How to Safely Give Your Cat a Pill

Never Give Your Cat a Pill Without Water

Photo of Jaspurr, Hyperthyroid Cat
Senior Cat Jaspurr, Hyperthyroid. photo © Franny Syufy

If your cat coughs or vomits after taking a pill, there's probably a good reason. Coughing or vomiting after having swallowed pills dry could very well be a result of dry pilling (giving your cat a pill without any liquid). If you have ever tried to dry-swallow an aspirin, you'll recognize how uncomfortable the experience can be. Swallowing half a pill can even be worse, because of the sharp corners.

Why "Dry Pilling" Is Dangerous for Cats

Dry pilling can lead to pills getting stuck in your cat's esophagus (the tube leading from the mouth to the stomach). While dry pills are likely to get stuck, capsules are even more dangerous for cats. The smooth, gelatinous surface tends to cause capsules to lodge in the esophagus. Veterinarian Dr. Melissa Van Vechten tells a story of a cat who had several days' worth of capsules lodged together in his esophagus, almost totally blocking it.

A 2001 study presented in a veterinary journal stated that "After 5 minutes 84% of capsules and 64% of tablets are still sitting in the esophagus." The study also brought out the specter of esophagitis, which can be caused by the irritation of pills and capsules remaining in the esophagus for long periods of time.

How to Give Your Cat Liquid to Avoid Dangerous Dry Pilling

It may seem impossible to force a cat to drink.

Fortunately, though, there are a number of tricks you can use prevent problems when administering oral medications to cats:

  • Follow Pilling with Liquid
    Use a small 1cc syringe filled with either plain water or low-salt broth. Dr. Lisa Pierson recommends approaching the cat from the back or side, rather than front-on. She also advises keeping the cat's head level rather than tipped back, to facilitate swallowing.

  • Conceal the Pill in a Pill Pocket
    Pill Pockets are cone-shaped, soft treats with a hole down the center. They come in chicken or salmon flavor. Just pop the pill inside and pinch the top closed, and offer it to your cat.
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  • Treat After Pilling
    Offering a favorite treat will not only encourage future pilling cooperation but will help get the pill into the stomach quickly so it can go to work.
  • Canned Food After Pilling
    Try giving only a small portion of a regular meal of canned food before the pilling, and withhold the balance for afterward.
  • Compounded Flavored Meds
    Some pharmacies will compound medications into flavored liquid doses, which are both easier to swallow, and a lot tastier than pills. Your veterinarian may work with a compounding pharmacy, a "regular" pharmacy may have flavors for pets, or you can find them readily on the Net. For a year now, I have used liquid compounded medicine for my Jaspurr, who is hyperthyroid. It just isn't worth the stress on both of us to try to give him pills.
  • Transdermal Meds
    Some medications can be formulated into a gel or ointment that can be rubbed into your cat's inner ear. These can also be compounded by pharmacies.

At least one of these solutions should relieve both you and your cat of the anxiety and discomfort found in dry pilling.

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