Giving Cats Tablets (Or Ointment)

Updated November 29, 2020

The advice you are getting is wrong. I’m to blame as much as anyone else. For years I’ve been blithely telling people how easy it will be. It was a friend of mine who first said, “Andrew, it was nothing like you showed me,” Then my own cat showed me, big time.

There’s a big difference between what happens in my clinic and what happens at home. I like to believe I can safely give pills to almost any of my patients but when it came to treating Grendel, I got scratched.

It showed me that we’re asking and answering the wrong question. In failing to see the problem, we’re causing cats to miss essential medicines and people to get injured. I’ll answer the right question in a minute, but first, we need to talk about safety.

Why Cats Are So Dangerous

It’s not just the teeth and claws. Yes, cats can give you a painful scratch or bite, but the wounds are usually small punctures. They should heal quickly without requiring stitches.

It’s the infection that follows. Every vet knows to go to the doctor as soon as possible after a deep bite but how many cat owners know this? Once the infection sets in, it’s not unusual to need intravenous antibiotics in hospital.

Wounds from cats quickly close over, can’t be disinfected and aren’t exposed to oxygen. The bacteria found on cats’ teeth and claws multiply rapidly and start spreading, even in normal, healthy people. When a person has poor circulation, advanced age or a weak immune system, it only gets worse.

The Right Question To Ask

Now, let’s return to the original problem. When I said that giving cats pills was easy I had two big advantages over you:

  1. Cats at the vet are scared and usually smart enough to cooperate
  2. Our nurses make cat handling look easy

When I went home I was just like you: facing down a stroppy cat with help only from family members. That’s when it became clear; giving pills or ointment is less important than knowing you are safe while you do it. Then you can take your time and do a good job without fear, struggle or injury (and avoid arguments!).

Nowadays, when I demonstrate pilling to cat owners, I tell the person holding the cat that they have the most important job. Yet for all the Google searches on “how to give a cat a tablet” you don’t ever see people searching how to hold cats. It’s time to set the record straight. The question they should ask is:

How Do I Hold A Cat For Medicine?

Holding a cat well is the secret to successful medication.

  1. Get ready by clipping your cat’s nails and wearing long sleeves
  2. Choose a flat surface such as a tabletop or your lap
  3. If you use your lap you need to wear thick trousers or cover your legs in a rug
  4. Position the cat sitting or crouching and faced away from you
  5. Slide each of your hands down the chest until you grasp and control one forearm in each hand
  6. Now tuck your arms in until they box your cat and prevent the hind legs from slipping out
  7. Lean your head back so the other person can get access and away they go
  8. The videos at the start show a good pilling or ointment technique

Your cat will often wriggle out of the hold or get the back legs free. Just start again as calmly and patiently as you can; if you feel yourself getting cross, take a break.

Now have a look at the video. That’s not a happy cat but he’s tolerating it and the good hold makes it easy and quick.

How To Give A Cat A Pill By Yourself

What if you can’t get anyone to help you? Realistically I don’t think it’s safe for most people to do this on their own. If you want to try, the technique is to wrap your cat in a towel and peg it around the neck like at the hairdresser. This keeps the claws under wraps. Then you face the cat away from yourself with your elbows keeping them in place while your hands give the pill.

So is it an option to avoid tablets? Sometimes the answer is yes, but you’ll never know if you don’t ask. Don’t be shy; we’d rather be successful than have you injured and cats not treated. Visit this page for other ways to medicate cats.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

2 Replies to “Giving Cats Tablets (Or Ointment)”

  1. The cat is already extremely unsettled because of how the person sitting dragged it up and turned it around. The lap is very uneven and unsteady surface and the cat is scared of falling.
    I always pill my cats with their feet planted firmly on the ground to make them secure (if you can’t get down then a table or bench). I usually straddle the cat with my feet crossed so he can’t back away then grasp his head gently with one hand, tip it slightly and insert the pill popper with other hand and place pill at back of the tongue and he reflecively swallows. It’s super quick. For daily pilling eg hyperthyroidism, he soon gets used to the fact it will take a second and a nice yummy treat after to make sure the pill isnt stuck in the throat. If I held his legs or did a “burrito wrap” he’d never tolerate daily pilling. I’ve never ever been clawed or bitten.

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