Should I Sedate My Cat to Travel?

black cat yawnCats don’t travel happily, but some suffer more than others. So how do you know if your cat should be sedated when you’re going on a long road trip or flying somewhere?

Rule of thumb: If you don’t absolutely have to sedate your cat when you travel, don’t. It’s simpler, and there’s no possibility of an unexpected or adverse reaction. But if you’ve got a cat who’s extremely anxious, crying, drooling and panting the whole time, it’s probably better for both of you if you calm him down.

First Try This

You’ve probably already tried getting your cat used to spending time in his carrier, possibly even taking short car rides with him. And you may have even used synthetic pheromone replicas like Feliway and natural products like Bach flower remedies or Rescue Remedy.

If nothing’s worked, and your cat is obviously distressed (hyperactive, in addition to drooling, panting and crying), she is certainly a candidate for medication. Well before your trip, make a visit your vet to discuss which drug to use. About one in ten cats experience uncommon reactions to their medications (becoming extremely hyper instead of sedated, for example), so you’ll need to give her a trial dose.

Prescription Medicine from the Vet to Calm Cats for Travel

Acepromazine is a prescription medicine which has long been used as a sedative. While it is relatively safe, it is not recommended because the drug acts as a chemical restraint only. In other words, your cat is still experiencing the anxiety, but is unable to physically react. At times, the drug can actually make your cat more sensitive to noises.

In fact, many vets no long use ace for travel sedation. It is an extremely useful drug for other purposes, including motion sickness and nausea related to car rides or plane travel.

Alternatives to Ace

Ask for alternatives to acepromazine and a similar drug, chlorpromazine. These include valium and xanax, which are known to be effective sedatives. Your cat’s muscles will be relaxed, and her anxiety and fear reduced or even eliminated.

Valium (for Your Cat – Not for You)

Diazepam (or Valium) is an anti-anxiety medication and muscle relaxant. Thought to reduce both serotonin and acetylcholine levels, it has sedative effects. Your cat may very well sleep for the whole trip, because the drug stays in the system about 24 hours.

Don’t be upset if your cat is groggy and wobbly for some time after your trip. And he may also foam at the mouth, a possible side effect which looks alarming, but is harmless. Ask your vet about it.

Before prescribing, your veterinarian will need to know if your cat is on any other medications, as diazepam is known to interact with many. Again, test its effect on your pet before you travel: it can sometimes cause the opposite reaction you expect, making your cat more excitable and anxious. Give it with food and when your cat is calm – if he’s already upset, it could have the reverse effect and make him even more hyper.

If you travel frequently with your cat, you should note that – while rare – long-term or recurrent use of diazepam can cause severe liver problems in cats which can be fatal. The medicine can be injected or given by tablet, with the typical dose being 0.25 to 0.5 mg per pound. You can also try topical Valium, sold in a gel pen, to see if that works.

Xanax – Again, it’s for the Cat

Another anti-anxiety medication for cats is alprazolam, known as Xanax. Like diazepam, it’s a mild benzodiazepine tranquilizer, and is safe for cats to take as a muscle relaxant and to reduce anxiety.

The alprazolam dosage for cats is 0.125 to 0.25 mg per pound, every 12 hours. It can be given in tablet form or as a solution. Small doses have a calming effect and act as a sedative. However, larger amounts can increase anxiety, so should be avoided.

Over the Counter Medication

Some non-prescription medicines are known to work well for cats, and are good to have on hand when you can’t get to the vet. And if you already know how your cat reacts to an OTC medicine, it might actually be better to use it again rather than try a new prescription drug before you travel.

Wait – How Do I Know if My Cat Has Motion Sickness?

Cats with motion sickness don’t always start out vomiting. They may become extremely quiet and lethargic initially and then will drool excessively before vomiting, even on an empty stomach. If you know your cat gets car sick, Dramamine and Gravol are over-the-counter medicines that work well.

OTC Drugs for Car Sick Cats

The active ingredient in both is dimenhydrinate and while it has a sedating effect, it is really meant to keep your cat from being car sick. The standard dose for cats is 12.5 mg per 10 pounds every 6-8 hours.

You can also use Original Strength Pepcid AC, which contains 10 mg famotidine per tablet, to reduce your cat’s motion sickness. The recommended dose is one-quarter of a tablet once or twice a day as needed.

Benadryl (diphenhydramine) is another OTC medicine often recommended for traveling cats. It prevents motion sickness and is also a sedative, with drowsiness being a common side effect. The problem with it is that cats seem to hate its taste, and will gag and foam at the mouth after you give it to them. The recommended dosage is up to 2 mg per pound every 8 to 12 hours.

Natural Sedatives for Cats When Traveling

If you’d like to stay away from all drugs, prescribed or over the counter, there are definitely some options out there.

L-theanine

One natural relaxant is L-theanine, a naturally occurring amino acid found in green tea. People take it to promote mental calmness; and studies show it decreases anxiety in humans. The recommended dose for cats is 1mg per pound, and it should be given at least an hour before you leave.

VetriScience sells L-theanine chewables for cats called Composure. These can be given twice daily or more often as needed. Safe for cats, the calming supplement is said to take the edge off the cat’s anxiety, so she can relax. See the current price at Amazon. 

L-Tryptophan

A similar product Pet-Vite Pet-EZE by Essential Pet contains L-Tryptophan, an amino acid that increases the “feel good” brain chemical serotonin, plus chamomile and Vitamin B1. The recommended dose is one chewable tablet per 5 pounds, not to exceed four daily. You can buy this at PetSmart.

Valerian

Valerian tincture is the extract of this herb that’s used for anxiety reduction and as a natural muscle relaxant. All tinctures typically have an alcohol base (which tastes quite bitter), but you can find them with a glycerin base, which is better for your cat. The concentrated form works quickly, and it’s good for a shorter trip. The standard dose is one-half ml per 20-25 pounds, every 4-6 hours.

Melatonin

There’s a product called “Sleep+” by Genuine Health. It’s a combination of the natural sleep hormone melatonin and the herb passionflower, both of which are used to treat anxiety and insomnia. You can buy the two products separately, and dose melatonin 2 mg per 20 pounds (with a maximum of 6 mg) every 12-12 hours, and passionflower 1 mg per pound.

How to Pill Your Cat

Many of these medicines, whether prescription, OTC or natural remedies, are pills, which means you need to either trick your cat into taking it or you have to pill her.

Hide It

If she’s a great eater, the easiest approach is to hide the pill in a delicious snack that she’ll pretty much swallow whole. But that’s quite a dog-like behavior, and most cats won’t fall for it. One tip that helps: give a pill-free treat first and then the one with the pill.

There are pastes like Pill Wrap and Pill-Masker that you can wrap around any size or shape of pill and either feed them to your cat or pill him with them.

Squirt It

Some medicines are in liquid form and can be given by syringe, squirting the liquid directly into your cat’s mouth. Just make sure she can swallow: if you give too much at once, she can breathe it into her lungs, which may cause a life-threatening condition called aspiration pneumonia.

Drop It

To give a pill to your cat, you need to be able to drop it into her mouth, as far back over the tongue as possible, then close her mouth. Stroke her throat from chin to chest or blow on her nose to encourage her to swallow.

There are pilling devices that can help. They look like syringes (some cat owners call them pill guns) and keep you from having to put your fingers into your cat’s mouth, holding the pill until you press the plunger to release it.

If your cat is really hard to pill, try wrapping her up burrito-style, so you’re just dealing with her head. Smear butter on the pill to reduce any bad taste and make it easier to slide down. If you use Laxatone (or any other lubricant for the elimination of hairballs), you can try coating the pill in that. It’s a gel with a consistency like peanut butter, and comes in tuna flavor.

Compounds and Topical Gels

Ask your veterinarian if they offer compounding medicine in the event you can’t medicate your cat. Sometimes, vets have their own compounding facility and, if the prescription medicine doesn’t lose its effectiveness, can make a cat-food-flavored chewable pill that your cat will actually like to eat, or a transdermal gel that you can apply on the ear of your cat. If not, ask your vet to write the prescription and then refer you to a compounding pharmacy.

These are not typical pharmacies; they create optional ways for people (and pets!) to take medication. Compounding Pharmacy of America, for example, can create tuna or liver flavors for cats to eat, and can prepare a transdermal gel for the drug to be absorbed through the skin. You just apply on the inside of her ears, and you’re done.

A similar service is provided by Flavorx.com. They work with veterinarians to liquify and flavor prescription medications, making the medicine more palatable for your cat and easier for you to administer.

Here’s a great video from Dr. Stacey Wallach, owner of Town and Country Veterinary Hospital in Missouri, all about how to give a cat medicine.

If you’re still desperate, some cat owners have been told by their vets to crush the pills and mix it into some jam or corn syrup, then spread the concoction onto the front of their cats paws (not the pads) and even onto her face. In both cases, the cats licked themselves clean, ingesting the medicine.


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