You try everything to keep your cat calm and agreeable during her trips to the vet. You leave out her travel carrier all the time so she’s used to it, and you keep soft blankets, toys, and treats in there so she won’t freak out when it’s time to bring her to the car. You take her to a caring veterinarian who has set up a feline waiting area apart from dogs and lets her walk around the exam room before trying to get close to her. The doctor also makes sure the staff treats her gently, gives her treats for compliance, and uses soothing, quiet words of reassurance as she is poked and prodded. But still, she responds like a cat out of hell, flailing and acting aggressively in her fear. What’s next?
Apparently, an inexpensive medication called gabapentin. It is used to control nerve pain (in people as well as cats) but also, more and more, to tamp down on anxiety (also in people as well as cats).
In a study conducted by veterinarians in France and published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, dozens of cats who were known to exhibit fear-based aggression at the doctor’s office (growling, hissing, swatting, scratching, biting) were observed during two separate veterinary visits. Two hours before one of those visits, they were administered either 100 or 200 milligrams of gabapentin by their owners depending on their weight (with cats weighing at least 15.4 pounds getting the higher dose). Before the other visit, they were given a placebo. Neither the owners nor the veterinarians knew which cat was being given which treatment. But the results were remarkably consistent.
When the cats received gabapentin, their owners awarded them lower overall scores for stress during trips to the vet and also during exams. Similarly, the vets rated the cats as significantly more cooperative. In fact, the median score for cats examined after being given gabapentin was the highest it could be: 9. Almost 80 percent of the cats did better. As all of these cats previously needed special handling with puncture-resistant gloves, towel wrapping, restraint cages, or even anesthesia, it was a remarkable outcome. For cats examined without gabapentin, on the other hand, the median score was a 0.5 For one in five of the cats, examination was possible only when they had been medicated.
A common side effect of the medication was drowsiness, particularly for smaller cats. Some cats also exhibited impaired coordination, excess salivation, and vomiting, but all side effects had resolved within 10 hours. They were of little enough concern that the researchers were quite pleased overall about the stress reduction during the car rides to the doctor’s office and the decrease in aggression coupled with the increase in cooperation during the veterinary examinations. They posited further that the side effects were acceptable, given that veterinary visits generally only occur once or twice a year.
This is not the first study to indicate that gabapentin works to decrease feline stress. In previous research, feral cats confined for the purpose of spaying and neutering before being returned to their outdoor environments had lower stress scores than similar cats who received a placebo. Similarly, in yet another research trial, healthy cats who had previously shown signs of stress or fractious behavior during veterinary examinations were calmer on their way to the doctor’s office and during their veterinary examinations.
Getting your cat to take the gabapentin
As anyone with a cat knows, it is not always easy to get your pet to swallow medication. The good news here: gabapentin does not have a strong taste and can be given in liquid form, which makes administration much less of a challenge. Some liquid forms of gabapentin contain the sweetener xylitol. While that substance is toxic for dogs, it does not cause serious problems for cats.
Why gabapentin?? I’m a retired nurse so I know gabapentin is an anti-seizure medication. Twice I’ve given a dose to a cat (different cats) and they became ragdolls. One had to be carried to the litter box on a dose which was only 1/4 of what the vet recommended. The other staggered for hours, couldn’t jump up. … I’ve taken gabapentin myself for pain relief — it wasn’t, it didn’t.
Surely there are other meds which could relax a cat?
Really glad for this posting. Thank you for a cautious warning. Thank you also for being a nurse.
When my 19 year old cat took this medication I thought she was dying. She had to be carried to the litter box, stopped eating and drinking and seemed almost dead! After quitting this medication, she wa fine in 24 hours!
I think the biggest help people can give their pets is to get them used to being handled by Veterinarian when they’re young if at all possible. Take the time to drive them back-and-forth to the vet and go in and out of the office and let them get used to the sights and sounds when they are kittens. It may sound far-fetched some but I know that it works.
I adopted a young cat Praxis (“action” in Greek) in 2014. He’d been feral, and was picked up on the street by a kind policeman, then transported to an animal shelter. His first vet visit was a disaster: he panted, yelled, paced, hissed, tried to claw, and wound up leaping almost ceiling-high from one side of the exam room to the other, where he landed, cornered. The vet watched Praxis as he passed over her head. We finally got him back into the carrier, but it was difficult. I haven’t been brave enough to take him back. Since he’s nearly a healthy ten years old now, I should take him to the vet for a visit, but I was not looking forward to it. Gabapentin or another drug that has similar calming effects might just be the thing that makes a vet visit for Praxis possible. I really appreciate the information in your newsletter, and have recommended it to several cat aficionados among my pet-sitting clients.
I had a kitty now deceased, who had serious problems being transported to the vet. Actually, she had a number of issues of fear induced aggression over her long life. 100 mg two hours before the visit worked wonders. She would be sort of out of it in hours 3 to 6. I have two other cats who receive this for Arthritis, and seem to do well. 25 mg twice daily.
I have multiple kits and some easier than others to get into carriers. After chasing then 8-month old Mittsi (a calico) around a confined space for literally 2 hrs so I could take her to be spayed, I was incredibly stressed! I couldn’t corner her to give her the liquid Gabapentin, so out of desperation, I put a small amount in a spray bottle, added a tiny bit of water, then was able to spritz her, a bit on her face but mostly on her back and paws. I wasn’t hopeful but to decompress, I left her in the closed room and took my pup out for a walk. When I came back 10 minutes later, Mittsi was calmly laying there. I figured she’d run off as soon as I reached for her but, nope, shock of shocks!, she let me pick her up and put her in the carrier!!! I’ve since used this with my other Krazy Kits and knock wood, it works! Plus it has my vet’s blessing (She’s a Tufts alum) and she has shared with other pet parents. Maybe this will help someone!!!
100 mg did not phase my 8 month old. I (@ my veterinarian’s approval) gave him 200 mg. Finally, after close to 3 hours he calmed down enough to trim his nails. 5 hours later, he was up and bouncing around again. His first couple months of life was traumatic. All I know is he had blue paint all over (indicative of dog fighting rings) and it had to be washed off him. He’s a good cat (kitten) but cannot be restrained. Gabepentin is a blessing for us.
I treated a cat with hypothyroidism, with a med that I rubbed into his ear, which was very easy. He died after a happy old age, and we now have a young’n who is very friendly when he wants cuddles, but pretty paranoid about being picked up or carried around in or out of a cat carrier. Is there any chance gabapentin – or some other calming agent – could be administered into his ear? He’s got stomatitis and will I fear need many trips to the vet in the upcoming years.