Hmm, so you’ve done a bit of digging around on the internet about whether or not to sedate your cat for air travel. Some sources say it’s perfectly safe –just get your vet’s advice. Others say no, absolutely not! So which is right?
I’ve done my own research on the topic because I really wanted to get to the bottom of this. When cats’ health is at stake, I want to dive in head-first and find out the inside scoop. Let me tell you, there is a ton of misinformation out there about cat sedation. And this really grinds my gears!
To sedate or not to sedate?
OK! So if you’re considering whether or not to sedate your cat during a long flight, please bear this is mind:
Sedation can be extremely harmful to your cat.
There, I’ve said it. Now, I could end things there and get on with my day, but I know you want to know more. Why is it such a bad thing? Surely it’s kinder to just knock out poor kitty, or put her into a nice sleepy, dreamy state. That doesn’t sound so bad. Right?
In an ideal world, there’d be a safe, one-size-fits-all solution to all cat health problems. Hell, all health problems. Hell, all problems. But the truth is:
The benefits of sedation do not outweigh the risks of harm, or even death, during air travel.
Yes, it really is as dramatic as that. Natural is the way to go if you need to sedate your kitty. Note: need to – not just want to. I passionately believe that cats should not be sedated with anything pharmaceutical unless they are facing a medical procedure or emergency.
An animal’s natural ability to balance and maintain equilibrium is altered under sedation. When the kennel is moved, a sedated animal may not be able to brace and prevent injury.Dr. Patricia Olson, Director of the American Humane Association (Source: JAVMA, Vol 207, No.l 6, September 15, 1995)
A mild herbal sedative such as chamomile, lavender or valerian that has homeopathic benefit usually does the trick. Think less knocking them out and more: catnip with a kick. Anything that could throw off your cat’s natural senses should be avoided unless strictly necessary.
What does sedation actually do?
Well, sedation severely hampers a cat’s natural equilibrium and ability to self-right. Sedating your cat will actually switch her brain off (oh my!) which is of course extremely distressing. After all, she has no idea what’s happening and may panic before going under, or not go under at all.
I know firsthand what pharmaceutical sedation feels like. And I actually woke up from the sedative half-way through an investigative procedure. I had a camera on a tube going down my nose all the way into my right lung. I knew exactly what was happening. Still, when I came to during the procedure, I tried to rip the tube out of my nose! So they knocked me out again with the intravenous.
I can only imagine how distressing it would be for a cat to wake up during sedation and not have a clue what was going on around her. She would not have a moment to prepare and for her senses to simply adjust to what was going on. Trust that even the most nervous cat will figure things out by using her own natural senses and experience, that there’s nothing to fear.
What if the vet says it’s perfectly safe?
You may think that if a veterinarian prescribes a sedative it should be perfectly safe and risk-free, right? Your vet may prescribe 10mg of Acepromazine which is said to be suitable for an average-sized cat. Articles like this one state that this drug “acts as an effective, and popular, tranquilizer for cats”. Acepromazine, just so you know, is a phenothiazine tranquilizer. It’s often used to control excited animals for examinations, treatments, travel and even grooming.
You may think well, that doesn’t sound so bad! Sounds perfectly safe to me – and if the vet says so, I’m in! You may be shocked to find out what the word ‘phenothiazine’ means. It’s antipsychotic medication. That’s right, drugs of this kind are used to treat schizophrenia and manifestations of psychotic disorders in humans. (Source).
It works by blocking dopamine in your cat’s brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means that the nerves cannot communicate properly with one another when the patient is on phenothiazine. Prozac, a drug you may have heard of, is another phenothiazine. Yikes.
Of course, it’s up to you and everyone’s situation is different. However, here at Cats & Travel, we take a holistic approach to cats’ health because we care very much. And I would not recommend putting your cat through something so scary and dangerous.
Most of the time, cats travel quite well without the need for medication. Some cats, on the other hand, experience tremendous stress when subjected to air travel.Tammy Hunter, DVM & Robin Downing, DVM (Source)
How are commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals dangerous for cats?
Sedating a pet by pharmaceutical means is dangerous because these sedatives interfere with a cat’s respiratory system. Brachycephalic (snub-nosed) cats may be especially affected, but no cat, no matter how healthy, can be guaranteed 100% healthy with no side-effects.
Other bodily systems and organs are also affected during air travel including the heart. It actually is the same for all living creatures – cat or human! A long-haul trip is definitely not the time you want to find out your cat has a cardiovascular condition – or to give her a heart attack due to stress and fear.
This article details even more of the side effects of Acepromazine Maleate for vetenirarary use – and let me tell you, it’s a scary list.
The dosage your vet prescribed may be fine under ‘perfect’ conditions, with a healthy, average cat. However, each cat has its own unique physiology that cannot possibly be accounted for with a generic pharmaceutical solution. Even when it’s administered as a ‘dummy run’ in the house or the car, it isn’t the same as the elevated senses your cat will have day of.
Some cats may respond abnormally to sedatives. And you are still changing their brain chemistry for no real reason. This alone is dangerous. Plus, vets warn that sedatives may not work – or may have the opposite of the desired effect – if a cat is already in a heightened, anxious mood.
Understanding how your cat might respond to travel without sedatives
Lively, agitated cats
Cats, as we know, are remarkably resilient creatures with incredible instincts that guide them to the safest outcomes. Your cat may be extremely excitable by nature, even at the airport and prior to loading. However, once a cat is in a resting situation, he will likely do just fine. He’ll settle into a comfy position and pretty much wait to get his 4 paws on solid ground.
If you were to use a sedative in this situation it may have an excessive effect. Their poor little hearts are already doing overtime if they’re the type to be overstimulated by their environments at the best of times.
So, even the liveliest cat is likely to take it easy once he beds down for the flight – without the use of possibly harmful sedatives.
Other cats have more of an issue with anxiety. You may worry about the cat howling and becoming a nuisance to other passengers. When a cat if anxious by nature, the key is preparation. Just like anxiety in humans, the strangeness of the situation that can be overcome with exposure. Sometimes immersion therapy works just as well for cats.
Prepare your cat by crate-training him and throwing in items that smell like home. Work up to the big trip by travel by car. Gradually take your cat into situations that push him outside his comfort zone. Rather than looking for a quick fix, always consider the cat as a whole – the holistic approach.
Aggressive cats are often just cats that aren’t getting their needs met. It’s unusual for a cat just to be aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. Aggression is often a symptom of something else that’s really happening – and this might be the perfect time to address it.
However, cats that are prone to extreme aggression are good candidates for natural sedatives. More on that next.
What about natural sedatives for cat travel?
If you have decided that a natural sedative may be in order, consider a few of these options.
Rescue Remedy is a great, all-natural herbal remedy. For humans it is administered by dropping on the tongue. I’ve used it on myself when I had anxiety issues and it does product a mild but noticeable benefit. For cats, try adding half a drop or two to the paw, ear, or tongue. You can also try Relaxivet Calming Collar, Relaxivet Natural Calming Spray or Pet Naturals Of Vermont. Be sure to read all instructions fully before administering any substance to your cat, even if it is an all-natural one.
Remember, if at all possible, do a dummy run in the car well before the flight to see how your cat responds. Always start with the smallest dosage and monitor whether that has the desired effect.
Natural sedatives can work, but even these shouldn’t be overused as the effect will diminish. If your cat is a frequent flyer, she’ll eventually become acclimatized to being in the air. So, save the sedatives for long trips rather than breaking them out every time.
An alternative solution that might be calming to your cat
This one is newer on the market, and a little more of an ‘out there’ solution. It’s definitely not for every cat, and has mixed reviews on Amazon, with only 50% giving it 5 stars. Nevertheless, I thought it was worth including as an example of thinking outside the box. A sedative doesn’t have to be some kind of drug or substance that’s administered.
The idea of this weighted jacket is that it applies gentle, constant pressure to calm anxiety, fear, and over-excitement. It’s exactly the same ideas as a weighted blanket for humans. I haven’t tried this one on my cat yet! Some people report that smaller cats may literally collapse under the weight of this – but when you’re using it for travel, that might be just the ticket.
To sum up
Cat sedatives may seem like a good idea but in reality carry many risks that are simply not worth the potential upside. And I totally get that many people think sedation is the way to go – no distress for the cat. It might seem inconsiderate to other passengers not to sedate your cat – after all, you don’t want a cat that howls the whole flight or – heaven forbid – have an accident in his carrier.
In reality, sedation is far crueler to the animal than we could know. Sure, cats are not made for flying 30,000 feet in the air, but trust that they will get used to this strange experience.
The most likely scenario is that even with the weird sounds, smells, motion sickness and a pressurized environment, they will curl up and go to sleep. It’s your cat’s own defense mechanism against an undesirable situation that will ultimately see her through.