Preventing Travel Anxiety and Carsickness in Dogs

Dor-Travel-Anxiety-CarsicknessPicture this… the family heading off to the coast, kids and pooches eager for the journey and 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 car and back out of the driveway, there are definitely a few things you can do to make your dog's trip in the car smoother, safer, and more enjoyable – for everybody.

Travel anxiety and carsickness… they’re no fun for anyone

Does your dog get anxious in the car? Does he pant and never settle down? Does he vomit at even the thought of a car ride? Travel anxiety and carsickness can ruin a road trip before it even hits the highway. What can you do about it? Fortunately, quite a few things – give the suggestions in this article a whirl to make Fido a better traveler.

Familiarize Your Dog

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 stressful? Change your dog’s experience, change the association, and you may well change the behavior. The key here is recognizing that this is not a race. Go slowly. Success is more likely with baby steps.

Preventing Travel Anxiety in Dogs:

  1. Prepare your pup before you pack the car.
  2. Simple items like laundry or fresh air may help calm your dog.
  3. See below for many more things to try.
  4. If all else fails, talk to your veterinarian about medication.
  • Start with the car parked and go into the back seat (or cargo area) with your dog. Pet him, praise him, and give him treats. Do this for just a few minutes the first time, or even just a few seconds depending on how stressed he is in the car. Do this daily, or every other day, for a few weeks. Gradually increase the amount of time you’re spending in the car. Consider feeding him regular meals in the car, while you sit with him giving praise and pets. What you’re trying to do here is to get your dog to associate the car with positive experiences. 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 on hot or extremely cold days, and always stay with your dog. Temperature related emergencies are serious problems and can come on quickly – please see our important information and resources regarding heat stroke in pets.)

  • Now that your dog is more comfortable in the car, take short trips around town. 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.)

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Calm Your Dog

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 (check your laundry basket) may help. This can calm your dog and make the car experience more enjoyable.  Just be careful and make sure your dog is not likely to chew up and eat what you offer. If he does eat it, you’ll likely be trading travel anxiety for an intestinal obstruction. Those obstructions can require a costly surgery to resolve, so they’re best avoided.

  • 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. It’s called Adaptil™, formerly D.A.P., and is available either through your veterinarian or certain pet supply stores. Using the collar form on your dog with travel anxiety may help to decrease their 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 and has 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 (you might want to try the Noise Phobia Series from Through A Dog’s Ear) and/or opening the windows a bit. (Just don’t let your dog put his head out the window. Doing so risks injuries to his 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 dog feel more secure during travel. An added bonus is that restraints are also important tools to keep both your dog and the other occupants of your car safe during travel. Please read our Pet Travel Restraint article for more information on this important topic.


Medicate Your Dog

Sometimes, no matter how much acclimation and calming you try, your dog may still need medication. Medication can relieve anxiety and help your dog 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 dog.

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. A recent examination and doctor-patient relationship is vital to ensuring the safe and effective use of any medication.  For specific recommendations and prescriptions, speak with your veterinarian.
Do not provide any of these medications to your dog without express instructions from 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 anxious pet. 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 agitation by decreasing your dog’s perception of the surroundings. 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:  Zoetis 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 to talk 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 he has a habit of vomiting in the car. It may or may not help with his nausea, but it will surely save you a little bit of mess and clean up time!

If you have a dog that suffers from travel anxiety or carsickness please fill out our survey. The information you share about your experiences will help many other dogs.

Happy travels!

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Topics: Cerenia, How to Travel with Dogs, Adaptil, Road Trips, Dogs and Cars, Travel Sickness, Nausea in Dogs, travel with pets, antihistimines for dogs, travel anxiety, anti-anxieties for dogs, travelling with dogs, Blog

Please do not ask emergency or other specific medical questions about your pets in the blog comments. As an online informational resource, Preventive Vet is unable to and does not provide specific medical advice or counseling. A thorough physical exam, patient history, and an established veterinary-patient-client relationship is required to provide specific medical advice. If you are worried that your pet is having an emergency or if you have specific medical questions related to your pet’s current or chronic medical conditions, please contact or visit your veterinarian, an animal-specific poison control hotline, or your local emergency veterinary care center.

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