Cat Sedatives: When and How to Use Them
Even the calmest of cats may feel stressed, nervous, or fearful in certain situations.
This can lead to a variety of issues, including inability to perform a veterinary exam or grooming. With severe or long-term stress, quality of life can be impacted. Anxiety in cats can even contribute to physical illness.
Below we discuss common situations when cat sedatives may be helpful, and how to use them safely and effectively.
When Do Cats Need Sedation?
In some short-term situations — such as during a veterinary visit, while trying to trim mats out of the fur, or loud fireworks — a reasonable amount of anxiety is expected. But if a kitty’s stress is severe, they may try to escape the situation and end up becoming lost or injured in their panic. Or, they may bite, scratch, or injure a human.
Sedation or anxiety-reducing medications can help prevent both of these scenarios. They can also keep a cat happier by making a potentially stressful situation much more comfortable for a feline.
There are also some pets who struggle with long-term anxiety. For example, maybe an older cat is unhappy about a new kitten housemate. Or, a cat may have general anxiety due to their personality type or a previous trauma.
Kitties who fall into this chronic stress category may benefit from long-term medications.
This is especially true for cats whose stress manifests in physical symptoms. A common example is cats with interstitial cystitis, an inflammatory condition of the urinary bladder. In cats prone to this condition, stress can bring on a flare up that requires veterinary treatment.
How Do I Know If My Cat Is Stressed?
Cat communication often appears subtle to human beings. But once you know what to look for, it may be easier to spot a potential problem in the early stages.
Here are some common symptoms of stress or fear in cats:
- Making themselves appear as small as possible.
- Ears back or flat against the head.
- Hair standing up.
- Pupils (black part of the eyes) expanding.
- Meowing excessively.
- Attempts to escape or hide.
- Loss of appetite.
- Signs of aggression, such as growling, hissing, spitting, or trying to scratch or bite.
- Behavior changes, such as grumpiness, playing less often, or hiding more.
- Urinating outside of the litter box.
Affected cats may show just 1-2 symptoms, or several. And context is important. For example, a cat’s pupils may also become larger during playtime, and that’s perfectly normal.
Since some of the above symptoms can also indicate a serious medical condition, it’s important to call your vet or schedule an appointment before assuming these signs are stress related.
Prior to prescribing a sedative or anxiety-reducing medication, a vet will perform a physical exam, and possibly diagnostic tests such as bloodwork. This helps rule out underlying medical conditions as a cause of the cat’s symptoms. It also helps ensure a cat is healthy enough for sedation.
How Is Anxiety in Cats Treated?
Stress reduction in pets should always involve some form of behavior modification or environmental changes.
A simple example of behavior modification (a type of training) would be leaving the cat’s carrier out in the home all the time and placing treats inside. Over time, the cat may come to view their carrier as a fun place rather than a scary place.
Done properly, behavior modification can have excellent results for some pets. However, improperly performed, it can reinforce anxious behaviors. So it’s always important to seek guidance from a professional (a veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, or specialty trainer with expertise in pet anxiety).
Environmental modification involves thinking about the world the way your cat perceives it and then helping them feel safer and calmer.
For example, many cats feel safe when they are hidden. For this reason, many vets will (if possible) perform a cat’s physical exam with the cat inside their carrier, where the cat feels hidden behind the carrier’s walls.
This trick can also be used for car rides. Covering the sides of a kitty’s carrier with breathable blankets creates a dark and quiet space to hide, which may help reduce a cat’s anxiety during travel.
Other common treatment methods include natural remedies, supplements, and sedatives or other medications.
Depending on the needs of a specific cat, sometimes a vet will start with natural remedies and a few tips for how to help a cat feel calmer in their environment. For some kitties, this is all that’s required.
For other cats, sedation or anxiety-reducing drugs may be needed. If that’s the case, whether it’s short-term or long-term, a veterinarian will help a pet parent find the best plan for their cat’s medications. Often, this means a trial and error period to see which medication and dose work best for an individual cat.
What Are Some Natural Remedies for Cat Anxiety?
For cats with mild anxiety, a vet may recommend starting with these therapies prior to prescribing a sedative or anxiety medication:
- Behavior modification and environmental changes, such as those mentioned above.
- Supplements, such as L-theanine, Zylkene (hydrolyzed milk protein), or other calming formulations for felines.
- Pheromone products like Feliway, which release calming cat scent signals.
- A Thundershirt or other body wrap, which provides comfort by mimicking swaddling.
- Herbal treatments such as Rescue Remedy for pets.
- Catnip. Every cat reacts differently to catnip. For some kitties, they will be very playful at first, then get tired after running around. This “post-catnip crash” may be an ideal time for travel, grooming, etc.
Always check with your vet before giving any new medication or supplement, to make sure it’s safe for your cat and won’t interact with any medications they are already taking.
Don’t assume products labeled as “natural” are safe, either. Even natural therapies like certain essential oils can be toxic to cats.
Which Sedatives Are Used for Cats?
Different medications cause different sedative effects. And, two cats may respond differently to the same medication. So there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to choosing the best sedative for each individual cat.
Some medications make a cat feel sleepy. Others (known as “tranquilizers”) bring about calmness or reduce anxiety. And some drugs may have both effects.
Additionally, some medications have pain relief effects, while others do not. And some are best for short-term stressful situations (like fireworks or a vet visit), while others are used for long-term anxiety issues.
Below are some of the most commonly used options for cat sedation and tranquilization.
Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) is not technically a sedative. It’s an antihistamine that’s commonly used for relieving allergy symptoms. However, sedation is a very common side effect.
Benadryl is an over-the-counter cat sedative option with a good safety margin. However, it’s important to check with your vet for the right dose and formulation.
Side effects include dry mouth, increased heart rate, and urine retention. Cats with certain medical conditions (such as glaucoma, high blood pressure, or certain urinary problems) should avoid Benadryl.
Acepromazine causes sedation and some anxiety relief. It may be given as an injection in the veterinary clinic, or acepromazine pills may be sent home. Acepromazine is often used as a cat sedative for travel, or given 30-60 minutes prior to a veterinary visit.
Since the medication causes low blood pressure, it’s not an ideal choice for cats with heart disease or cats who are ill.
Gabapentin is a medication that can be used for several purposes, including seizure control, anxiety relief, sedation, and pain management. It’s a common cat sedative for grooming, travel, vet visits, and other short-term events.
Gabapentin is generally considered safe in healthy pets, with minimal side effects. It’s often used in combination with other medications in pets who need a stronger sedative effect.
Trazodone offers both sedative effects and anxiety relief. This makes it a good choice for many situations, including grooming, vet visits, travel, storms, or fireworks.
Trazodone must be used with caution in pets with certain conditions such as a heart problem, and it must not be combined with certain other types of anxiety medications (SSRIs). But overall, it’s a safe and popular choice.
This medication can help cats with anxiety during short-term stressful events like fireworks and storms.
Alprazolam may also be used for grooming, vet visits, etc. Since it doesn’t have a strong sedative effect, it’s often combined with sedatives for an anxiety-relieving boost. In some pets (especially younger animals), alprazolam can cause excitement rather than tranquilization.
Drugs for Long-term Anxiety Issues
Some kitties — such as those with severe or chronic anxiety, or those who suffer from stress-related cystitis — may need to take daily medications for a longer period of time. Common medication categories include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants. Popular options include fluoxetine and amitriptyline.
For some pets, oral medication doesn’t provide enough sedation or anxiety relief. These kitties may need injectable sedation administered by a veterinarian during a checkup, toenail trim, x-rays, or other procedure.
Injectable drugs at a veterinarian’s office are typically stronger than oral medications that are sent home, and thus only administered by veterinary professionals who are trained and prepared to monitor a pet to ensure their heart rate, breathing, and temperature all remain normal during sedation.
Sedation Versus Anesthesia
Sometimes, confusion arises when discussing sedation and anesthesia. In general, sedation is “lighter” than general anesthesia, which means that a cat will not be in as deep of a sleep (and may still be alert, depending on the specific medication that is used) while sedated. Sedation is usually administered by mouth or via an injection.
General anesthesia, on the other hand, involves a deeper level of unconsciousness, which is maintained by an inhalant (gas) anesthetic. This is required for surgeries, although sedation may be appropriate for less invasive procedures such as cleaning a minor wound, clipping mats out of the fur, or taking x-rays.
A vet might recommend a combination of sedatives to obtain a desired sedative effect. Always check with your vet before combining, though, as some sedatives (especially two SSRIs in combination) are harmful if given together.
What Are the Side Effects of Sedation?
Side effects vary with each medication, so it’s best to ask your vet for specific information about the drug your cat has been prescribed.
In addition to specific effects listed above, common side effects of sedation in cats include:
- Vomiting or diarrhea.
- Clumsiness or lack of coordination.
- Decreased blood pressure.
- Decreased ability to regulate body temperature.
- Occasionally, paradoxical reactions. This is when a medication has the opposite effect, i.e. causing excitement, reactivity, or aggression instead of sedation.
Because of some of these effects, it’s important to monitor a pet closely until they’re more awake, or as advised by your vet.
What Else Should I Know About Sedatives and Cats?
Here are some additional important tips for sedating a cat:
- Staying calm yourself may help, since many pets react to emotions or stress they sense from their human companions.
- Many vets recommend a “trial run” for sedatives. For example, if using a cat sedative for travel, give your kitty a dose at home before the big travel day to make sure the medication works the way you want it to.
- Many airlines don’t allow sedatives during travel, due to safety risks. This is especially true for pets flying in cargo who can’t be monitored, and for short-nosed breeds who are more prone to respiratory distress and at a higher risk with temperature extremes.
- If you have difficulty giving your cat a pill, talk to your vet about other options. They may recommend using injectable sedation at the vet clinic instead. Some medications also come in other forms, such as a transdermal formulation you apply to the skin. But these special formulations must be ordered well in advance. And some medications can be added directly to your kitty’s food so they ingest it on their own — but check with your vet on this first.
As you can see, there are many different situations for which cat sedatives can be used — and many different medications to choose from. After consulting a veterinarian, most pet parents can find an option that works well for keeping their kitty relaxed, happy, and safe.