Pet Factsheets

Giving your cat topical medicines

For most veterinary treatments it is important that medicines are given correctly. In the hospital, trained staff give medicines and it is important to ensure that you are able to continue to give the medicines once your cat has been sent home. If you have any doubts about how to give the medicine your pet has been prescribed, ask your vet or a nurse to show you. 

Giving medicines

To be effective, most treatments have to be given regularly and for the right length of time. If medicines are not given correctly the active part may be lost or poorly absorbed. This reduces the dose that the patient receives and may delay recovery from illness or early recurrence of disease. 

There are several important elements to giving medicine: 

  • Ensure treatment is given correctly, ie the patient receives the correct dose, at the times requested by your vet. 
  • Ensure the safety of both your pet any anyone helping with the procedure. In almost all cases, it is easier to administer treatment effectively if you have someone to help: one person restrains your pet and the other gives the treatment. However, if your cat is reasonably co-operative many owners can give medication by most routes. 
  • Ensure medicine is stored correctly and handled according to instructions supplied. All medicine that is unused should be returned to your vet to ensure correct disposal. 
  • Any untoward effects of medicines should be reported to your vet. Adverse effects are rare, but possible.


What treatments are given onto the skin?

Topical treatment (onto the body surface) can have a local effect on the ears, eyes or skin or might be absorbed through the skin and enter the blood stream to have effects elsewhere in body. 

Treatment of eye disease 

Eye conditions are quite common in domestic pets and are often best treated with drops or creams/ointments applied to the eye. Drops are easiest to apply but are washed out quickly and may need to be given many times daily. Ointments and creams persist in the eye for longer and some only need to be given once daily. 

Treatment of ear disease 

The inside surface of the ear canal is just a special type of skin. However, this is a very sensitive area, so only treatments specially made for use in the ear should be used. Drops or creams can be used effectively. 

Treatment of skin disease 

To be effective, a topical treatment must come into contact with the skin, so hair should be removed from the area and the skin surface cleaned to remove grease, previously applied medication and any build up of crusting or secretions. 

Most topical skin treatments come as gels, ointments or creams. Creams or ointments are massaged gently over the skin surface until they are absorbed into the skin. Some medications can be applied in the form of washes or shampoos. Remember when treating skin problems that the area being treated may be sore to touch, so be gentle and ensure that the patient is adequately restrained. In many skin diseases, a combination of topical and systemic treatment is used, eg shampoo and a course of antibiotic tablets.

Topical treatment for systemic (whole body) effect 

Some drugs can enter the body through the skin and affect organs and tissues far away from the site of original application. Remember that drugs can be absorbed very easily through hairless human skin so gloves should always be worn when handling topical treatments and always wash your hands after handling medicines. 

Spot-on treatments for parasites such as fleas are dropped onto an area of the coat that the cat cannot reach when it grooms itself, usually the back of the neck. The active ingredient is absorbed through the skin and enters the cat's blood. Fleas or other parasites receive a dose of the drug and are killed when they next bite the cat.

Nitroglycerine cream has been used to manage heart disease in cats and is applied as a cream on a hairless area of skin (usually the inside of the ear flap) from where it is rapidly absorbed, entering the bloodstream and affecting blood vessels throughout the body. 

Sticky patches containing powerful pain killers can be applied to hairless areas of skin and slowly release small doses of the drug over several hours or days. These pain-relieving patches are only currently used in hospitalised patients.

How should I apply creams and ointments?

Topical (on the body surface) application of medicine can be used to treat specific areas, such as patches of skin, or as a simple way of giving medicine to a patient because some drugs are taken up through the skin into the body. A lot of drugs are readily absorbed through the skin and if given frequently, or for prolonged periods, can build up in the body, causing side effects. For example, steroids put onto the skin can eventually cause signs of steroid overdose. 

Most cats will lick off any medication on the skin if they can reach it so this has to be prevented by the use of dressings, Elizabethan collars or other protective devices. Sometimes, applying the medication before feeding is enough to shift your cat's attention away from the treated area.

How do I give medicine in my cat’s eye?

  • The handler restrains the patient in a sitting position on a non-slip surface so that it feels secure (preferably with its back to a corner). It is often easier to restrain cats at a working height so place a towel or blanket on a table. If a cat struggles a lot or tries to scratch it may be necessary to wrap it in a towel. 
  • The handler grips the head of the cat from underneath. Now they can tilt the cats nose upwards using one hand (it may be possible for them to hold the eyelids open with the thumb and forefinger of the other hand when doing this). 
  • Alternatively, with one hand on the top of the head and another under the jaw the eyelids can be held apart. 
  • The person applying the eye drops opens the bottle or tube and holds the treatment in their right hand. 
  • They use the thumb and forefinger of their left hand to hold the eyelid open (if necessary). 
  • Hold the bottle or dropper above the eye and gently squeeze so that the correct amount of medication falls into the eye take great care not to touch the surface of the eye with the bottle as this can contaminate the treatment and damage the eye. 
  • Resting the side of the hand against the muzzle whilst holding the applicator between thumb and forefinger helps to steady the applicator away from the eye. 
  • When applying creams or ointments it may be necessary to trail the worm of ointment against the lower eyelid to detach it from the tube. 
  • Keep the cat restrained for a few seconds to allow the treatment to spread over the eye surface - then allow them to blink before releasing them. 

How do I put medicines in my cat’s ear?

  • The handler restrains the cat in a sitting position on a non-slip surface so that it feels secure (preferably with its back to a corner). It is often easier to restrain cats at a working height so place a towel or blanket on a table. If a cat struggles a lot or tries to scratch it may be necessary to wrap it in a towel. 
  • The handler restrains the patient from the side cuddling it to them with a hand placed over the muzzle pushing the muzzle down and holding the head firmly against their body. 
  • The ear flap is lifted by the handler, or person administering drops, to expose the ear canal. 
  • The ear canal must be cleaned to remove any discharges or previously applied medication before putting in new treatment. 
  • The nozzle of the treatment applicator is passed into the ear canal and drops or cream are squirted into the canal. The nozzle is withdrawn and the vertical ear canal gently massaged from the outside to disperse the treatment (whilst the patient is still restrained). 

Take care as you release your cat as they are likely to indulge in vigorous head shaking. 

What happens if I miss a dose of treatment? When should I give the next one?

In many cases, a missed dose is corrected by giving the dose as soon as you remember and then giving the following one when it would have been due anyway. This applies to most ear and eye treatments, and to many tablets. Intervals of 1-2 hours either side of the specified time are unlikely to make much difference. However, because some medication should not be repeated too soon, it is always best to check with your veterinary surgeon what you should do. If it is not possible to contact your veterinary surgeon, then the safest course is to skip the missed dose and just give the next one when it would have been due. 

The medication is making my cat sick or their skin sore. What should I do?

Always contact your veterinary practice for advice if you have any concerns about our pet’s treatment. Sometimes the dosing may need altered or else an alternative drug may need to be found. If you are concerned stop the treatment meantime and immediately contact your vet for advice. 

My other cat has developed similar symptoms. Can I use the treatment already prescribed? 

No, your other cat needs a veterinary check-up first. It could be a different condition that just looks the same, or your other cat could have individual problems that require a different approach. 

Can my cat go into a boarding cattery while on treatment?

It depends on the problem and the policy of the cattery. Most reputable catterys can cope with routine treatment for problems such as arthritis, heart conditions and skin conditions. Experienced catterys can also handle more complex medical conditions such as the daily injections and treatment for diabetic animals. Speak to both your veterinary surgeon and the cattery in plenty of time to make sure they are happy to manage your pet while you are away. 

It is likely that you will have to administer medicine to your pet at some point in its life. If the need arises speak to your veterinary surgeon and ask for extra help if you do not feel confident to give tablets to your pet. Your vet would much rather work out the best way to treat your pet properly rather than have you struggle and risk your pet not getting the proper treatment.