Have you ever seen that joke article out there – the one about ‘How to feed a cat a pill’? It’s like 14 steps long. The one they usually post next to it is ‘How to feed a dog a pill’, which consists of one sentence (step 1: wrap pill in bacon and feed to dog.)
Most cat guardians out there know it can be the most thankless job ever. Heck, forcing your cat to do anything is often a battle of wills where we win the battle but lose the war.
And what about that yearly vet visit, where you bring out the pet carrier and they run for cover? Some cats even seem to know before you bring out the pet carrier, like some sixth sense. The ‘my cat escaped’ cancellation phenomenon is one every veterinary clinic in the world is familiar with.
So how in the hey do they know this stuff?
The answer is simple – body language.
The Predator Perception
Think back to the last time you took your cat to the vet, or the last time you gave them a pill. Or even the last time you wanted to hold them and they weren’t really open to the idea.
The ‘mission’ formed in your mind. You set out to execute it. And your cat took one look at you and scrammed.
Now back up.
Look at your body language between getting the mission idea and the execution.
I bet it looks something like this:
– staring at the objective (the cat)
– going towards it in a determined, fast paced, straight line,
– lunging at them with both arms raised.
Or, alternatively, if you’ve been down this road before, stalking them and cutting off their path while staying fixated on them as you drive them in a corner.
How much do you look like a predator right now?
Exactly – you’ve just checked every box. Considering the fact that cats are small predators that are also prey to some animals out there, is it really that odd that your cat knows to run right now?
The thing is, we’re often not even aware of the fact that we do this. I certainly wasn’t. All I thought of was ‘I have to get this checked off my list’, because I still have x,y and z to do today. Meanwhile, your cat reads you like a book and realises they’re the object of whatever you’re planning…and it doesn’t look good, judging by your approach. It is this type of miscommunication that in that moment kills any chance you have of getting that cat to the vet.
And so the battle begins.
Changing your mindset and their perception
Believe it or not, but in order to actually succeed in your ‘target acquiring’ mission, you ironically have to (temporarily) forget about it.
That’s right – the key to succeeding in this mission, is to put it on hold- for now.
This is your cat we’re talking about. They’re family. And while they may not understand our human language, they clearly understand body language. Now, if you truly believe that the vet visit and the pill are in your cat’s best interest, explain that to them.
Relay that in your body language – instead of threatening them.
In other words, check in with them, as you normally would.
Go up to them in your usual, familiar way. Say hi. Take the time to do the social niceties to make them comfortable with you. Take a moment to pet them. Be genuine about your intention and enjoy this. Do not just go through the motions – they’ll be able to tell!
Then gently guide them to where you want them to be. You have a bond here, a trust you’ve earned over the time you’ve spent together. Your kitty will give you the benefit of the doubt, if only because of that trust. Respect their hesitation, by allowing a pause, before encouraging them to go on. Encouraging – not forcing. The more you force, the more they’ll resist.
It’s Newton’s 3d law, here, people – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The Pet Carrier Example
I remember getting a call from a friend of mine early one morning. Her cat was scheduled for a rather important and pressing vet visit that morning, but was in no mood to go. Getting her into the pet carrier was proving to be impossible. I promised I’d come over and help her, as she was clearly feeling the pressure – she was already running late and had to still make it to work as well.
When I got there, there was a terrified cat in one corner and two clearly frustrated – understandably so – guardians in the other.
The first thing I did when I walked in was breathe and change my mindset. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t there to catch a cat. I was there to reassure a terrified kitty and help a friend with a problem.
By temporarily shifting my focus from the mission of getting her to the vet to the mission of connecting with her to see if she was ok, I changed my body language.
Talking to a terrified cat
I walked toward the cat, without staring. I was just there to greet her and ask her what was going on. Nothing more. She looked up at me and I saw her gauging me and my movements. She was about ready to sprint to another corner. I paused and consciously relaxed my body without coming to a stand-still, as that too would be the move of a predator. Then, I added some reassuring and questioning high-pitched sounds. In doing so, I showed hesitation and curiosity instead of mission objective target acquiring behaviour. And she relaxed. She let me come closer. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I swear I just about heard her sigh in relief.
She was desperate for someone to reassure her that everything would be ok. That she wasn’t being hunted like a rabid animal. That she wasn’t in any danger. And that her loving guardians were still that – loving.
And so, I petted her. Meanwhile, my friend, understandably, looked at her watch. We were cutting it really close. I gently talked, as to not stress the cat further, and said that she’d have to bear with me and trust what I was doing. And so she did. As the cat pushed herself against me for some more much needed oxytocin and reassurance, I asked the boyfriend where the pet carrier was. He showed me but also informed me that she panicked at the sight of it.
Working around her fears
And so I told him to turn the pet carrier in such a way that the opening was pointing upwards. Confused , he obliged my request. Meanwhile, I gently put my hand on the cat’s scruff and ever so gently pulled it. She went limp. I put my other hand underneath her to support her properly and carried her carefully to the pet carrier. Making sure she didn’t see the carrier as I walked over there, I then gently lowered her into the open carrier. Once I was ready to close the door, I gently let go of her scruff.
And there we had it – a kitty, ready for transport, in a relatively stress-free way.
So, what about that other difficult scenario?
How to feed a cat a pill
After much trial and error in recent months, I found that the best way to feed a pill to a cat is to first offer it to them in a consensual way. Honestly, many pills look like treats to cats and my tom cat, for instance, gobbles most of them right up. This is even more true for liquid medication that has a syrupy quality. Many will gladly lap it up.
So don’t assume you need to do anything.
However, if you do, the actual feeding them the pill may bring up some resistance. If you keep your movements calm, firm and slow, at all times, while talking to them in a reassuring voice, that resistance most likely won’t escalate. If it does, give them a little space without giving them a chance to escape. Just loosening your muscles and grip a little does a lot. It’ll help them to calm down, giving you a chance to try again. Don’t ever clamp down on a cat because that will just turn them into Houdini with 18 sharp claws. Include some petting and reassurance, even a treat after and most will have no problem with you doing this day after day.
It is intuitive to be mission oriented and effective in trying to get things down. Unfortunately, that kind of efficient control exertion works really well with objects but not so well with living beings – especially not independent ones like cats.
It is also intuitive to – once you have what you want – clamp down on it to keep it from slipping through your fingers. However, clamping down on a cat who is already panicking ends up in only one scenario: with the cat gone and you scratched up.
Going against your instincts usually is the wrong thing to do. In this case, however, due to the mission objective, our first reaction is often to control and force the situation to take place. And it’s the wrong way to go about it. If we were the cat, we’d have the same reaction to that kind of control being exerted on us, wouldn’t we?
So this is a chance to learn how to control your instinctual impulses, and truly master the art of communicating using your body language.
By focusing on your connection with your cat, instead of your control over them, you can shift your mindset and with it, what you communicate to your cat through body language.
Imagine communicating and standing together as a team, instead of at odds with each other, during this type of difficult situation.
And isn’t that just the key to any relationship?
What are your experiences like with your kitty on this subject? Share them with us in the comment section!
Do you know someone who might benefit from this perspective? If so, please share this post with them!