If you follow me on a regular basis, you know I work with a lot of disturbed kitties. Sometimes, they are just so scared and shy, they barely move. Others so aggressive, they lunge, spit and try to bite me on the regular. That’s why I’m a fan of gabapentin.
I want to share why you don’t need to be afraid of gabapentin and how it’s another tool we have as cat owners and fosters to use when needed. This drug helps our furry friends either go through basic things, like a car ride to the vet, or more complicated psychological issues from neglect or abuse. During my series on Medicine & Cats, I covered gabapentin a bit, but I wanted to devote an entire post to explaining what life is like for overly anxious cats, and how this drug helps them cope and heal.
Disclaimer: I’m not a vet or certified behaviorist. Please do not administer drugs to your cat without your vet’s blessing and a prescription. I will share my experience to hopefully arm you with knowledge you can use to have conversations with your vet if you think your cat needs gabapentin for any reason.
The Mind of an Anxious Cat
So often, people hear my cat Lucy is on gabapentin twice a day, and there is instant shock, questions, and sometimes judgement.
“Don’t you feel bad keeping her on medicine all the time?”
“That can’t be healthy.”
“Does she have to be on it forever?”
What people don’t understand is that cats like Lucy and my current foster Sunshine are fighting anxiety sometimes constantly. Imagine feeling like this …
Being unable to even recognize a familiar person (like an owner) because your anxiety has you completely blinded.
Constantly questioning everything in a room (including inanimate objects) because you don’t know if you need to fight or run to save yourself.
Getting subconsciously triggered by smells or sounds.
Being frequently scared and not know why.
Not sleeping soundly because you’re always on guard.
This is the life for these cats – constant anxiety. So often, they are victims of abuse or neglect, end up in shelters or foster programs, and are completely misunderstood. Owners and fosters are at their wits’ end from often anxiety-induced aggression. And I understand why. It’s frustrating and confusing.
What if there was a pill to control that anxiety, make the cat feel safer and calmer, allowed them to get meaningful rest, and actually see things for what they are? And what if the pill has minimal short- and long-term side effects? Wouldn’t it make sense to at least try it?
What’s Going on in the Brain?
What drives the anxiety in the brain? Obviously, what’s supposed to happen is an increase in excitability when there is a threat so that we (or cats) can get away from it if necessary. Fight or flight. Sometimes, we perceive things that aren’t actual threats as threats. For humans, it’s believed to be hereditary or caused from traumatic events.
Is it the same in cats? The hereditary piece is so hard to study because we often don’t know a cat’s father. One thing we do know that causes anxiety is repeated abuse and/or neglect. It can change the brain, and it will make a cat more easily go into fight or flight. A cat will be more sensitive to those excited signals in the brain, even when the abuser isn’t present.
The result is ongoing symptoms like these:
- Constant stare downs if you are in the room – Regardless of how big the room is and regardless of how close you are to the cat.
- Dilated pupils – Non-stop dilation.
- Growling – Very consistent, even if you aren’t near the cat.
- Hissing – Sometimes at the air, and not even directed at you.
- Twitching the tip of the tail – Even at rest, if not in REM, the tip is twitching.
Take a look at Lucy and Sunshine, each on their first day in my home. Turn the sound up and you’ll hear the growling:
But how is this different from just a regular cat hissing or a shy cat with dilated pupils? It’s different because the above symptoms occur nearly constantly in cats that are victims of ongoing neglect and/or abuse. Many times, it seems the cat flips a switch out of nowhere and turns into a demon. The symptoms are so excessive, there appears to be no apparent pattern to their behavior (there are always triggers, but they’re hard to spot).
How Gabapentin Helps Anxious Cats
How does gabapentin help with excitement in the brain? To my surprise – nobody knows. The best hypothesis is that gabapentin blocks calcium in what would typically signal the release of excitatory transmitters, telling the calcium “You shall not pass!”
Gabapentin was originally used to control seizures in humans, and then neuropathic pain. Although not labeled for anxiety, the benefits cannot be ignored. A recent study in cats showed that administering gabapentin before an annual vet visit allowed cats,that normally couldn’t be examined to get examined and receive vaccinations. This decreases the stress for the cat obviously, but also the owner, vet, and vet staff. All really good things.
Side note: The study gave cats the 100 mg gabapentin 90 minutes before the event. I recommend giving it 120 minutes (2 hours) before. The dosage may be different for your cat. Please consult your vet.
Why Is Gabapentin so Great? Few Adverse Side Effects
Minimal short-term side effects have been reported in cats, but they include sedation, ataxia, vomiting, and diarrhea. All typically resolve within 8 hours, and remember, the sedation can be a good thing for stressful events. Also, I’ve found that lower doses of gabapentin can be given if the side effects are too intense.
A note on this: GI upset is not uncommon in cats who are anxious. I wouldn’t be surprised if the vomiting and diarrhea reported is more related to initial anxiety than the gabapentin. Just a thought!
I could not find any long-term negative side effects in my research, but more studies need to be performed to really know (there haven’t been a lot of studies on gabapentin in cats). The main reason there doesn’t appear to be long-term side effects is that gabapentin isn’t really metabolized, and is excreted by the kidneys. It sort of goes out the way it goes in. Obviously if a cat has kidney disease, gabapentin could put a further strain on the kidneys, so a lower dosage may be recommended.
How do you know if gabapentin is too strong for your cat? Relaxed and napping is okay … totally stumbling all over the place is not. If your cat is doing that, they likely need a lower dose OR another medication. The anxious cats I use it on will still run and play while on it, so I know it’s pulling down the anxiety, but not knocking them out for hours on end. Please talk to you vet about proper dosing for your cat.
Here’s Lucy on gabapentin:
Why Controlling Excitability Helps Anxious Cats
Imagine you can’t think straight, and you are so terrified, you just want to run, or are prepping to fight for your life.
Does that sound healthy? Enjoyable? Obviously not. That’s why I think it’s so important to give extremely anxious cats some relief with gabapentin. By preventing excitability from reaching high levels, they’re able to think more clearly. The goal is that when they are calm, I can teach them that I’m not scary. The environment is safe. And we can even play and have fun. They can watch birds outside or take a nap. Slowing down things in the brain helps them relax.
After working with them, they can often be weaned off the gabapentin; however, if their case is severe, like Miss Lucy’s, daily gabapentin is likely her medicine for life.
Are there visible differences? Yes. When Lucy or Sunshine take gabapentin, their dilated pupils disappear. They curl up into balls to take naps and show their bellies. They are calmer and happier – but they still have their personalities. If I accidentally do something that triggers them, the growls, swats, and hisses return, but are on a much more manageable scale. It also makes it easier to recognize what triggers each cat, because everything is slowed down. Their excitement more quickly dissipates and returns to normal, where as without gabapentin, anxious periods last longer.
Are Lucy & Sunshine Really Happier?
Yes, Lucy and Sunshine are happier since being treated with gabapentin. I’ve taught Lucy how to walk on a cat wheel and how to walk with a harness in the park. They both play, have fun and escape anxiety by chasing and batting around toys, and being cats. Another thing they love to do is sit at the window and watch the birds. They even purr when I’m petting them, whereas initially, they could barely be touched.
Lucy and Sunshine’s progress isn’t because of the gabapentin, but gabapentin provided the space for progress. That’s how I would like people to look at it. It’s an option when a cat’s anxiety appears excessive. It’s a way to calm the cat down so you can interact with them or help them relax for a vet visit. It doesn’t cure anxiety, but it helps manage it when nothing else seems to work.
Whether you decide to use it as a one-off or want it for longer-term use, please consult a vet and/or certified cat behaviorist. Good luck!
Did you miss my article on how to work with shy and scared cats? Check it out here.