Skip to main content

A Spoonful of Tuna Helps the Medicine Go Down

Everything you need to know about the difficult task of medicating a cat.

by Karen B. London, PhD
December 15, 2022
A brunnette woman petting her black cat sitting on her desk while she prepares to give him a pill
Milles Studio / Stocksy

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

If someone ever says “it’s easy” to give a cat medicine, at least one of the following is true: Their experience only includes unusual cats, or they didn’t understand the question. Giving pills to cats is the stuff of blooper reels (and sometimes requires human first aid!), and liquid medicine is only marginally easier. Here’s what you need to know to medicate your cat without any drama — or less than usual, anyway.

Don’t Force Your Cat

If you physically force your cat to take medicine, sure, that’s one dose in, but it will only be harder in the future. Common advice — wrapping your cat in a blanket to avoid being scratched, holding the cat’s head to prevent movement, using a finger to open their mouth, putting the pill far back on their tongue and blowing in their face to encourage swallowing — will stress out most cats. Overpowering your cat can increase their fears, making them likely to struggle more in the future and object to everything associated with that situation. Forcing them also damages your relationship because it erodes your cat’s trust in you. 

If your goal is to be clawed by a cat, having to excavate them from under the bed, going through multiple pills because the cat keeps spitting them out in soggy form, wasting a lot of time and repairing damage done to household items by a terrified or angry cat, forcing them to take medication will get the job done. If your goal is to give your cat the medicine they need quickly without traumatizing either one of you, there’s a better way.

Train Your Cat to Cooperate

Train your cat to be an active, willing participant in the experience. That may sound impossible, but it’s not any harder than training monkeys to offer their arm for a blood draw, training zebras to lift their hooves for trimming, and training jaguars to open their mouths to allow an inspection of their teeth. Modern animal training focuses on teaching animals to do things that make taking care of them easier, whether that means vaccinations, exams, grooming, nail trims, blood draws, or giving medication. By training animals to sit still, offer a paw, swallow something, or perform another necessary behavior, we allow them to participate in their care without force or fear. 

It’s essential to include training for cooperative care in daily life long before they ever need medication. The training can’t all be done today just because the cat needs to swallow a pill today. Train your cat to take medication by reinforcing them for each step that is a part of the behavior. Some things to try with your cat before giving them liquid medication: Have them lick a syringe, open their mouth to let you put a syringe in, or have them swallow a tasty liquid delivered by syringe. To get your cats used to pills, have them eat gel caps coated in something delicious, eat small bits of food from your hand or a dish, or eat empty pill pockets. Always reward them with the best possible treats for performing each behavior.

By training your cat to accept non-medicinal liquids and empty gel caps or pill pockets, you offer them a lot of positive experiences that mimic taking medicine. This way, they will be less likely to resist when they actually need to take a pill or liquid medication. 

Make the Medicine Palatable

Some medications can be compounded into a liquid that tastes like salmon, tuna, or chicken. Ask your veterinarian if this is possible, and send a grateful “thank you” out into the universe if it is. You can add flavored or unflavored liquid medications to a small amount of really tasty wet cat food, or perhaps tuna. Don’t add it to a whole meal because if your cat doesn’t eat it all, you won’t know how much medication they received. Give the cat a tiny bit of wet food that has no meds in it, then give the medicated food, and follow that with more of the food. Cats are often willing to eat medicated food after eating a bit of the same food with no trace of anything novel added. 

If pills are your only option, consider gel caps your new best friend (or your next best friend, after your cat). Gel caps, especially flavored ones, make it easier for cats to swallow pills. Place a pill inside the gel cap, and coat it with something delicious, such as tuna or squeeze cheese. Feed your cat a bit of the delicious food you are using to coat the gel cap, and then feed them the coated gel cap containing the pill. Follow that with an opportunity to eat more of the delicious food. 

Continue to offer tasty liquids and empty gel caps or pill pockets coated with high-quality food. Offer these “blanks” to your cat more often than medicated ones so they maintain positive associations with the experiences even when medicine is involved. The giving and taking of medications shouldn’t be a horrible experience for you or your cat, and with a plan, it won’t be.

Related articles

Karen London holding up a small dog

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.