The problem of pilling a cat is well-understood, but I've found its solution to be evasive. I understand that in principle I should be able to open the cat's mouth, toss a pill in (or use my finger to push it in the back of the throat), hold the mouth shut, and massage the throat until I see a swallow. My vet can do this, but so far I can't. The cat manages to spit it out anyway, either during the pilling process or after having hidden it in the corner of his mouth until I let go.

I've tried pill plungers, where you load a pill into a plastic plunger-like device and then push it in, but they tend to not work well with very small pills (like methimazole) or capsules.

pill plunger

Short of recruiting another person to hold the cat (so I can easily use both hands), or getting out the duct tape, how can I effectively give a cat a pill? It's not always medically advised to crush the pill (or open the capsule) into a can of food.

  • As an alternative to pills, I've had luck asking the vet for liquid medication instead. I find it much easier to squirt liquid medication into the cat's mouth with a syringe, rather than fumble around with a tiny, sticky pill.
    – User1974
    Commented May 1, 2021 at 4:43

8 Answers 8


Update : Zaralynda's answer below contains very important advice I wasn't aware of when writing this answer. To summarize, you must make your cat drink water after pilling him/her, or s/he may suffer esophagus damage. I believe the best is to wait for the cat to be thirsty or hungry before pilling him/her.

After about one month of daily giving several pills to my cat, I managed to find the process not so difficult after all. Only one person (with two arms) is required.

  1. First, firmly catch your cat by the neck's skin with your left hand (mirror this howto if your left-handed), where it is insensitive (you know, just as the cat mother catch them with her jaws to move them), while he's still on the ground. You don't want him to be too uncomfortable, so if you feel your hand is not at the right place, move it until you find the right spot.
    Edit : be cautious with this technique. You may prefer alternative ways of handling your cat (like the towel technique, handling your cat with your arm under his throat, or help from a second person), especially if s/he is old, fat or becomes aggressive. However I feel in most cases this technique is the most appropriate for pilling a reluctant cat.
    Edit2 : I tried several times to handle the cat without scruffing him, but the results were always terrible and most of the times I ended up scruffing him anyway. I feel it's much more comfortable for the cat to be scruffed during 15 seconds (actually less than 5 seconds when you're used to it and everything goes well) than to be gently tortured during 5 minutes or more.

  2. Then, bring his neck up so that he's on his back paws.

  3. Take the pill between the thumb and the forefinger of your right hand.

  4. Use your middle finger (or others if you find it easier) both to open his jaws and to keep his muzzle up. (Now that our cat is used to this procedure, I find the opening of the jaws the most difficult part of the whole procedure, as he won't open his mouth willingly — in particular after the first pill…)

    Use your middle finger to open the jaws.

  5. Once the jaws are open and the muzzle up, release the pill, aiming at the oesophagus. You may have to wait for the cat to flatten his tongue before.

    Release the pill and keep the muzzle up.

  6. Finally, and it took me a while (and many many spitted pills) to figure this out, the key is to keep the cat muzzle up until he swallows. This reduces drastically the spitting (thanks to gravity, I guess). On a side note, actually I managed to give my cat a pill yesterday while he was laying comfortably, without steps 1 & 2, just by ensuring his muzzle stayed up.

  7. Caress his chest and release him. Make sure he drinks something to help the pill get into the stomach (see Zaralynda's answer below). If he doesn't, use a syringe to force him.

Of course the cat may still spit sometimes, but just take the pill back and try again.

Tip : if you have several pills, have them ready and don't release the cat until you're done.

PS : I didn't invent anything, it's the way my vet taught me.

  • The pictures help a lot, thanks! So if you hold the cat by the scruff of the neck like that, that's enough to keep him from squirming away using his paws for leverage? I had not realized this. (Experimentation to follow.) Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 0:47
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    @MonicaCellio : indeed, in principle cats don't move when hold by the scruff of the neck, because that's how their mother used to move them when they were kittens (google for "cat scruff neck" for more and more accurate information about that ;) ). Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 8:15
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    No cats were harmed during the making of this answer.
    – Tim Lehner
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 13:04
  • @TimLehner : damned, I wanted to make this disclaimer and forgot about it ! Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 13:35
  • @MonicaCellio it varies by cat - Kendall absolutely does not care how we grab him, he'll squirm out of anything and Juliet gets more frightened (she's always frightened by being handled).
    – Zaralynda
    Commented Nov 1, 2013 at 14:41

Important notice about dry-pilling your cats

I don't really have anything to add to the actual act of pilling a cat, but it is super important that after you give the cat its pills, you should either syringe 4-5 cc's of water/tuna juice into the cat or feed the cat some wet food.

If a cat is dry-pilled, the pill will sit in their esophagus and cause irritation. Humans will feel the pill in their esophagus and drink water to make sure it enters the stomach, but a cat doesn't understand that's what they're feeling and how to make it better. They just feel the irritation and burning as the pill dissolves in their esophagus.

In a study "Evaluation of the Passage of Tablets and Capsules Through the Esophagus of the Cat" presented at the 2001 American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Forum, when cats are dry-pilled:

After 5 minutes 84% of capsules and 64% of tablets are still sitting in the esophagus. Similar results were published in another study by JP Graham (American Journal of Veterinary Research 2000).


For the wet swallows: (i.e., the pill was followed by 6 cc of water) At 30 seconds, 90% of the pills were in the stomach. All pills were in the stomach by 120 seconds.

This can cause serious damage:

The main concern with this information is that if tablets and capsules sit in the esophagus for a prolonged period of time, this can cause damage to the tissues in this area. This damage can lead to esophagitis, which can lead to nausea, vomiting and megaesophagus. At times, the esophagus can also respond by developing an ulcer or stricture. The latter is a very serious complication requiring aggressive therapy, preferably with balloon dilatation.

For more information on this study and others, Lisa A. Pierson has a very comprehensive site on pilling cats.

I've had a cat with severe esophagus damage (he died of it and complications). Please don't dry pill your cats!

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    Thanks for this important warning. Long ago my vet taught me to always push in a syringe of water after giving a pill, so I had forgotten that this might not be obvious to all. Commented Nov 20, 2013 at 19:29
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    +1 for the warning, I never thought it might be a treat. On the other hand forcing the cat to drink water from a syringe looks like torture in comparison with a pilling which takes litterally a few seconds only once you're used to it. Therefore I think the best advice (as too implicitely suggested at one point by Lisa A.Pierson on her website) is to wait for the cat to be thirsty before to pill him/her. I'll edit my answer to add this piece of information. Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 20:58
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    That being said, Lisa A. Pierson's comment about "Do not hold your pet's head up!" looks like nonsense to me. I know for a fact that it works much better. I also know for a fact that cats and humans have different anatomy — while it's a common skill for a cat, I doubt many humans are able to wipe their intimate parts with their tongue. And some animals (maybe not cats) do specifically hold their head up in order to swallow. Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 21:08

I've been taught this by a veterinarian that was also selling a product that would help you do that and I've been inquiring about really interested in buying it, and she said I don't need it and it's a waste of my money, so I trusted her and I can confirm her instructions work surprisingly well.

What you do is find those tweezers (a.k.a. eyelash pliers) and put the pill at its end so you have a firm grip (but gentle enough not to squash the pill). Most pills would have the middle section with an engraved line to help you split it in half, so that should help hold it steady with your tweezers. Now find your cat... here, kitty kitty. :)

When you have both your cat in one hand and the tweezers with the pill in the other, try to do this as fast as you can: hold your cat for the excess skin at the back of her neck quite firmly and with resolve and move it so her head leans a bit on one side. You'll notice that the skin you're holding for will push the cat's skin next to the edge of her mouth slightly open, like she's giving you the looks why in hell you're molesting her. Now go with tweezers pill first over that mouth edge and press a bit so the cat opens her mouth. Insert the pill and pull the cat's head upwards while massaging her throat with a few downwards strokes, maybe for two to three seconds.

All done. I don't have any photos but I hope I described it well enough so you can imagine how that would go. Make sure you're persistent enough the first time around to succeed, otherwise you'll have a hard time finding your cat to do it the second time around. It should take you at most 15 seconds all of it, and the cat won't resent you too much either once you get a hang of doing it. After 2 minutes of conversation with my veterinarian, she explained it to me well enough I've done it good and fast the first time around. And she saved me a few bucks for some odd looking plastic apparatus, whatever its name was.


I thought long and hard about this question. I haven't had much success teaching anyone to do this single handedly. I can, but have been taught by vet school and had years of practice. I just don't think it's something I can or would advise someone, who would come online for help with to do single handedly. Two is better unless you already know how to do it single handedly.

When taught how to handle cats in animal husbandry and through decades of owning and assisting other people with their pet cats, I have found a cat can be successfully dosed by two people working together in a the following well coordinated fashion.

  • It's best to have everything prepared prior to the pill dosing, without bringing this to your cat's attention, to help prevent a Pavlovian response, for example, to you removing certain objects from cupboards.


  • a towel
  • a small amount of wet cat food
  • the pill

  • Wrap up the cat
    Get an averaged size bath towel, if you can manage a larger one that's fine too, but the larger ones can become cumbersome when trying to manage the cat and medication. At home, it's much easier to wrap your cat up in a towel. As the vet does this all day long for a living and pet owner's tend to only need to dose their cats periodically, for worming or the occasional sickness. Have your pill within arms reach.

  • Don't dawdle
    This is best done as swiftly as possible, but without being in a raced nervous manner that becomes bungled and prolongs the process and agitation of the cat, reducing the chances of successful dosing.

  • Sit down
    I find it is easier to do this sitting down, it helps to focus on the task. Gently talk to your cat in a reassuring tone and wrap her in the towel, bring the towel from around her chest, so that the towel is wrapped around the cat (usually) twice. Her head should be popping out of the top of her wrap. This prevents her from using her paws to object. Keep the cat firmly within your arms, in a nice firm (not too hard) cuddle hold, with both arms around the cat. Do not let go until the entire process is complete.

  • Administering the medicine
    The other person then gently places thumb and forefingers at either side of the cats jaws. Gently applied pressure at the joint of the jaws will force the mouth to open. Keep the pressure applied and insert the tablet with the other hand, sliding the pill into the cats mouth, down the side of the mouth (you don't want to push it into the cat's windpipe). Try and push the pill as far down the side of the mouth, as comfortably possible, so it ends up under, or at least beside the tongue. It is the tongue that enables the cat to spit the pill out.

  • Keeping it down
    Then gently, but firmly hold the cats jaws closed with one or both hands and gently pull your cat's head back slightly, so that your cat's chin is pointing upwards and the neck is straightened at the front (don't push the head back too far, it's important not to extend the animal's movements beyond what they would extend with comfort naturally). This assists in encouraging the cat's urge to swallow.

  • Making sure the cat swallows
    I have found two tricks, blowing gently on the cat's nose, or wiping a slither of wet cat food on the cats nose. This usually causes the cat to lick her nose and also induces the swallowing reflex. These same principles, minus the towel work for dogs. The cat's mouth and throat will make a visible movement as she swallows the medicine. After this, she cannot spit it out.

Disclaimer: It would be advisable for an owner to get a vet or other expert to walk them through this process if they've never done it before.

  • Thanks for the detailed description! Any advice on modifying this for a single person? Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 13:25
  • Its pretty much the same, but use one hand to pinch the jaws and the other to insert the pill. I usually did it in the smallest bathroom so there's nowhere to go if the cat gets away.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 18:25

We had a cat that required daily medication, and it was a struggle to give the cat a pill. The cat would often spit the pill out. We eventually found out that there was a transdermal version of the medication that we applied to the inside of the cat's ear daily. This was much easier for us to do. You might want to ask your vet if this is an option for you.

  • Sounds like Methimazole; been there. :-) When there's a topical or liquid version of a drug I opt for that, but that's not always possible. When it has to be a pill but I can crush it and bury it in food, I do that. But sometimes you've just gotta get a whole pill into the cat. Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 13:23
  • @MonicaCellio In our case, the cat would refuse food with the pill crushed in it. And we eventually got better at forcing a pill into the cat (or at least we thought we did), but we'd still find pills that had been spit out around the house. It was hard to know how much medicine the cat was actually getting. Finding the topical version was a huge help for us.
    – Ben Miller
    Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 15:18
  • Ben, the food trick doesn't always work for me either; it depends on the medicine. Prednisone apparently tastes terrible, but my cats found Methimazole innocuous. Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 15:20
  • @MonicaCellio It was years ago, now, and I can't remember which medication it was that we were dealing with. But it must have tasted terrible.
    – Ben Miller
    Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 15:21
  • I had a cat that had a skin reaction to the transdermal version of a medication. Itchy rash and scabs. Bad news.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 18:21

While our cat bravely eats her blood-pressure lowering pills on her own (apparently they're tasty), she strongly evaded taking others (antibiotics I think) due to them tasting horribly. For a while, hiding the pills in treats worked quite well and I was hoping to Pavlov her into associating taking the pill with receiving treats, but ultimately she figured it out and spit out the pill.

Ultimately, the trick was grinding the pills and mixing them with her favourite food - fish of course...

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    From the question: "It's not always medically advised to crush the pill (or open the capsule) into a can of food." When that's possible I do that, but this question is about the problem of getting (specifically) a whole pill into the cat. Thanks. Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 13:24
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    True, it depends on the pill. Nonetheless, hiding it in a treat or making the pet associate "I ate may pill, now I get treats" might work. "Unfortunately" cats are rather bright in that respect... Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 13:37
  • Good point about treats. Thanks. (My cats are too smart for that too. :-( ) Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 16:03
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    It's why dogs get Pill Pockets
    – JoshDM
    Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 22:05

We always put it crushed up in a bit of butter or on a sardine.

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    Welcome to the site, we usually prefer longer answers, but I think this is a good suggestion, so +1. It is a technique I have used in the past. Usually it is preferred to give a more detail though :)
    – user6796
    Commented Dec 5, 2013 at 3:08
  • If it's ok to crush the pill (or open the capsule) then this works fine; at that point I can just mix it into wet food. However, sometimes doing that compromises the medicine's effectiveness; sometimes you have to get a whole pill into the cat, and that's what this question is about. Thanks. Commented Dec 5, 2013 at 3:36

Put the pill inside a tasty treat. Simple.

  • I wish my cats weren't smart enough to eat the treat and leave the pill. It's uncanny -- they always seem to know! Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 22:48
  • That is very uncanny. What treats are you using?
    – Don Larynx
    Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 23:34
  • @MonicaCellio they can taste and smell it in a treat
    – user6796
    Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 1:59
  • @DonLarynx I've tried "pill pockets" (marketed for just this purpose), cheese (don't know if that's healthy but figured I'd see if it even worked), and for smaller pills, burying in a small chunk of cooked chicken. (Also canned food, but I didn't expect that to work.) What treats do you recommend? Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 3:34

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