How To Reduce Feline Stress For Better Vet Visits
Jessica Fine, DVM, MS
Vet visits can be stressful for both you and your beloved cat — wouldn’t it be nice to know that your kitty is not stressed, but rather is calm and relaxed? Or at least a whole lot less stressed than usual? Reduced feline stress can be achieved by anxiety-relieving medication and by stress prevention habits at home. Premedication alone can, for some cats, make the whole experience much easier and safer, and can aid in more accurate health assessments and better medical care!
The stress your cat experiences influences diagnostic findings too. Stressed cats may show elevated heart rates, elevated blood pressures, and often abnormal lab findings. If the stress of the visit is decreased, your cat vet can evaluate your kitty’s health more accurately.
Getting Your Cat To The Vet Can Be Easier For You And Your Cat!
For many kitties, the stress of the veterinary visit starts well before you are even in the car. It doesn’t have to be like that! There are many tools to help desensitize your kitty to the upcoming visit. Premedication with a safe and gentle anti-anxiety medicine is an invaluable aid in helping to stop the stress before it starts (or at least keep it to a much more tolerable minimum). Gabapentin is our drug of choice for this. Alternative medications are available if gabapentin is not working well for your cat.
Gabapentin: A Gentle and Safe Anxiety Reliever
Gabapentin is a very safe and easily administered medication that can substantially reduce feline stress and anxiety experienced before and during visits to the veterinary hospital. It can be useful in the management of other stressors too, such as travel or having visitors in your home. Reducing your kitty’s stress level in preparation for a veterinary visit is desirable for your cat’s safety and wellbeing, and also to avoid the introduction of stress-induced artifactual changes into examination and laboratory test results.
Gabapentin Administration: When, How Much, and How?
When: For many kitties, a single dose of gabapentin, given in a small amount of food about an hour before you begin readying for the car ride, can make the whole process much easier. Some kitties do even better if they are given gabapentin the night before as well as the morning of the visit; some do best if they are given gabapentin once or twice a day for a few days beforehand. It all depends on each cat’s own anxiety level.
How Much: Each individual cat responds a little differently to different doses. Try giving gabapentin at home before the day of your visit to help determine what dose will be most effective for your cat. Your cat vet can advise you about how to determine an ideal dose for your cat.
How: Giving gabapentin is easy: just open the capsule and mix the contents in a small amount of food, and feed that 1 – 2 hours prior to your visit. This works best when your kitty is hungry, so an overnight fast before the visit can be really helpful.
Gabapentin and Drowsiness
A single dose of gabapentin will usually cause some drowsiness as well as relieve your kitty’s anxiety. This is perfectly normal, and also desirable, as the drowsiness can also be helpful at the vet visit! The drowsy effect is usually mild, and for most cats, wears off in a few hours. The ideal dose of gabapentin for your kitty should make her very drowsy at home, since an adrenaline release triggered by visit stressors may override some of the effects of the drug.
When gabapentin is given for a long time, the drowsiness effect wears off; if your kitty takes gabapentin regularly (for seizures, chronic pain, or other problems), a higher dose may be needed before the vet visit to achieve the same effect.
Is Gabapentin Safe For My Cat?
Safety is the number one question from kitty owners about gabapentin. Gabapentin is an extremely safe drug, with a much better safety profile than most other drugs commonly used for pre-visit sedation. A 2021 study published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association concluded that gabapentin is an entirely appropriate medication even for cats who have or are suspected of having heart disease.
Gabapentin is also much safer than unmitigated stress, which can be unsafe for many cats, especially those with cardiac or respiratory disorders. It has a long track record; it’s been used safely to relieve anxiety associated with veterinary procedures, travel, and other fear-generating situations for years.
Additional Measures You Can Take to Reduce Vet Visit Feline Stress
- Make The Carrier A “Safe Zone.” Leave it out and open at home. Line it with a furry or fuzzy blanket. Place beloved toys in the carrier. Give species-appropriate treats in the carrier regularly. Consider trying a stuffed animal designed to hold a warming device inside (these usually come with the warmer), and some even have a heartbeat sound generator; a “buddy” like this in the carrier can be very soothing!
- Carrier Practice: If the only time your kitty is ever put in the carrier is to go to the vet, it’s a guarantee that the carrier itself will trigger anxiety. A great idea is to put her in the carrier periodically, drive her around the block, then bring her home and shower her with treats and love. Although it can take a good while before you see a difference with this approach, with patience and determination, you can make the carrier something your kitty looks forward to!
- Atraumatic Vet Visit Practice: The same principle applies to the vet hospital itself. You might get the in-carrier-ization and the trip down to a no-problem level, and yet still see your kitty react once you come in the door at the vet clinic. If your vet can accommodate this request, see if you can bring your kitty and sit in an exam room with her for 10-30 minutes. Bring treats and toys. Let her out of the carrier and play with her and love on her. Then put her back in and head on home, where more treats and love appear. A few of these “nothing scary happened to me” visits can really make a difference!
Why Is Stress Reduction Important For My Cat?
As already mentioned, just getting your cat into the carrier, through the car trip, and into the vet hospital can be an unpleasant experience for both you and your cat. A goal of the vet visit being completely stress-free may not be realistic, but any level of stress reduction will help make the whole experience more pleasant.
Less Stress May Mean Less or No Sedation
An important factor is that pre-visit stress reduction may mean the difference between needing or not needing sedation at the visit. And even if you have that special kitty who still needs sedation for safe handling, pre-visit stress reduction (and especially anti-anxiety medication!) can mean that lower doses of sedative drugs will be needed.
Feline Stress Induces Examination Abnormalities
An examination of an overly stressed cat may show elevations in heart and respiratory rates. Rapid heart rates can sometimes cause abnormal heart sounds that cannot be differentiated from sounds associated with real heart disease without an echocardiogram. Scared kitties can be very tense, and it is easy to misinterpret muscle tension as a sign of pain. Tense abdominal muscles can make it impossible to palpate abdominal organs effectively.
Most importantly, that adrenaline rush can cause a cat to hide, unintentionally, symptoms your cat vet needs to see. As an example, cats who are lame at home will often walk perfectly normally at the vet, then become lame at home again as soon as the adrenaline wears off.
All these changes can lead both to diagnoses of problems that are not really present, and to missing diagnoses as well when signs of problems are hidden by an adrenaline rush or obscured by tense muscles.
Feline Stress Changes Laboratory Test Results
Significant alterations in laboratory test values can occur when kitties experience marked stress and anxiety prior to and during the veterinary appointment. Stress triggers an adrenaline release, which puts the body into “fight or flight” mode. The body chemistry alterations that help a kitty fight or fly are reflected in lab test results, which can interfere with the accurate interpretation of those results.
A good example: Elevated blood sugar is a common finding in stressed kitties. Fighting and fleeing both take more energy than usual, so more glucose is released into the bloodstream to meet this demand. This “stress hyperglycemia” can make it difficult to determine whether a kitty is or is not diabetic; and if a kitty is known to be diabetic and is taking insulin, the stress-induced addition to the blood sugar can make it difficult or impossible to know if the insulin dose is right. A stressed cat who is not diabetic can spike a blood sugar level as high as 400, normal being around 100. That’s a big difference!
Should I Give My Cat Gabapentin?
You can see how reducing feline stress can be beneficial. The decision to use gabapentin or any other sedative prior to a stressful event is of course entirely up to each individual kitty guardian. Gabapentin is very safe, demonstrably safer than the effects of severe stress. Giving your kitty gabapentin prior to a hospital visit can decrease her stress greatly. It can help minimize or avoid artificially abnormal examination or lab results which might lead to incorrect or missed diagnoses. If real sedation is still necessary, having gabapentin on board can reduce the amount of other drugs needed. Gabapentin Is easy to administer; whether opening the capsule into a small amount of food or using a compounded liquid version via syringe. Even if your veterinarian has not suggested pre-visit premedication, you can ask for it. Your cat vet can assist you in finding the proper dosage and the easiest form of administration. It can change your cat’s life (and yours) for the better, and who doesn’t want that?
If you have questions about using gabapentin for your cat, we encourage you to make an appointment with one of our experienced feline veterinarians. After reviewing your cat’s individual health status and challenges, we can help you determine what is right for your cat. Call us for an appointment today!