Will sedating my cats before taking my cats on a plane stress them out?
April 22, 2016 5:20 PM   Subscribe

My indoor cats have never had to deal with a loud, crowded airport before. They're never flown. We have to pick them up when we go through security, and one of them hates being picked up. I'm really worried about them getting overly stressed. I'm getting conflicting info about the effectiveness and side-effects of sedatives.

A vet told me that you should never sedate a cat, because doing so has the effect of immobilizing its body without calming its mind--so it's even more stressed, because it can't move. It just looks calm.

Another vet told me I should sedate them and wrote me a prescription for Acepromazine. I googled it and read an article, by a vet, that said the exact same thing that the first vet told me. But it's a lone article. Most seem to suggest it's fine.

Friends just tell me things like, "I give sedatives to my cats whenever we travel, and it calms them." Anecdotal. How would they know whether their cats were actually calm or just seemed calm, because their bodies weren't functional?

I need some citations from real research, and from real experts.
posted by grumblebee to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
A vet assistant told us that Bach Flower Remedies would help our cats when moving. I was very skeptical, and we put them in carries in the back seat of car, and spray their noses, and they did quiet down for the 2-hour ride. This is only anecdotal, of course, I never believed in that stuff, but the cats did seem to be okay.

But, if I were taking cats on a journey such as you are proposing, I would probably opt for something a little stronger for them, because in my experience from being sedated, it does affect the mind as well as the body. So the "trapped mind" experience, not 100% sure, but in my experience of being sedated, pretty sure. You could try a combo of both the sedation and the other stuff, if that makes you feel better.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:26 PM on April 22, 2016

Whatever you choose if meds are in order see if the drug can be compounded into a cream you can rub into the ears, so much better than hit or miss stress-y pills.

Practice scruffing at home from the actual carrier before it is showtime at the TSA.
posted by Freedomboy at 5:26 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

My sedated cats sleep and when awake appear very disinterested. After the sedation wears off they act as if nothing unusual happened. That's 25+ years of anecdotal experience with many different cats. Definitely do this via your vet and follow all advice from vet to the letter.
posted by bearwife at 5:30 PM on April 22, 2016

Response by poster: Marie Mon Dieu, the first vet specifically told me that cats react to sedation differently from humans. I don't know if that's true or not. There must be research, somewhere.
posted by grumblebee at 5:35 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have never sedated my cats when I have flown, but the reason has nothing to do with stress-- it has to do with the risk of the side effects. Example article here.

Anecdotally, I have had the side effect (not in a plane) they mentioned of a sedative making my cat more agitated.
posted by frumiousb at 5:37 PM on April 22, 2016

I only have anecdotal information, but my vet told me that the reason many cats get agitated while traveling is because they get motion sick, so he prescribed OTC Dramamine (the original kind, dimenhydrinate, not the non-drowsy kind). Our cat did very well with this on a plane ride. He also did not like being picked up and clung to me for dear life when I picked him up to go through security, fwiw.

I would obviously check with your vet first! I have not been able to find any real research on this either.
posted by bedhead at 5:44 PM on April 22, 2016

I've never flown with a pet so I can't help there, but please be sure you have a harness and a leash on your cats before you remove them from the carriers at the airport. Whether they're stressed in their carriers is one thing, but you REALLY don't want them running around loose in a large noisy airport—that's pretty much guaranteed stress!
posted by clone boulevard at 5:45 PM on April 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, OP is looking for "citations from real research, and from real experts".
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 5:55 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I searched the American Association of Feline Practitioners for acepromazine, which turned up an article called AAHA/AAFP pain management guidelines for dogs and cats (pdf):
Because anxiety and fear can amplify pain, and physical restraint may contribute to pain, anxiolytics should be used for anxious or fearful animals undergoing hospital procedures. Alprazolam is an excellent antianxiety medication. Tricyclic antidepressants may be indicated when the practitioner suspects persistent, aberrant pain that is refractory to traditional analgesics (eg, neuropathic pain). Recall that acepromazine is not an anxiolytic but rather a tranquilizer, causing sedation without decreasing anxiety. Acepromazine may disinhibit aggression, making the patient not only more fearful but also more dangerous. Although acepromazine is useful as part of an anesthetic protocol, it is not indicated for use to control fear or anxiety (Bowen and Heath 2005).
The full reference is: Bowen J, Heath S (2005) Behavior Problems in Small Animals -- Practical Advice for the Veterinary Team. Edinburgh Elsevier Saunders. p. 51, 81, 87, 89.

You can preview that book here. (I think that link should take you to the search results in the book for acepromazine; if it doesn't you can search for it.) The first reference, page 51, confirms what your first vet says, that it sedates the body but not the mind and that its use for calming animals for travel is "outdated."
posted by lazuli at 6:12 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

There are plenty of studies showing that feline stress goes down when using various sedating medications (fentanyl, for example.) I got hundreds of results on Google Scholar.
posted by SMPA at 6:13 PM on April 22, 2016

Give them a test dose before you travel so you can see if there are adverse/atypical reactions.
posted by rtha at 6:37 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was warned specifically against sedation when flying my cats because they can react poorly to sedatives at high altitudes.

We have used the Bach flower remedies (?) and Feliway (synthetic cat pheromones).
posted by jrobin276 at 6:55 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was about to post something similar to jrobin -- the the AVMA advises against sedating pets for travel. It sounds like the advice is mostly aimed at pets traveling cargo and at owners who overdose their pets, but still. I'd rather have my cat be stressed out than be on a medication with potentially dangerous side effects in a setting where I have no ability to get her medical help. (And I have flown that way too -- she yowled all throughout the car ride to the airport, but at the airport and on the plane she was completely calm. The airplane itself is very low-stimulation, and I don't think a cat in a carrier can really tell that an airport is crowded.)
posted by phoenixy at 7:09 PM on April 22, 2016

I was also told by the vet that sedation wouldn't be a good idea for my cat when we were getting her checked out before a cross country move.

You'll be needing to get a harness and leash for your cats. You don't have to keep it on them the whole time, but at least through security. The good thing about this for you is that often a cat's response to wearing a harness is to go limp and flop over and generally appear to be powerless. Yes, it's weird and stressful for the cat, but for yours who hates being held, it can act in your favor. You only have to hold them very briefly and TSA folks are generally pretty chill about cats and will endeavor to quickly get them back in their carriers.

Once you get through security you can tuck the cats back in their carriers and slip the harnesses off. Find a seat against a wall, put the carrier under it and block another side with your carry-on. That will muffle sight and sound, and you can mitigate weird smells with catnip, felliway, or regularly used blankets from home.
posted by Mizu at 11:16 PM on April 22, 2016

I'm not a vet, but my cat was prescribed xanax once for a few days, and she seemed to be chilling REAL hard. I can't imagine why it wouldn't work on her seeing as we're all mammals and share the same basic brain / nervous system functionality there. If you're concerned about sedatives, you could get a cat-dosage of xanax instead. Do not use people-dosage xanax.

Edit: Xanax is called alprazolam I think, which is referenced by the post above as an "excellent anti-anxiety medication."
posted by hyperion at 4:04 AM on April 23, 2016

No research to cite but if you can do a test dose it's worthwhile. Cats react differently to sedation. My daughter moved cross country last year and did the test thing and discovered that one of her cats became a loud angry drunk when sedated - and the effect lasted for many more hours than needed. Other cat was fine.
posted by leslies at 6:13 AM on April 23, 2016

Response by poster: I emailed my vet the information from here, especially from lazuli's answer, and she responded ...

"This article is in reference to acepromazine as part of an anesthetic protocol, not for the purpose that you will be using it. I've only had to use Xanax for a patient (a dog) once. Acepromazine works very well for travel. It's not a paralytic like you are mentioning. That is referring to drugs such as ketamine that cause paralysis but the animal is still aware of what is happening. "

But the article seemed pretty clear to me. Not sure who to trust.
posted by grumblebee at 6:19 AM on April 23, 2016

I think it's awesome that you are taking so much time and energy for this. How much time do you have before your trip?

My assumption would be that veterinary researchers in this area, maybe university faculty, would be the most up to date on the scholarship here and most able to sort out the bs. I think it might be worth a try to see if you can find out who is doing research in this area and send some emails. Even if they are reluctant to give you specific advice, they may be happy to point you towards the most up to date or most respected (by them) research in the field.

I also imagine that (ethical) zoos and preservations that need to transport big cats under stressful conditions may have developed some best practices that could be useful to consult.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:30 AM on April 23, 2016

Response by poster: I'm leaving next Saturday. I've called a friend who lives next door to a vet. He's going to ask her. I also just posted the question on Quora, and asked some vets there if they'd answer.
posted by grumblebee at 6:44 AM on April 23, 2016

I have taken my cat on a 13 hour trip in the car (each way) and on 4 segments of air travel in the cabin, not cargo, over the past 4 months. She had an anti-nausea medicine before each trip, but not sedation or anti-anxiety meds, b/c my vet nixed both as options.

I think I was the one who really needed the anti-anxiety meds. She was fine.

In each case, she was calm. During air travel, much more so. She got a bit frantic when she had to be under the seat in front of me until I covered the carrier with my shirt so it was more cave-like. She didn't meow. When you go through security, they will have you take her out of the carrier so they can x-ray it. I asked for a private screening, because my cat, like yours, HATES being held. On one end they just looked in and swabbed, and on the other end they put me in a small room and still made me take her out. I think the magic words are "risk of running" to get that private screening.

If you have a connection, beware the people slowing you down by cooing over kitty. I missed a train stop in Atlanta that way and had to schlep her back to the concourse we missed on foot.

I used feliway spray on the carrier in each case. I padded it with a favorite blanket. For the plane I had a soft sided carrier, which she prefers to the hard one I used and buckled in to the back seat of the car. I brought a small amount of food and an emergency ziplock of litter, just in case.

So. My cat at least doesn't mind travel. (And she loves suitcases) I would say not to use a sedative.
posted by Stewriffic at 7:38 AM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

"This article is in reference to acepromazine as part of an anesthetic protocol, not for the purpose that you will be using it. I've only had to use Xanax for a patient (a dog) once. Acepromazine works very well for travel. It's not a paralytic like you are mentioning. That is referring to drugs such as ketamine that cause paralysis but the animal is still aware of what is happening. "

The pdf I posted is about anesthesia, but the book I linked specifically talks about using acepromazine as a behavioral intervention for anxiety (and recommends against it). I'm guessing your vet didn't read the book part of it, because they're not responding to the info that's relevant.

I'm not a vet or an animal researcher, so I can't speak to whether the info in that textbook is correct, but it might be helpful if you and your vet were at least looking at the same thing.
posted by lazuli at 8:14 AM on April 23, 2016

It also sounds like, if that textbook is correct, that you're not necessarily against giving any sort of anti-anxiety medications, just against acepromazine, since that's the one singled out as having the effects you're worried about. It may be worth asking your vet if there are anti-anxiety medications, rather than sedatives, they could prescribe as an alternative (as hyperion mentioned, too).
posted by lazuli at 8:25 AM on April 23, 2016

I have never flown with a cat but I currently have one that gets car sick within the first two miles of driving (no joke...I have measured it many times). My vet gave me acepromazine for him to use during our 5 hour car trips to family before I made the permanent move. I give him less than half a pill and it makes him go to sleep. If I give it to him at home where he can still walk around, he gets drunk and stumbly and THAT makes him anxious because he doesn't understand why he feels that way. But if I give it to him and then pop him into his carrier and let it take effect before we drive, he just goes to sleep. I try to give him the least amount I can...I think last time I used maybe a quarter of the pill.

I've never flown with him so I don't know if he would be more alert and therefore more anxious with all the stimulation in an airport. I've also never tried Benadryl with him...might do that next time. I know this isn't research but did want to try to ease your mind on the ace and point out that letting him walk around after he takes it wasn't a good idea. Stumbly drunk cats are kinda comical but I felt so bad for him trying to walk!
posted by MultiFaceted at 9:17 AM on April 23, 2016

I used to drive from New Hampshire to Philadelphia, and I gave my cat acepromazine before traveling. He reacted just like your article mentions, right down to added aggression. The only time he's ever bitten me was when I sedated him with ace. For seven hours, he was like a frightened, belligerent drunk. He meowed and yowled for most of the drive and never slept at all. Had I known about asking for an anti-anxiety medication instead of sedation, I would have asked for that.
posted by gladly at 12:25 PM on April 23, 2016

We flew our then-middle-aged cats between coasts without sedation. They were fine, and I think they've been more traumatized by (coming out of medically-required) sedation. Really the only squirrely part was walking through security cradling a 22-lb Maine Coon.
posted by aspersioncast at 2:21 PM on April 24, 2016

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