If your vet has recently prescribed gabapentin for your dog, you might be wondering, “What is gabapentin for dogs?” Integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby answers that question as she discusses the uses, safety, and side effects of gabapentin for dogs.
Recently, I met Lenny, a 12-year-old Labrador Retriever mix who has arthritis in multiple joints. He had been on a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) twice a day for several years to manage his pain. However, his mom noticed that he’d started having trouble getting up in the morning. This change indicated to Lenny’s mom, and to me, that he might need additional pain relief.
We couldn’t safely increase his NSAID dose, so I suggested adding on gabapentin. I followed up with Lenny’s mom a few weeks later. She was thrilled to report that he was popping out of bed again in the morning, eager for his walk!
I believe gabapentin can make a huge difference in the quality of life for many dogs just like Lenny. So, let’s take a look at this versatile drug.
What is gabapentin for dogs?
Often better recognized by its brand name, Neurontin, gabapentin is FDA approved for use in humans. However, like many medications, vets can, and often do, use it “off label” in dogs. This means it’s used in a way that’s not included in the FDA’s approved packaging label and insert.
Many human drugs are safely used “off label” in animals, so this isn’t cause for concern. However, this does not mean you should decide to share gabapentin prescribed for you with your dog.
What is gabapentin used for in dogs?
One of the great things about this drug is that it has a variety of applications within veterinary medicine. However, it’s worth mentioning that much of gabapentin’s use in dogs has been extrapolated from studies in humans. More studies are needed to fully characterize its uses in dogs.
Gabapentin as a pain reliever for dogs
Gabapentin works by binding to calcium channels. This inhibits the release of certain molecules that are involved in transmitting pain signals to the brain. Thus, gabapentin should reduce a dog’s ability to perceive pain.
Unfortunately, the research about gabapentin as a pain medication in dogs is sparse and indicates that it may not be great at relieving pain in some situations. However, many veterinarians, myself included, have seen firsthand how gabapentin has helped our patients. Thus, I will continue to prescribe gabapentin because I believe it has a great potential to help and low potential to harm.
Gabapentin is primarily used for reducing chronic pain and neuropathic pain in dogs. Let’s pause for a minute and define those two terms.
This is pain that is persistent and may begin to create its own side effects such as trouble sleeping, decreased appetite, and behavior changes. When untreated, chronic pain can decrease a dog’s quality of life.
Dogs with arthritis often live with chronic pain. Thus, gabapentin can be a useful way to relieve arthritis pain in dogs. Your vet may sometimes prescribe it in conjunction with other pain-relieving medications such as NSAIDs or tramadol for dogs. Gabapentin may also help control pain associated with cancer in dogs.
Sometimes it can be hard to recognize the more subtle signs of pain in dogs. Especially in senior dogs, it may be easy to wonder, “Is it canine arthritis or aging?” If you suspect your dog could be in pain, promptly contact your veterinarian.
This is the pain that comes from damaged nerve fibers or a malfunctioning nervous system. Dogs suffering from neuropathic pain may show signs such as:
- Excessive licking or chewing one location, sometimes to the point of self-mutilation.
- Randomly crying out in pain.
- Reacting abnormally to touch (i.e. yelping when being petted in a typical fashion).
- Lameness or lack of weight bearing on one limb.
- Difficulty moving about.
IVDD in dogs is one example of a condition that can cause neuropathic pain. In it, the disc that normally sits between the vertebrae moves out of position and puts pressure on the spinal cord. In some cases, vets may use gabapentin in combination with other medications to help dogs with IVDD recover without surgery.
Gabapentin for seizures in dogs
In addition to being an effective pain medication, vets sometimes use gabapentin to treat seizures in dogs. By itself, it isn’t as effective as the more commonly prescribed anti-convulsant drugs. But it does work well in combination with these drugs. Thus, it is typically added on as a secondary anti-convulsant when the vet is having trouble controlling seizure activity.
Gabapentin for anxiety in dogs
In some dogs (and in many cats), gabapentin may also help relieve anxiety. In fact, a 2021 study in Vet Record demonstrated that gabapentin reduced fear response in dogs with storm phobia.
Gabapentin is also one of the “go to” drugs for pets who are anxious about a vet visit. The veterinary team’s goal is to examine your dog, administer needed vaccinations or medications, and complete any procedures or diagnostic testing with minimal stress to your pet. We love our patients and want them to love visiting us!
However, we know not all dogs see things this way. A vet visit comes with different sights, smells, and sounds. Some procedures may be uncomfortable or require handling a sensitive area of the dog’s body like the feet, eyes, or ears. As a result, some dogs become anxious or unsettled.
For these dogs, giving them anxiety meds like gabapentin before the appointment can help them feel more comfortable and relaxed. This can lead to a more pleasant visit for everyone.
Gabapentin helps Gregor have a great vet visit
A few weeks ago, I saw Gregor, a five-year-old Jack Russell Terrier. While he is a sweet boy, he doesn’t particularly like to be held still. It wasn’t a big deal if he wiggled during the exam, but he needed to hold still so we could safely draw blood for his annual blood work.
Each time we tried to keep him still, he would panic—his ears went down, his eyes went wide, and he started trying hard to escape. Gregor was giving us very clear signs of anxiety. We hit the pause button for the day and decided to try it again another day with the benefit of gabapentin.
Gregor’s owner gave him a dose of gabapentin the night before his visit, and again about two hours before leaving the house. When Gregor got back to the clinic, he was much more relaxed than he had been before. He still kept a close eye on me while I drew his blood, but he didn’t show any signs of anxiety. As an added bonus, Gregor was relaxed enough to fall asleep in the car on the way home!
Is gabapentin safe for dogs?
We have established that gabapentin has multiple uses, which is a plus. Another great benefit is that it is generally considered to be safe for dogs—with a few caveats.
Anytime a dog has kidney or liver disease, vets use caution with prescribing medications because these organs are responsible for breaking the drugs down and eliminating them from the body. In this case, gabapentin is eliminated primarily by the kidneys. Thus, the vet may need to use a lower dose in dogs with severe kidney disease. However, some dogs with kidney dysfunction can safely take the same dose as dogs with normal kidneys.
The good news is that gabapentin is typically easier on the kidneys and liver than many other pain medications for dogs. Therefore, gabapentin can be a valuable asset for pain control in dogs with some degree of kidney or liver disease.
In pregnant dogs, we may avoid using gabapentin. At high doses, it can cause problems with fetal development. It does enter the mother’s milk, but in very low amounts that are unlikely to affect puppies. Thus, it can be safely used in nursing dogs.
Finally, when looking at safety, it is worth noting that gabapentin has a wide therapeutic range. This means the same sized dog can safely and effectively take a broad range of doses. Thus, true overdoses are very uncommon.
What is the dosage of gabapentin for dogs?
Gabapentin is available in several forms, so it can be used in dogs of all sizes. The most commonly prescribed forms are 100 mg and 300 mg capsules, which are given by mouth. (As an aside, I know sometimes giving pills can be challenging. That’s why I often share my five solutions for dogs who won’t take pills with my clients and readers.)
The capsules contain a powder that is relatively flavorless. So, if all else fails, you can also try opening the capsule and sprinkling the contents over the food (or mixing it in). Be warned, though, that this method can result in underdosing your dog if he or she doesn’t eat all the food or the powder falls to the bottom of the dish.
Gabapentin is also available in a liquid. However, it is important to note that the liquid form of gabapentin made for humans sometimes contains an artificial sweetener called xylitol. Unfortunately, xylitol is toxic to dogs. If your dog needs liquid gabapentin, your veterinarian will most likely prescribe a compounded version to ensure it does not contain xylitol.
The dose of gabapentin prescribed for a dog will depend on the size of the dog, the condition being treated, and any other medications the dog may already be taking. Gabapentin may be given once, twice, or three times a day. Some dogs experience pain relief with once or twice a day dosing. However, since gabapentin’s effects only last a few hours, most dogs will need it three times daily.
What are the potential side effects of gabapentin?
When dogs first start taking gabapentin, they might become a bit drowsy or have an unsteady gait. However, the good news is that most dogs adjust within a few days and are back to their usual selves.
Sometimes, when initially starting a dog on gabapentin, the vet will recommend only giving it at bedtime. That way, the dog has time to adjust. Chances are your dog would be sleeping then anyway, so a bit of excessive drowsiness isn’t a problem. Then in a few days, once the dog isn’t experiencing drowsiness as a side effect, the dosing frequency can be increased.
In a small percentage of dogs, the drowsiness persists and remains a problem. If that occurs, your vet may decide to discontinue the gabapentin and switch to a different medication.
If a dog has been taking gabapentin regularly, stopping it abruptly may cause seizures. Thankfully, this is a rare occurrence. Just to be safe, your vet may recommend gradually decreasing the dose over a few weeks rather than quitting cold turkey.
Can gabapentin be given with other medications?
Gabapentin would get a good report from preschool teachers because it is known for “playing well” with other medications. In fact, it may be more effective when used alongside other pain medications! We commonly use gabapentin together with NSAIDs for dogs with arthritis pain. Together, they relieve pain more effectively than either medication alone.
Sometimes a dog may need gabapentin plus another medication that can also potentially cause drowsiness. In this case, your vet may recommend starting at a lower dose to keep your dog from becoming excessively sedated. Then he or she can increase the dose in a few days once your dog has adjusted and is no longer so drowsy.
Talk to your veterinarian
As you can see, gabapentin can be beneficial in a variety of situations, especially for arthritic senior dogs. It is safe, effective, and has fewer side effects than many other pain medications. However, what is best for one dog is not always best for another. As always, please talk with your vet about any questions or concerns you have about your dog, and never adjust your dog’s medications on your own.
Has your dog taken gabapentin?
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