By Dr. Kris Chandroo
The 80% Rule:
80% of the success when giving a medication happens before it ever touches your cat.
This means that there are specific techniques you must perform before you attempt to give medication or SQ fluids, that greatly increase the chance that your cat will accept the treatment. You must provide these techniques, step-by-step, in a way that makes logical sense for your cat. Every cat that resists your effort with medication is actually trying to communicate with you. And if you know what they are asking for, you can start to get the right kind of results with your cat. So you can’t force a cat to take medication, but with the right steps in place your cat can actually agree to let you do it.
Let’s talk about the first step.
It’s a technique I call the Olfactory Kick Start.
I’m going to explain this technique in detail, but in reality, you do not need any particular skills or expertise to do this for your cat.
Let’s twist this around and talk about dogs for a second. For 99% of the dogs I see in the vet clinic, giving them a medication goes like this. Stick the medication in the cheese, treat, or whatever they will gobble down and give it to them to eat. Mission accomplished. Done!
When the medication goes down the hatch with a treat, it’s the treat they are thinking about the most. So the act of medicating them becomes very rewarding to them. It puts them in a happy place. There are areas in the brain, that light up, and say “every time they put something weird in that treat, it means that treat is for me!” And they remember that next time they are approached with a medication.
It’s not to say there aren’t dogs who are challenging when it comes to giving medication. There absolutely are. It’s just that out of a 100 dogs I’ll see in any given month, it’s only 1 or 2 of them that need extra effort to get them to take their medication.
For the majority, it’s easy for them to light up those brain centers so they feel rewarded, and therefore safe and secure. Our pets actively want to feel this way. They want to feel this way around us! It’s part of the reason why we love them so much!
These numbers are entirely flipped for cats. They are much more likely to reject their medication, and there are many legitimate, cat-specific reasons for this.
For your cat, it’s so much harder to activate the areas in the feline brain that says “I’m rewarded” for taking medication. It’s harder for them to feel “every time they put something into that treat, I love it because its for me!”
This is because cats who are ill sometimes want nothing to do with food, can be very picky eaters, or can be feisty and grumpy (but we love them anyways). They can be scared, anxious, fearful, or less tolerant of new things we try to introduce to them – like that medication they have never seen before in their life.
In other words, there are barriers to cross before we can light up those reward centers in the brain that let your cat know it’s ok to try something new. Like that medication you need to give.
What if you could take down those barriers?
The Olfactory Kick Start is the first step in breaking down those barriers.
When you can take down the barriers, you have given your cat the option of behaving differently when you give them a tablet, pill, liquid or SQ fluids. Instead of giving them reasons to fight, you are waking up their reward systems. You are kick starting them. You are giving them reasons to accept their medications or SQ fluids, because these acts can now be tied into feelings of security and safety.
You see, so much of a cat’s world comes from their sense of smell.
Now think of your own sense of smell. Close your eyes. Think of warm bread baking in the oven. Oven fresh chocolate chip cookies. A box of crayons. Christmas morning at your grandmother’s house. Birthday candles. Coffee beans! Smell isn’t just smell. It’s tied into emotion – often positive ones.
image of Sweet Potato Rum Ice Cream courtesy of Georgia P. Mckenzie
Helen Keller knew this to be true:
“Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived…odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief”
For cats, their sense of smell influences how they feel – whether it be anxious, scared, timid, fearful or joy. This happens through a collection of brain structures called the limbic system.
We all have a limbic system that influences our emotions. You have one. Your cat has one. Even fish have one. I know this because I spent two years researching their brain structure and published this in Fish & Fisheries science journal.
Instead of giving medications by handling the mouth, you need to start the process with their nose.
The Olfactory Kick Start is a combination of ingredients that you can give to your cat before exposing them to medication. It’s goal is to forge a different emotional state in your cat before you perform what ever treatment you need to perform. For cats who respond to this (and many of them do), it is the first step to increasing your success.
This technique works because it acknowledges the fact that the first job you have when giving a medication to your cat is to increase their flexibility and willingness to do something new and different under states of stress. It follows your cat’s 80% rule.
The Olfactory Kick Start “kicks” things off in the right direction. It’s your way of activating their reward systems, like we do with dogs, except without 100% reliance on food or treats. This is why it can work for our cats who are picky, scared, anxious or feisty. What do cats look like with the olfactory kick start? Watch this 45 second video to find out:
Olfactory Kick Start from Dr. Kristopher Chandroo on Vimeo.
Don’t those cats look more likely to follow along with something new? More flexible with their behavior? Whether they outwardly react to the Olfactory Kick Start or not, you are nudging them in the right direction. Muscling bad tasting medication in their mouth is shoving them in the wrong direction.
I use three ingredients in combination for the Olfactory Kick Start.
Ingredient #1: Organic Silver vine (Actinidia polygama). Silver vine has been used for its therapeutic benefits in people with hypertension and arthritis, and it has been studied as an environmental enrichment tool for cats.
What does that mean? It means you are affecting their emotions via their nose, so they feel safe and secure. It’s rewarding to them.
Ingredient #2: Organic catnip. This needs no real explanation. Not all cats react to catnip, but I am using it in combination with the other ingredients. For those who respond to it, you will have an enhanced Olfactory Kick Start.
Actually, my favorite product to Olfactory Kick Start a cat is an organic combination of Silver vine and catnip. It’s called Ultimate Blend, grown and produced by From the Field.
I prefer this organic blend because if a cat decides to eat the ingredients (it sometimes stimulates their appetite), it’s all good and safe.
Ingredient #3: A feline facial pheromone, called Feliway®. Feliway is another scent designed to reduce anxiety, fear and enrich their environment, so they feel safe and secure.
Anything used on its own for cats will be hit or miss, because cats show strong individual personalities and preferences. By using these ingredients in combination, you reduce the miss, and increase the hit.
I mix these three ingredients together on a towel laid out in the cat’s preferred location in their home (as shown in the video above).
So, how can just smelling a combination of ingredients change a cat’s willingness to take medications?
Here is Ruby:Ruby is an awesome cat, and her family completely loves her 100%. She is also feisty and anxious in general, and is hissing and swatting today. Ruby’s person is going to try to give her a capsule by mouth. Ruby is in no mood right now to take it. I start with the Olfactory Kick Start. I mix the Silver vine, catnip and Feliway together on a towel. Why a towel? We’ll talk about that later. But essentially, we want your cat to feel good about being close to the towel or the room that the towel is placed in.
Ruby is a responder, and she does this:
Instead of hissing and swatting, within 30 seconds, I have redirected her emotional state towards something she feels good about. Her limbic system it lighting up and saying “I FIND THIS REWARDING!”, without initial reliance on food or treats to be that reward. We are nudging her towards increasing her flexibility and willingness to do something new and different under states of stress.
Now after adding in three more steps after her Olfactory Kick Start (we’ll talk about those later), watch what Ruby does when taking a tablet:
What Ruby Does Next from Dr. Kristopher Chandroo on Vimeo.
We’ve gone from feisty and swatting to the capsule going down the hatch the very first time. And notice that afterwards, she does not run away or hide. She is content exactly where she is. I can use this same technique for giving liquid medications or SQ fluids. Even if Ruby did not react well with the capsule, by using the Olfactory Kick Start, I have set the stage for success via other techniques I could do.
How does all of this work?
I set the stage for success literally by using a towel and a few dollars worth of ingredients. The Olfactory Kick Start is the “stick it in the cheese” technique for cats. Ruby revealed to us that she was flexible, and that her initial behavior had more to do with fear and anxiety. And we could make her feel differently using her olfactory system, which is directly tied into her emotions via her limbic system. Ruby was allowed to make different choices about her response to a medication. We revealed her potential. Notice that most of the work to get Ruby to take her medication happened before the medication even touched her body. This is your cat’s 80% rule in action.
And you know what? The Olfactory Kick Start is just one of many simple techniques that can be used to increase the chance of your cat accepting their medications or SQ fluids. Just one. Now what happens when we have many similar techniques combined together? Our success of medicating feisty, grumpy or reluctant cats increases. And then, they have a better chance at beating their illness.
What was the next step for Ruby after the Olfactory Kick Start to get her to take medication without struggle? We found her Emotional Handling technique. This is huge. This turns the tide for many cats towards accepting their medication or SQ fluids.
- Cats have legitimate reasons to reject raw medications or pokes with needles. They reject the experience of getting the medication just as much as the medication itself.
- Your way out of struggling with giving a medication could be by following your cat’s 80% rule.
- The Olfactory Kick Start is one of several steps that you should do before medicating your cat to increase the chances of success.
- When combined with other techniques, like determining your cat’s Emotional Handling, your chances of success greatly increases.
So what is Emotional handling all about?
First, let’s all agree on something. Our grumpy, scared, anxious or feisty cats that refuse medication or being poked by needles are not bad cats. They are not “difficult” cats. They are completely 100% legitimate in the way they are acting, because their behavior is a window into their emotions.
They act based on how they feel. The study of evolutionary biology tells us that feelings can be a powerful way to protect ourselves from harm. We call these motivational affective states.
Humans have motivational affective states, our cats have them, and I made a strong argument for fish having them as well. Our cats are simply asking for help with managing their emotions during the medication process, and it’s not their fault or your fault that they don’t respond to general medication tricks that don’t fulfill this primary emotional need.
Look at these cats below:
Do you think for a second anyone would walk up to one those big cats in an unexpected, unpredictable way, and then force something gross tasting down the hatch? Especially if they were stressed or fearful? We don’t call these cat’s “bad” or “difficult” if they don’t follow what we want them to do. With big cats, the trainer knows that the system they use to get the right responses out of their cats is paramount for success. They have a system for promoting the right emotions in their cats, so they can agree to do a task.
When we have no system in place, and we approach our cats with medication with the exact same techniques as if they were a socialized small breed dog, we should expect our efforts to yield little success. This pill is going to be spit out, the liquid medication ends up on the floor, and your cat is offended because the emotions you need to work with were not allowed to bubble to the top of their consciousness.
Often, when we have no system in place, it means we randomly try every technique designed to calm your cat. There are plenty of modern products designed to help you handle your cat by calming them down. We have pheromones like Feliway®, handling aids like Thundershirts® and a plethora of other calm inducing collars or edible treats.
But absent is the information on how to use these modern products for the explicit goal of increasing their chances at accepting medication. All the while taking into account that cats will show strong individual personality traits and variation that will make some of these solutions poor choices for some, and right on the nose for others.
So, a blanket recommendation on how to handle your cat for medication success will work great for some cats by chance, but will fail many others.
To medicate your feisty, grumpy or reluctant cat, you simply need a system. A repeatable way of doing things that makes sense for your cat as an individual. An effective system will lead you to your cat’s Emotional Handling. Because when you know that, most of the work in gaining your cat’s cooperation is accomplished. You then are in a position to be far more likely to be able to medicate them or give them SQ fluids.
You have quickly become the lion trainer.
There is a vast, scattered network of knowledge when it comes to handling your cat the way they need to be handled before medicating them. I call this knowledge in action Emotional Handling, because you need to handle them a certain way on the outside, in order to affect their emotions on the inside.
Emotional Handling is literally how you are positioning your hands and body on or near your cat, while simultaneously using handling aids. When you can start off with the Olfactory Kick Start, and follow your cat’s lead into the Emotional Handling technique they choose, you dilute the alarm bells going off in their head that say “this medication is poisoning me” or “why are they trying to spear me with that needle”!
Again, this is your cat’s 80% rule in action – most of the success when giving a medication happens before it ever touches your cat.
Now, how can you put together a system to make this happen for your cat? How do you know which handling technique is the one that makes it possible to medicate them?
It is possible for you to make your own system. The problem is, the information you need to determine your cat’s Emotional Handling is not that accessible for most people. It’s scattered over research papers, reports, specialist manuals, textbooks and videos.
It’s very difficult to know how to put these techniques together when faced with the need to give your cat medications or SQ fluids quickly. And, by its very nature, this is something that must be customized for your cat. In other words, there is no one size fits all approach to provide medication or SQ fluids to a cat, and you need a system that is designed for this.
For Ruby, I simply followed my own system that I have used for clients, to enable her to accept a tablet, which I’ve diagrammed here:
Here is what I did:
Step 1 – Acknowledge Ruby’s 80% Rule.
Ruby is feisty and scared, so she will show me less behavioral flexibility and a lower tolerance to new experiences like medications at the moment. So most of the success when trying to medicate her will come from everything we do before a medication touches her body (her 80% rule). All the steps in the green boxes on the left of my chart let me know that I am on the right path with Ruby, even though she is currently upset and feisty.
Step 2 – Use the Olfactory Kick Start.
With the Olfactory Kick Start, we are nudging her towards increasing her flexibility and willingness to do something new and different under states of stress.
Step 3 – Ruby tells us that we can try a towel wrap technique with her.
How did I know that? The Towel Touch Technique is a quick test, that I do after the Olfactory Kick Start, that quickly tells me which general type of handling a cat might prefer. Once they are seated on a towel that they feel neutral or positive about (because I have added the Olfactory Kick Start ingredients on that towel) I simply take an edge of the towel and touch it over their shoulder.
Do they stay put when I touch them that way several times? If so, that is a “yes” to using towels when it comes to handling that cat. Many cat’s say “no” to the Towel Touch Technique. These cats are requesting that you try other types of handling instead.
Towel Touch Technique from Dr. Kristopher Chandroo on Vimeo.
Step 4 – By going through a system, I now know what is more likely to work for Ruby, and what is less likely to work.
By following her responses, she is telling me to try towels first, and we start with something I call a “messy wrap”. This is just a loose towel wrap around her. Not tightened down, just gently creating body contact and restricting her ability to bolt away. This handling technique puts Ruby in a positive, flexible emotional state so we can introduce medication. Why does it work? Too much free space or open areas for your cat will cause a scared, anxious or feisty cat to become even more so as they bolt around and hide. They are seeking security and safety. That is what an Emotional Handling technique gives them. A towel wrap can provide this.
There are a dozen Emotional Handling techniques I could have started with, but I knew Ruby had a good chance of accepting this particular one, because I had a system in place in which Ruby was able to choose what she preferred. She passed the Towel Touch Technique, so I was able to know what to try next based on Ruby’s own responses.
In a proper system, our cats are talking. And we are listening and able to make targeted choices to achieve our goal of medicating them as soon as possible, with the least amount of stress. Not all cats accept towels at home, even if they could be wrapped in one at the vet clinic.
For cats that say “yes” to towels, the master video for learning towel techniques is:
Handling Cats with Skill and Ease: Towel Wrap Techniques by Dr. Sophia Yin, which can be streamed on Vimeo or the DVD can be purchased here.
So by respecting Ruby’s behavior, and then using her own behavior as information to take me through a system, we can go from this before being given a medication:
To this after being administered her medication:
Why does all of this matter? All this talk about Olfactory Kick Start, Emotional Handling and systems?
For those of you who have been following my blog, iwillhelpyourcat.com, you know about my cat Zack. When Zack got sick, I knew that I would do whatever I could to keep him happy. I would treat his illness as long as he agreed to do so, to keep him as part of our family. I learned everything I could so I could give him his medications and keep him agreeable to the way I did it. Because of this, his numerous treatments for his arthritis, chronic kidney disease, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, hyperthyroidism and ataxia were not only successful, but were also events that didn’t stop him from greeting us at the door, eating treats, sunbathing and doing all the things he loved best.
Zack enjoyed his life, and he felt safe, loved and respected. Medicating him was not a torturous ordeal that we dreaded doing, because we had found Zack’s essential requirements. We knew what made up his 80% rule.
What about your cat’s 80% Rule?
Well, anyone can do this. You do not need to be an expert or have any particular skill set in order to figure it out for your cat. In fact, you could figure it out over a weekend.
Dr. Kris Chandroo is a vet who has spent decades dedicated to the study and promotion of animal welfare and behavior, in an effort to serve the human-animal bond.