Top tips on giving your cat a tablet

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23 March 2022
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It is something no owner looks forward to — but here we share advice to make giving your cat a tablet less stressful for you both.

We’ve all laughed at those memes and cartoons about trying to give a cat a pill, but when the time comes that you have to actually do it yourself, they’re suddenly a whole lot less hilarious.

Why do cats hate taking tablets so much?

Much like us, cats use taste and smell to decide whether something will be nice to eat. Although cats can detect (and dislike) anything with a bitter taste, they lack the gene that allows them to taste sweet foods and have only around 470 taste buds compared to over 9,000 in humans. However, they more than make up for this with a powerful sense of smell, possessing 40 times more odour-detecting cells than human noses — some researchers even rate their scenting powers as better than those of dogs. Add to this a suspicion of anything different and it explains why they can often be hard to fool if they think food or treats have been tampered with

When it comes to trying to pop a pill directly into your cat’s mouth, you can also factor in tremendous sensitivity to touch around the face, especially places where vibrissae are present; these whiskers are set three times deeper in the tissue than other hairs and have numerous nerve endings at their bases. Found on each upper lip either side of the nose, on the cheeks, above the eyes and bristles on the chin, it’s impossible not to make contact with them when opening your cat’s mouth. Adding to all this, and perhaps most importantly of all, physically restraining your cat and forcing him to take a pill can be very frightening for him — imagine someone doing the same to you. It can damage his trust and confidence in you, which is why if you want to remain on talking terms with your cat, it’s a good idea to put in some pill popping practice before it ever becomes a necessity.

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If a pill is palatable your cat may be prepared to eat it offered from your hand.

Giving pills with food

If it’s safe to give a pill with food you have a couple of options. If it’s manufactured to be palatable, he may eat it straight from your hand, but if not, try placing it inside something really tasty. You can also buy special pill pouches which can be moulded around the tablet, disguising it as a treat. 

Alternatively, add it to a small amount of food (preferably something your cat finds irresistible) and cross your fingers. Some cats are genius level at finding concealed tablets so check he’s eaten it, not left it behind or spat it out. Crushing the pill and mixing it in to the food makes it harder to pick it out, but if he works out it’s in there, he may just leave the lot and depart in a huff.

You may be able to conceal a pill in a small amount of tasty food.

Pill-popping practice

There may be occasions when your cat refuses to take a pill mixed with something tasty, or if he needs to take it without food. By putting in a little practice before you ever need to do it for real, you can make the experience less daunting and more pleasant for you and your cat. You’ll both be calmer and your cat less likely to become stressed and more likely to swallow the medication. Here’s how:

Stage 1

Start by using Tellington TTouch Mouth Work to increase confidence about being handled around the face and inside the mouth. 

Begin by gently stroking the sides of his face

1. Position yourself beside your cat, with both of you facing in the same direction. Have him on a non-slip surface. It may be useful to have him on a raised area so you don’t have to bend down.

Gently start moving his lips. 

2. Placing one hand under his chin for support (but without restricting his movement) stroke gently along the sides of his face — first with the back of your other hand, and then with the palm side. If he finds this difficult to cope with, try it without the supporting hand first; or even start by gently stroking along the jawline with a soft paint brush. 

3. Once he’s comfortable with you stroking with the palm side of your hand, start gently moving his lips around in a lifting or circular motion with the tips of your fingers, keeping the movement very small to start with.

Slide your finger on his gums. 

4. When your cat is at ease with this, slip a finger under the lip and onto the gum. Wet your finger so it slides freely along the gums. Gently and slowly run the finger around the whole gum line, both upper and lower. Do this for just a few seconds at a time initially. Allow him to move his face away from you if he finds it difficult to cope. Once he’s relaxed with the TTouch Mouth Work, you can combine it with the next exercise of teaching him to calmly have his mouth opened.

Stage 2

This next stage to help with pill popping is to get him comfortable with having his mouth opened.

1. Position yourself slightly to the side of your cat’s head, so you’re not facing directly towards him. Hold your hand flat, with the palm facing down towards the top of his muzzle just above, but not touching it; mark the moment with a clicker or word like ‘Yes’ or ‘Good’ and reward him with a tasty treat. It may be useful to smear the scent of a treat on your palm to encourage investigation of and contact with your hand. If your cat is nervous of a raised hand, begin by accustoming him to you raising your hand a little at a time, until he’s confident about it being above his nose, marking and treating at each stage. 

2. Repeat, each time seeing if you can bring your hand slightly closer to his nose. Progress to cupping your hand, and lightly holding it in contact for a second over the bridge of his nose, continuing to mark and reward each time he’s quiet and calm. 

Begin cupping his muzzle. 

3. Gradually increase the length of time your hand rests there; if he moves around and fidgets, go back a stage. As he becomes comfortable with this, begin cupping his chin with one hand; position the other one above his muzzle so your thumb is now placed on one side of his jaw, and your fingers the other, just behind where the canine teeth are. Be careful not to grip! Gradually extend the time your hand rests in this new position, marking and rewarding calmness and stillness. Don’t move onto the next step until he’s completely comfortable with this one.

4. Apply gentle inwards pressure with your thumb and first finger just behind the canine teeth: combine this with a slight raising of the head at the same time, to encourage the mouth to open. A very limited opening, and for a very short period of time is quite enough to start with. Over further sessions you can ask first for the mouth to be opened wider, and then for longer. Reward generously with food and praise.

5. Once your cat willingly opens his mouth with encouragement from you, and keeps it open for a while with his head held still, you can add a cue word, such as ‘Open’ if you wish. You can also practice pill-popping with tiny pill-shaped treats to make it a rewarding and even enjoyable experience.

● Be patient. It may take many sessions repeating each step before your cat is ready for the next one. Keep sessions short — around ten repetitions each time is usually a good guide.

● Be mindful of your own safety. Don’t risk getting bitten or clawed; watch your cat carefully for any signs of him becoming distressed. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and seek the help of a certified Tellington TTouch Practitioner who will be able to safely guide you through these steps.

With practice pill popping will get easier.