How to Prevent Travel Anxiety and Carsickness in Dogs
Though it sure doesn’t feel like it up here in the Pacific Northwest, the summer travel season will soon be upon us. And if you’re like many dog owners, that means fun road trips with the hounds!
Picture this… the family heading off to the coast, kids and pooches eager for the journey and the thought of playing in the ocean. Perhaps you envision more of a quiet camping trip with your furry buddy, or a (slightly less-exciting) visit to the in-laws? Whatever the destination, having your dogs along for the ride just tends to make for a better trip, doesn’t it? Dogs can be great travel companions!
But wait, before you gas up the Wagon Queen Family Truckster and back out of the driveway, it’s important to note that there are a few things you should be aware of and a few things you can do to make your “road trip con canine” smoother, safer, and more enjoyable – for everybody.
This information will be presented in a series of blog posts, the first of which will cover that thing that can often stop your road trip before it even starts – carsickness and travel anxiety. Stay tuned though for additional installments which will cover everything from dog travel safety to finding dog-friendly accommodations. Happy reading, and happy travels!
Part 1: Travel anxiety and carsickness… they’re no fun – for anyone
Does your dog get anxious in the car? Do they pant and never settle down? Do they vomit at even the thought of a car ride? Travel anxiety and carsickness can ruin a road trip before it even begins. But what can you do about it? Fortunately, quite a few things – give these suggestions a whirl to make Fluffy a better traveler.
For many dogs, a trip to the vet is the main reason they get to ride in the car. Is it any wonder then that getting in the car can be so stress inducing for them? Change their experience, change their association, and you may well change their behavior. The key here is recognizing that this is not a race – go slowly, success is more likely to come with baby steps.
- Start with the car parked and go into the back seat (or cargo area) with her, pet her, praise her, and give her treats. Do this for just a few minutes at first, or even just a few seconds (depending on how stressed she is in the car). Do this daily, or every other day, for a couple/few weeks, gradually increasing the amount of time you’re spending in the car. Consider feeding her regular meals in the car, while you sit with her giving her praise and petting her. What you’re trying to do here is to get her associating the car with positive experiences, and what’s more positive than food, for most dogs! (This should go without saying, but best to be overly cautious here… do not do these exercises during the heat of the day or on extremely cold days, and be sure to stay with your dog while they’re in the car. Temperature related emergencies are serious problems and can come on quickly – see later in this blog series for introductory information on Heat Stroke, or click here (http://thepreventivevet.tumblr.com/post/7350147462/heat-stroke-in-pets) for my previous, in-depth post on the subject)
- Now that she’s more comfortable in the car, take short trips around town with her. Go to fun places – dog parks, play dates with your friend’s dogs, to the pet store, or whatever else you think will be fun for your pet. Do these regularly and gradually increase the distance you go. (Tip: you can keep going back to the same place, just take a different, and progressively longer route.)
There are certain products and tricks you can try to calm your dog in the car. It’s difficult to predict which of these will work for a particular dog, so I recommend trying each of them until you see what works for yours.
- Toys and clothes: Providing your dog with a favorite toy, or an article of clothing with your scent may help to calm them and make their car experience more enjoyable. Just be careful and make sure they’re not likely to chew up and eat what you give them. If they do, you’ll likely be trading travel anxiety for an intestinal obstruction; the latter of which will require a costly surgery to resolve.
- Pheromones: Pheromones are substances produced by the body that act through the senses, typically smell, of nearby animals of the same species. For several days after giving birth to a litter of puppies, a female dog releases a pheromone that calms and soothes her puppies, giving them a sense of security and comfort. This pheromone has been copied synthetically and is available in both a spray and collar form. This Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) is available either through your veterinarian or certain pet supply stores. Using the collar form on your dog with travel anxiety may well help to decrease that anxiety.
- Homeopathic preparations: Essences of flowers and plants make up homeopathic remedies that may help to calm a pet’s anxiety. One of the more popular is called Rescue Remedy for Pets; it’s got a distinctive yellow label. Some people swear by it.
- Conditions within the car: Some pets might travel better if there’s soothing music or fresh air in the car. Try playing classical music and/or opening the windows a bit. (Just don’t let your dog put their head out the window; it poses a risk for injuries to their eyes, ears, nose, throat, and skull.)
- Restraint: Some dogs will feel less anxious if they feel more secure in the car – and this isn’t a comment on the way you drive. Travel crates, carriers, and travel harnesses are all great ways to help your dogs feel more secure during travel, and the added bonus is that they’re also important tools to keep them, and the other occupants of your car, safe during travel too. (Dog travel safety will be discussed in more detail later in this blog series.)
Sometimes, no matter how much acclimation and calming you try, your dog may just need medication to relieve their anxiety and help them enjoy car travel. In these instances you’re going to have to consult with your veterinarian for specifics. Only we veterinarians know and understand how medications will be expected to affect your dogs, and as any veterinarian will tell you, a recent examination and doctor-patient relationship is vital to ensuring the safe and effective use of any medication. For informational purposes only, below are some of the types of medications that your veterinarian may prescribe to help your anxious dog travel better. Again, these drug types are mentioned just to provide you with some information, these are not my recommendations or prescriptions. For specific recommendations and prescriptions, speak with your veterinarian.
- Antihistamines: Medications in this drug class can lessen your dog’s travel anxiety and reduce their chances of carsickness through a variety of mechanisms, including their drowsiness-inducing effects and their direct action on your dog’s balance centers.
- Anxiolytics: This class comprises a wide range of drugs that your veterinarian may prescribe for your pet with anxiety, of the travel variety or any other type. As a drug class they can reduce or block a dog’s anxiety, and some may also cause a degree of sedation.
- Sedatives: Sedatives reduce your dog’s level of awareness, basically reducing their agitation by decreasing their perception of their surroundings and all stimuli. There are medications that are specific sedatives, and others that have sedation as a side effect. Only your veterinarian can decide if a sedative is right for your dog’s travel anxiety.
- Neurokinin receptor blocker: Pfizer makes a unique drug that is highly effective at blocking the center within your dog’s brain responsible for the vomiting reflex. Translation… it is highly effective at preventing vomiting. However, it is only available by prescription and is not indicated for every dog, or in every situation. It’s called Cerenia®, and if these other measures have failed to control your dog’s carsickness, it’s certainly worthwhile talking to your veterinarian about it.
I hope this overview of dog travel anxiety and carsickness has been helpful for you and your dogs. I know that the information here has helped many of my patients and their people enjoy better and less stressful travel, please let me know if it does the same for you. The final recommendation I will make regarding carsickness in dogs is to avoid feeding your dog for a couple of hours prior to your trip, especially if she has a habit of vomiting in the car. It may or may not help with her nausea, but it will surely save you a little bit of mess and clean up time! Happy travels, and stay tuned for the next installment in this blog series… “Travel Safely – the importance and ease of dog travel restraint”.