Gabapentin: anti-anxiety medication for cats (and their owners)

Posted on March 13, 2018 by Dr. Dale Rubenstein.

Does your cat look forward to getting in the car and coming to see us? Most cats, over the age of about 3 months, do not. Which very often means you don’t look forward to a trip to the vet’s either.  Don’t worry, we don’t take it personally.  And fortunately, we have a very effective anti-anxiety medication for cats called gabapentin, which has been working wonders for some of our more easily-stressed patients.  If your cat is less stressed, you will be too!

Why is it so stressful for my cat to go the the vet’s office?

We know exactly why cats don’t like coming to our clinic.  They have to get in a carrier, get in the car, go to a strange place with new people, new sounds, new smells – for a cat, this is exhausting and scary, because they have so little control in the situation. A frightened cat mostly wants to hide and they can’t do that when they’re in a carrier or an exam room.

With most of our feline patients, our Feline Friendly Handling ® Guidelines allow us to perform exams and treatments. Quiet voices, skilled and gentle handling, using warm towels, and making slow, steady vs sudden movements all help provide an environment most likely to make a cat feel safe. But some cats are so stressed by any part of the whole experience that they go into defensive mode for self-protection. We totally understand, but we also are trying to perform a physical exam, to draw blood samples, give vaccinations.  And sometimes, the worst part of all is having their nails trimmed! (I think that is because a fearful cat wants to run away, so when we hold their feet, this goes against every instinct.)

Gabapentin to the rescue

Gabapentin has been used as an anti-seizure medication, as well as a treatment for diabetic neuropathy pain in people. One of the side effects is sedation. We learned about using gabapentin as an anti-anxiety medication in cats from our local veterinary cardiologists. They had good experiences with this technique and felt that the medication was very safe.

As with any medication given “to effect”, we’ve learned that doses vary with different cats.  In smaller, older or sick cats, we generally prescribe 50-75 mg; in larger cats, 75-100 mg. This is given 3 hours prior to a visit, so 2-2.5 hours prior to leaving your house. The “tiny tabs” can be mixed with a small amount of baby food and given via syringe.  Just ask us to show you how.

If you are unable to give your cat the medication at home, we can schedule your cat’s visit on a weekday morning.  That way your cat can stay with us for a few hours so we can give a sedation injection. We try to minimize this, but in some cats it is needed.  This can also be done for for the occasional cat where gabapentin doesn’t provide enough sedation to get the desired effect.

Gabapentin is an effective anti-anxiety medication for cats

We can testify to the benefits in our own cats. My cat Athena gets very stressed coming to the clinic, but gabapentin makes her (and her mom) much calmer. She is only 8.5 lbs., but needs 100 mg. Dr. Mustillo’s Sammy really hates riding in a car: vomiting, diarrhea, urinating and vocalizing the whole way – not a happy trip for either of them. Sammy has chronic kidney disease so he gets a slightly lower dose – he weighs 11 lbs., but he gets 50 mg of gabapentin. He also gets anti-nausea medication, in addition to gabapentin to help with car-sickness. He still doesn’t like coming, but he’s better with medication.

We’ve been using this medication for a couple of years now.  It’s been a big help for a lot of our patients.  See our previous blog posts De-Stressing Veterinary Visits and Make it Fear Free for more on anti-anxiety medication for cats, as well as other tips to help visits go smoothly.

So, if your cat gets stressed, please let us know. We know we’ll never be their favorite destination – that’s being home with you.  But we can try to make things a little easier for everyone.