Why Your Cat Can’t Walk After Gabapentin: A Vet Explains

cat can't walk after gabapentin - grey tabby cat laying on an exam table in a veterinarian's office

Last updated on March 8th, 2024 at 04:43 pm

Caring for our cats involves more than just companionship; it demands attentiveness to their health and well-being, especially when they are dealing with pain or anxiety. 

Gabapentin, a medication widely recognized for its efficacy in managing these conditions, presents an option that many pet owners and veterinarians turn to. However, like any medication, it comes with precautions and potential side effects that must be carefully managed. 

One of the most common side effects seen is that the cat can’t walk after gabapentin. How can pet owners ensure their cats receive the benefits of gabapentin without compromising their safety? 

In this article we examine how gabapentin works, why it affects a cat’s ability to walk, and what cat owners can do to keep their cat safe and healthy. 

Whether you’re considering gabapentin for your cat or seeking to optimize their current treatment, keep reading to uncover the critical strategies for gabapentin use in cats.

Understanding Gabapentin

Gabapentin is a pain medication originally developed to treat neuropathic pain and control seizures in humans

It belongs to the class of drugs known as anticonvulsants or antiepileptics, although its use has expanded to treat a variety of conditions in both humans and animals due to its calming and pain-relieving properties. 

When it comes to veterinary medicine, gabapentin is commonly used off-label for cats, meaning it is used in a manner not specified in the drug’s official labeling but recognized as both effective and safe by the veterinary community.

cat can't walk after gabapentin - orange and white cat sleeping on a wood bench or table

How Gabapentin Works in the Nervous System of Cats

Gabapentin interferes with the transmission of neurological signals. It works by mimicking the activity of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which plays a significant role in calming nervous system activity. 

While gabapentin doesn’t directly bind to GABA receptors, it controls the release of excitatory neurotransmitters and stabilizes electrical activity in the nervous system.

This action helps to provide pain relief and reduce seizure activity by decreasing abnormal excitement in the brain. As a pain reliever specifically, gabapentin is thought to block the transmission of pain signals in the spinal cord and brain.

While gabapentin’s primary function is geared towards managing pain, its calming effect can’t be overlooked. Its use as an anti-anxiety medication in cats has been a game-changer for pet owners whose fluffy companions go through the wringer in stressful events.

As a veterinarian, the majority of cases where I have prescribed gabapentin for cats is to help manage their stress in situations such as a long car ride or visits to the vet or groomer

Conditions Treated with Gabapentin in Cats

Gabapentin is prescribed to cats to manage various conditions, such as:

  1. Chronic Pain Management: Gabapentin is often used to treat chronic pain in cats, especially pain associated with neuropathy (nerve pain) or osteoarthritis. It can provide relief for cats suffering from chronic conditions that cause ongoing discomfort.
  2. Seizure Control: Although not as commonly used for this purpose in cats as in dogs or humans, gabapentin can be part of a treatment plan for managing seizures, particularly when other medications are not fully effective or cause unacceptable side effects.
  3. Anxiety and Stress: Gabapentin has calming effects, which can be beneficial for cats experiencing anxiety, stress, or fear. It is increasingly used to reduce anxiety in cats before veterinary visits or other potentially stressful situations, such as traveling.
  4. Preoperative Medication: Due to its sedative and pain-relieving properties, gabapentin is sometimes given before surgery to help calm the cat and provide pain control post-operatively.

Side Effects of Gabapentin in Cats

While the use of gabapentin in cats is generally safe and effective, it can cause side effects in some animals. The severity and occurrence of adverse effects can vary based on the dosage, the individual cat’s sensitivity to the medication, and the presence of other health conditions.

Ataxia (Lack of Coordination)

  • The most notable side effect associated with gabapentin in cats is ataxia, or a lack of coordination. Cats may appear wobbly or unsteady on their feet, have difficulty jumping, or exhibit an unusual gait. This effect is due to the drug’s action on the nervous system, which can temporarily impair motor coordination and balance.
  • Ataxia is more commonly observed when a cat starts on gabapentin, at higher doses, or when the dose is increased too quickly. In many cases, this side effect lessens or disappears as the cat’s body adjusts to the medication.

Other Possible Side Effects

  • Sedation and Lethargy: Gabapentin can cause drowsiness or sedation, which might be seen as excessive sleeping or a seemingly ‘out of it’ state. This side effect is the reason why it is often prescribed to cats facing stressful situations (e.g., vet visits), but long-term use must be monitored to make sure it does not interfere with the cat’s normal activities.
  • Increased Appetite: Some cats may experience an increase in appetite while on gabapentin. Owners need to monitor their cat’s food intake and weight to avoid overfeeding and weight gain.
  • Gastrointestinal Upsets: Although less common, some cats may experience gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting or diarrhea. Contact your vet as soon as possible if your cat experiences this.
  • Behavioral Changes: In rare cases, cats may show increased agitation or aggression. This is known as a paradoxical response to the medication, where they become excited or aggressive instead of sedated. This reaction is uncommon and should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine if gabapentin is appropriate for the cat.
cat can't walk after gabapentin  - angry grey cat hissing with mouth open showing teeth

It’s important for cat owners to closely monitor their pets for any signs of side effects when starting gabapentin or changing the dosage. 

Most side effects are mild and temporary, but if you notice significant changes in your cat’s behavior, mobility, or general well-being, contact your veterinarian right away. They may adjust the dose, suggest an alternative treatment, or provide additional support to manage the side effects effectively.

Why Your Cat Can’t Walk After Gabapentin

The inability of some cats to walk properly after taking gabapentin, known as ataxia or lack of coordination, can be concerning for pet owners. Difficulty walking is a direct consequence of how gabapentin influences the nervous system. 

Mechanism of Action

As mentioned previously, gabapentin works by mimicking the activity of GABA, a neurotransmitter that inhibits nerve transmission in the brain, leading to decreased excitability and a calming effect on the nervous system. 

While helpful for easing pain and anxiety, this action may also disrupt regular nerve signals that control movement coordination. This loss of coordination often affects the ability to walk, particularly within the hind legs, which can lead to temporary mobility issues.

Role of Dosing

Higher doses of gabapentin are more likely to lead to pronounced sedation and motor impairment, including difficulties with walking. 

The onset of ataxia may also be more immediate or severe if the dose is increased too quickly, as the cat’s body may not have adequate time to adjust to the medication’s effects. 

Finding the right balance is key; a dose that is effective for managing pain or anxiety without overly suppressing motor function is ideal. 

Cat’s Health Condition

The underlying health condition being treated with gabapentin can also influence the likelihood and severity of ataxia as a side effect. 

Cats with pre-existing neurological disorders or those that are already prone to weakness or coordination problems may be more sensitive to the motor-impairing effects of gabapentin. 

Additionally, the overall health and metabolic rate of a cat can affect how quickly the medication is metabolized and eliminated, potentially prolonging its effects in some cats.

cat can't walk after gabapentin - fluffy brown tabby yawning and stretching while laying on a knit blanket

Sensitivity to Medications

Just as humans have individual responses to medications, cats also differ in their sensitivity to drugs. Some cats may have a heightened sensitivity to gabapentin, experiencing more significant side effects at lower doses. 

This variability can be due to genetic differences, liver and kidney disease (which affect drug metabolism and excretion), and the presence of other medications that may interact with gabapentin.

Monitoring and Managing Side Effects 

Monitoring and managing the potential side effects of gabapentin in cats is an important part of  treatment. Keep an eye out for any signs that deviate from your cat’s normal behavior. 

For example, is your cat having a hard time jumping on its favorite perch or difficulty using the litter box properly?

Here are some tips on how to effectively monitor your cat for side effects.

How to Monitor Your Cat for Side Effects

  1. Observe Behavior and Mobility: Watch your cat closely for changes in behavior, movement, and overall activity level. Note any signs of lethargy, excessive sedation, or difficulties in walking, such as stumbling or lack of coordination.
  2. Check for Gastrointestinal Issues: Keep an eye out for symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, or changes in appetite.
  3. Monitor Hydration and Eating Habits: Ensure your cat continues to drink water and eat regularly. Changes in drinking or eating habits can be signs of discomfort or other issues related to the medication.
  4. Watch for Changes in Urination and Defecation Patterns: Changes in the frequency, color, or consistency of urine and feces can indicate side effects or complications from gabapentin use.
  5. Keep a Log of Observations: Documenting your cat’s behavior, appetite, and any side effects after each dose of gabapentin can be incredibly useful for tracking their response to the medication and providing valuable information to your veterinarian.

Steps to Take If Severe Ataxia or Other Worrying Symptoms Appear

  1. Reduce Activity Risk: If your cat shows signs of severe ataxia, minimize their risk of injury by preventing access to stairs, high surfaces, or other potentially dangerous areas where they could fall or hurt themselves.
  2. Maintain a Comfortable Environment: Create a safe, comfortable space for your cat where they can rest without being disturbed. Ensure they have easy access to food, water, and their litter box.
  3. Contact Your Veterinarian Immediately: If you notice severe ataxia, excessive sedation, or any other worrying symptoms (e.g., persistent vomiting, extreme lethargy, significant behavioral changes), contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. They can advise on whether you should discontinue the medication, adjust the dose, or bring your cat in for an examination.
  4. Follow Veterinarian Instructions for Adjusting Medication: Your vet may suggest adjusting the dosage, altering the frequency of administration, or switching to a different medication altogether. Follow their instructions closely and continue to monitor your cat’s response to these changes.
  5. Emergency Situations: In cases where your cat exhibits signs of a severe adverse reaction (such as difficulty breathing, collapse, or unresponsiveness), seek emergency veterinary care immediately.

Your veterinarian will work with you to determine the appropriate dose and monitor your cat’s response to the medication, making adjustments as needed to achieve the desired effect while minimizing side effects. 

In addition to dosage adjustments, these strategies may help manage side effects:

  • Administering gabapentin at mealtime can reduce gastrointestinal upset.
  • Splitting larger doses into smaller, more frequent doses can help reduce the risk of severe sedation or ataxia.
  • Gradually reducing the dose over time when discontinuing gabapentin can help prevent withdrawal symptoms, including increased anxiety and rebound pain. 

Remember to always consult with your veterinarian before making any changes to your cat’s medication regimen.

Even after finding an appropriate dosage that seems to work well, ongoing monitoring is essential. Over time, a cat’s condition or sensitivity to gabapentin may change, requiring further dosage adjustments. 

Regular check-ins with the vet ensure that the medication continues to be effective and safe for the cat.

cat can't walk after gabapentin - white cat with black spots asleep on a blue sofa cushion

Safe Administration

It is extremely important never give your cat a prescription medication without a vet’s consent or prescribed dose on the label. Never give the cat more than has been prescribed, and contact your vet immediately if you accidentally give too much. 

Gabapentin comes in capsules, tablets, or liquid for people, but vets usually avoid prescribing the liquid form for pets. This is because it contains xylitol, an artificial sweetener toxic to dogs as well as some cats. Do not give your cat liquid gabapentin. 

Communication is Key

Open communication between the pet owner and veterinarian is critical throughout this process. Pet owners are often the first to notice changes in their cat’s behavior or health status that might indicate a need for dosage adjustments. 

Promptly sharing these observations with the vet allows for timely modifications to the treatment plan, ensuring the cat receives the most appropriate care.

Final Thoughts

While gabapentin can provide significant benefits for cats struggling with pain and anxiety, it’s important for pet owners to collaborate closely with their veterinarians to ensure its safe and effective use. 

Always adhere to your vet’s guidance, be vigilant in observing your cat’s reaction to the medication, and maintain open lines of communication with your veterinary professional. By doing so, you can help your cat enjoy the full benefits of gabapentin therapy with minimal risks.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Always consult your veterinarian if you have specific concerns about your pet’s health.

[Image credit: All images are used under license or with permission]

Author

  • Dr. Wendy Wilkins DVM PhD.

    Dr. Wendy Wilkins is an experienced veterinarian and epidemiologist with over 20 years of expertise. She holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and a Doctorate in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Throughout her career, Dr. Wilkins has excelled in clinical practice, academia, research, and regulatory veterinary medicine. She is a respected voice in knowledge dissemination, delivering factual information in a readable and understandable manner through articles, books, and public engagements.