head, with your thumb and index finger placed either side of his lips. This position is required to open your cat's mouth so you can place a pill inside.

If you have followed our series on training so far, you may have a cat who has learnt to relax on a mat. If so, you can practise this exercise on the mat. Your cat should know that the mat brings rewards if he is relaxed on it and thus there will be lots of positive associations already in your cat's mind.

Cats display varying tolerance to being touched so approach this first goal with steps that you think are appropriate for your own cat. If he does not like to be touched, start with the aim of simply touching the top of your cat's head while he stays calm, and then reward. If your cat is used to being touched on the head area and enjoys it, your first step can be a little further on - placing the hand over the top of the head, for example.

If your cat is ready to move on, then in the next step you want to introduce a finger from your other hand gently touching his lower jaw. You want to 'reinforce' (reward) your cat for lowering his bottom jaw as you touch, even if this is a small amount at first, until your cat will keep his bottom jaw open fully with little pressure for just a second or two.

Cats generally do not like to open their mouths for very long, so aim to make this process as quick and positive as possible. If you find that your cat tries to move away, allow him to do so - it means you are probably asking too much from him. It would be advisable to ask for something slightly easier when you do your next training session.

Next, you also want to practise gently closing the lower jaw and holding it there for a second. You will need to do this after you've placed the tablet inside to help your cat swallow. Remember: teach in small steps.

To progress this exercise, you will need to hold a tablet between your thumb and index finger of the hand that you will use to lower the jaw. At first, do not place the tablet in the cat's mouth, just practise the previous exercise - the difference being that you are now holding a tablet. Although you may not think of this as a big step, your cat may feel differently about it.

Once your cat is comfortable, you can try to place the tablet into the back of his mouth and then gently close your cat's mouth, as practised previously. As soon as you feel your cat swallow, reinforce highly and generously with a very 'valuable' reward (also known as a reinforcer). Using something that is very tasty and quite runny is good as it encourages the cat to further swallow and prevents the tablet from being stuck in the throat. Another option is to gently rub or scratch the throat area (only if your cat enjoys this) as this action can encourage him to swallow.

Practise this exercise for a minute or two daily without actually medicating your cat. This will greatly aid the delivery of a tablet when you have to give one. Always respect your cat's wishes: watch his body language and his behaviour, including vocalisation, to check whether he's finding the experience positive, negative or neutral.

If your cat moves away from you or leaves the room, it's his way of saying he does not want to participate. Always allow him this option and aim to keep your cat within his comfort zone. Remember, training is about motivating your cat to voluntarily participate rather then have something forced upon him.