Cat Blobby in clinic at Victoria hospital

Caring for your sick cat

If your cat is sick it’s important to keep them comfortable and warm, and follow instructions from your vet.

Cats are good at hiding signs of illness or pain. It’s important to keep an eye on changes in their behaviour or appearance to catch any illness in its early stages. Once your cat has seen the vet, make sure to follow their instructions carefully. Your cat may need medication or home nursing to recover.


Sick cats should be kept indoors with a litter tray. If they are allowed to roam free they may not come back.

What to do if your cat is being sick or has diarrhoea

Contact your vet if your cat has been vomiting for more than 24 hours. In young or elderly cats, tummy upsets can be very dangerous due to the risk of dehydration. You should also contact your vet if your cat:

  • has blood in their vomit
  • cannot keep water down
  • has pale or cold gums

If your pet is vomiting and unable to keep food down, you can try missing one meal while still allowing access to fresh water. Then, offer a teaspoonful of bland food, like boiled skinned chicken or white fish (such as cod or coley). If your cat tolerates this, you can give a little more after a couple of hours. Stick to this diet for two days before gradually mixing with your cat’s normal food.

If your cat has diarrhoea, do not skip their meals. Instead, swap their normal cat food out for a bland diet of boiled white skinless chicken or white fish. Provide plenty of access to water, with water bowls placed away from their food dish. You can put water bowls in different locations throughout the house to encourage your cat to drink more often. Contact your vet if diarrhoea persists for more than two days, or if your cat seems weak and does not want to eat.

What to do if your cat has cat flu

Cat flu is a viral disease with symptoms similar to that of a bad cold. It's usually most dangerous in kittens, but you should still contact your vet, even if they’re older. Symptoms of cat flu include:

  • runny eyes and nose
  • sore throat
  • mouth ulcers
  • dribbling
  • sneezing
  • loss of voice
  • fever

Mouth ulcers can make swallowing difficult for your cat. If they have a bunged-up nose, they may also not want to eat. You can offer strong-smelling foods – such as roast chicken or fish – to ensure they're still eating.

Ulcers can form on their eyes as well. If the eye is closed up or there is a lot of discharge, see a vet. These ulcers, if left untreated, can cause serious damage to the eye. You can wipe away any discharge from the eyes or nose with warm salt water – boil a pint of water and mix in a teaspoon of salt. Let it cool to a lukewarm temperature before applying.

What to do if your cat has skin problems

Cats can experience a number of different skin problems, including rashes, sores, fleas and hair loss. You should speak to your vet if you notice any skin problems to prevent it from getting worse. The most effective treatments for fleas are available from your vet.

When a cat licks their sore skin they can stop it from healing and worsen the pain. You can stop them from licking by using an Elizabethan collar. If your cat is scratching their skin, socks on the hindlegs and paws can stop them from doing this. If licking or scratching persists, speak to your vet as they may be able to give treatments to reduce itching.

To soothe the skin, bath sore or itchy patches in cool salt water, or apply an ice pack.

General nursing

Many elderly cats develop long-standing conditions that need looking after at home. Always notify the vet of any changes in the condition of a pet with a long-standing illness.


If your pet is unwell, always consult your vet. The following advice is intended only to help you care for a cat that is undergoing veterinary treatment.

While you’re nursing your cat at home, there are some things you can do to keep them as comfortable as possible:

  • Check that you have enough medication to see your cat through the weekend. Make sure to follow the vet’s instructions carefully when administering medication.
  • Offer plenty of access to fresh water to prevent kidney problems. You can place large bowls in different rooms to give your cat multiple opportunities to drink.
  • Provide a warm thick bed in a quiet place. If you provide a heat pad or a hot water bottle it must be well padded to prevent burns. Heat pads should be checked frequently for overheating.
  • If your cat is unable to move, they should be turned every two hours. Check them for soiling with urine or faeces. You can wash your cat with pet-friendly shampoo to keep them clean, but be sure to dry them fully. When using hair dryers, select the lowest setting and hold it at a distance.
  • Gently groom your cat daily if they're happy with being groomed. This can be a soothing activity for both of you, and can help to reduce their stress.

Monitor your cat carefully and, if the bad times are beginning to outweigh the good, consider the options carefully. Discuss the options with your vet and if it's time to say goodbye. Alternatively, you can contact our Pet Loss Support service.

Tempting a sick cat to eat

Poorly cats often do not want to eat. Not eating may indicate emotional upset or disturbance, but if it lasts more than 24 hours you are advised to contact your vet. Do not leave uneaten food down – it may go stale and cause your cat to feel nauseous.

There are some things you can do to tempt your cat to eat:

  • Offer strong smelling foods such as chicken, tuna or pilchards (in small quantities so they do not cause digestive upsets), and warm the food to release the scent
  • Liquidise food if your cat has difficulty swallowing
  • Offer bits of food by hand, or dab a tiny bit onto their lips or front paws

Speak to your vet for advice on the most suitable diet for your cat if they're unwell.

Giving medication to your cat


Never give your cat your own medication. Many human medications are poisonous to cats, and the effects could be fatal.


Medication should be given as and when instructed by your vet. If it’s in the form of a tablet, you may be able to give medication in food to make it more enticing – but check with your vet in case it needs to be given on an empty tummy.

If you’re able to give the tablet in food, you can:

  • choose a strong-tasting food that will either stick to a tablet (so that it does not fall out the mouth) or mix a crushed tablet into your cat's meal – pilchards, cheese or sausage are all ideal
  • offer the medicated food when your pet is hungry, and keep the quantity small so that it all gets eaten
  • place the tablet inside a soft, tasty cat treat – your local pet shop or vet can recommend something suitable

If putting the tablet in food does not work, you will have to give the medicine by hand. Many tablets now come in nice-tasting palatable forms to make this process easier.

Preparing to give medication

When medicating your pet, preparation is vital. Get everything ready without your cat seeing so that they do not hide. Remove the lid from drops or ointments, or remove a tablet from the container. Confine your pet to one room, so that you do not have to chase your cat round the house, and then pick them up. It’s helpful either to wrap your cat in a towel or blanket, or to have a second person to hold the forelegs.

How to give your cat a tablet

  1. If you are right handed, position your left hand on top of your cat’s head, with your thumb on one side and your fingers on the other side of your cat’s cheek
  2. Tilt the head back so that the nose points at the ceiling. The mouth should then open.
  3. Hold the tablet between the thumb and index finger of your free hand. With the other fingers, gently apply pressure to the lower jaw between the canine teeth. This will open the mouth further.
  4. Quickly and carefully place the tablet onto the tongue as far back as you can get it. Close the mouth and hold it closed until you have seen your cat swallow. You can also gently rub the throat or nose to stimulate swallowing.
  5. After administering the tablet, give your cat some positive interaction, such as a tasty treat, brushing, petting or playing

It may help to coat the tablet with butter or margarine to make swallowing easier. You can also buy pill poppers (long thin pipette with a plunger) which you insert into the mouth, pushing the plunger to administer the pill.

How to give your cat liquid medicines

  1. Draw up the correct dose of medicine into a dropper or syringe
  2. If you are right handed, position your left hand on top of your cat’s head, with your thumb on one side and your fingers on the other side of your cat’s cheek
  3. Tilt the head back so the nose points at the ceiling. The mouth should then open.
  4. Insert the syringe or dropper into the side of the mouth behind the canine teeth (the big fangs)
  5. Administer the liquid slowly to allow your pet time to swallow. Be prepared for some of the medicine to dribble out or for your pet to struggle. A second person can help by holding paper towels below the jaw.

Give your cat something to take the taste away afterwards, such as their favourite treat.

How to give your cat eye drops and ointments

  1. Gently remove any discharge from the eye using warm salt water (a teaspoon of salt in a pint of water)
  2. Sit your cat in your lap with their back to your chest
  3. If you are right handed, tilt the head back and use the index finger and thumb of your left hand to hold the eyelid open
  4. Hold the medication in your right hand and bring it towards the eye from the side. As you administer the eye drops, be careful not to touch the eye itself with the bottle. With an ointment, squeeze a little out of the nozzle to start with, position it over the eye, and squeeze again to lay a trail of ointment over the surface of the eye.

Do not let your pet rub their medicated eye afterwards.

How to give your cat ear medication

To administer ear medication, you'll need to know where to find the ear canal. The earflap is only part of your cat’s ear. The L-shaped ear canal starts at the base of the flap, then turns sharply inward.

Remember that, before the medication gets to work, your cat's ears may be in pain. You may need to wrap them securely in a blanket or ask someone to help you.

  1. Hold the earflap with your left hand if you are right-handed and look for the ear opening
  2. Hold the bottle in your right hand, insert the tip of the bottle into the ear opening, and squeeze in the correct number of drops
  3. Using your index finger and thumb, gently massage the base of the ear. This will allow the medication to travel through the tube in your cat’s ear. You should hear a squelching noise when you do this, and your cat will likely enjoy it. You can wipe away any excess, but do not use cotton buds inside the ear.

When you release the earflap your pet may shake their head.

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• 31 July 2023

Next review

• 31 July 2026

Approved by
Róisín Bolger

Veterinary Surgeon MRCVS