Gabapentin is a drug used in human medicine to treat epilepsy, nerve pain and, less commonly, migraines. So you may be wondering why your vet has prescribed gabapentin for your dog or cat! It’s not uncommon to come away from a consult and realise you have some questions, which you didn’t think to ask at the time. Hopefully this article will answer some of your questions. If not, never be afraid to call your vet practice to ask! Your vet would much rather you understand your pet’s treatment.

What is gabapentin?

Gabapentin is an anti-epileptic, or anti-seizure, drug. It works by mimicking the action of a chemical found naturally in the body, “GABA”. This is a nerve transmission chemical which blocks certain nerve signals in the brain. Gabapentin has several uses in both human and veterinary medicine.

What is gabapentin used for in dogs and cats?

Gabapentin is not licensed for use in dogs and cats, so it is used by vets under the prescribing cascade. Simply put, this means it can be used if licensed drugs have not been effective, or are not suitable. Although in reality it’s a little more complicated than this! So, here’s what gabapentin is used for in pets:

Epilepsy

It is used to treat epilepsy (seizures) in dogs and cats. If licensed treatments are not successfully controlling the seizures, then gabapentin can be added in. Sometimes it is used on its own, if licensed medicines are not suitable. For example, it may be a better option than licensed drugs in animals with liver disease. This is because gabapentin is not primarily broken down by the liver, where other medicines are. Gabapentin is mostly excreted by the kidneys.

Neuropathic pain

Gabapentin is also prescribed for neuropathic pain. This means pain caused by damage to the nerves. Humans often describe this pain as a stabbing, burning or tingling pain, so not very pleasant. Examples of situations where animals experience neuropathic pain would include neck or back pain, such as a slipped disc, or syringomyelia

Chronic pain

It is commonly used for chronic pain, such as with arthritis, since there is often a neuropathic (involving the nerves) component to chronic pain. In this situation gabapentin is often given alongside other medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication. Using several pain relief drugs together like this is called ‘multimodal analgesia’. It is usually more effective than using a single drug and often means that smaller doses of each drug can be used. Sometimes it is used on its own, when licensed anti-inflammatory drugs are not suitable.

Behavioural changes

Gabapentin is sometimes trialled for behavioural conditions, such as tail chasing in dogs, with variable results. It is becoming increasingly popular in cats for treating the fear and anxiety that some cats experience with vet visits. Giving gabapentin in advance of a visit to the vets can make the visit a less stressful experience for the cat, and also enable the vet to perform a more thorough physical exam. Of course this should only be done when prescribed by your vet for this reason.

Are there any possible side effects of gabapentin?

All medications have the potential to cause side effects. With gabapentin, the most commonly seen side effects are sleepiness and being a bit wobbly, or uncoordinated. A slight increase in appetite, and therefore weight gain, are also possible. If you notice any changes or symptoms in your pet after starting any new medication, then you should contact your vet for advice as soon as possible.

It’s really important that you don’t stop giving gabapentin to your pet suddenly, unless your vet asks you to. Stopping too quickly can cause seizures or worsening pain, known as ‘rebound pain’. Your vet would usually advise you to wean the dose down gradually.

Are there any risks to giving gabapentin?

Gabapentin must be used very carefully in patients with kidney disease. It is not generally recommended in pregnancy or during lactation, unless the benefit greatly outweighs the risk. As with anything, allergic reactions are possible, but they are rare with gabapentin. 

Some types of gabapentin liquid contain a sweetener, xylitol, which is toxic to dogs. This means that this particular version should not be given to dogs.

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Can gabapentin be used with other medications?

Gabapentin should not be given at the same time as antacids. If your pet is taking any other medication at all, including herbal remedies or supplements, then you must discuss this with your vet before giving them any gabapentin. 

It’s really important that you understand any medicine prescribed to your pet. You need to know what it is being prescribed for, what the possible side effects are, how to store it, and how to administer it to your pet. If you aren’t sure, pick up the phone! Your vet practice would much rather you called for advice than stayed in the dark.

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