Dogs, just like humans, can suffer from motion sickness during car rides or other types of travel. A dog can get carsick even during short trips in the car. A queasy dog makes car rides an unpleasant experience for everyone, but luckily there are things you can do to help your pup feel better when riding in the car.
What's the Difference Between Motion Sickness and Travel Anxiety for Dogs?
Many of the signs and symptoms of car sickness are the same as travel anxiety, so it can be tough to determine exactly which one your dog is experiencing. Plus, some dogs are unlucky enough to be dealing with both. After all, if your dog feels sick every time they ride in the car, it’s certainly likely (and understandable) that they’d also be anxious about going for car rides and that their anxiety about car rides would increase with each ride.
The most common signs and symptoms of car sickness in dogs are:
- Hunched back or other changed body posture
- Lips pulled back and tight facial muscles
- Wide eyes
- Vomiting (in some, but not all, cases)
Speak With Your Veterinarian to Start Treatment
To determine whether your dog’s dislike of car rides is due to car sickness or travel anxiety, it’s best to start with a conversation and visit with your vet. This can help to rule out any underlying medical issues that could be mimicking the signs of motion sickness and/or travel anxiety (e.g., pain from a slipped disc or arthritis, an inner or middle ear infection, or high blood pressure). If there’s an underlying medical condition, you’ll want to begin by addressing that.
If there isn’t an underlying medical condition, the conversation and visit with your veterinarian will also provide you with an important opportunity to discuss possible medication and/or supplement options to best help your dog. There are some great options available, so be sure to talk to your veterinarian, as your dog doesn’t need to live with or “just get over” their car sickness or travel anxiety. (See the “Medications and Supplements for Canine Car Sickness” section of this article below for more information about this.)
It can sometimes be difficult to determine whether a dog is dealing with motion sickness or travel anxiety, or both. In these cases, it’s a bit of trial-and-error. Typically, your best bet is to treat for possible car sickness while also taking steps to help your dog feel more comfortable riding in the car. If your dog’s signs are due exclusively, or even primarily to motion sickness, you should notice an improvement in your dog’s signs rather quickly, once an effective treatment for motion sickness has been started.
If your dog is still showing signs after being treated for motion sickness, they most likely have (at least some degree of) travel anxiety. It could be that their signs were due exclusively to travel anxiety, or there is a component of travel anxiety. If it’s determined that even some of your dog’s signs are due to travel anxiety, you can learn more about travel anxiety and what you can do to help your dog in our article "Preventing and Treating Travel Anxiety in Dogs."
Why Do Dogs Get Carsick?
Nobody knows for sure why dogs get carsick, but the theories are similar to those for why people get carsick. The primary theory is that the sensory signals reaching the brain from the eyes (the dog isn’t moving) don’t match the signals reaching the brain from the vestibular movement-sensing areas of the inner ear (the dog is moving) and those mixed signals trigger nausea and vomiting response.
However, we do know that puppies and young dogs tend to experience motion sickness and get carsick more often than adult dogs. Some dogs “grow out of” their car sickness, but others do not. And if feeling and being carsick has given them bad associations with the car and brought on some travel anxiety, you might still see signs even if your dog has technically grown out of their motion sickness.
PRO TIP: While the exact reasons for why puppies and young dogs tend to experience motion sickness more than adult dogs are still unknown, part of it might be that puppies and small dogs are less likely to be able to see out the window during travel. For young and small dogs suffering from car sickness, you could try restraining them in a travel booster seat, which can help keep them stable and safe while also being able to see out the window.
Medications and Supplements for Canine Car Sickness
Below are some of the more common medications and supplements that are used to treat and prevent motion sickness in dogs. Because every dog and every situation is different, your (and your dog’s) best bet is to have a conversation with your veterinarian to determine which medication(s) and/or supplements are most likely to help your dog suffering from motion sickness. Those listed below are to highlight that there are things you can do to help your dog with their car sickness. Do not provide any of these medications to your dog without express instructions from your veterinarian.
- Cerenia® (maropitant): A highly effective medication for the treatment and prevention of the vomiting associated with motion sickness in dogs. Cerenia is the only veterinary medication specifically licensed for this purpose in dogs and has many years of proven safety and efficacy. An added bonus is that Cerenia is non-sedating – so you don’t have to worry about having a “drugged dog.” Cerenia works best when given to dogs 2 hours prior to travel.
- Meclizine (Bonine®, Antivert®, Dramamine® LESS Drowsy Formula): An over-the-counter human antihistamine that can be effective in treating the signs and symptoms of motion sickness in some dogs. As with many antihistamines in its drug class, meclizine can cause drowsiness and “dry mouth” in dogs.
- Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine®): Like meclizine, an over-the-counter human antihistamine that can be effective in treating the signs and symptoms of motion sickness in some dogs. As with many antihistamines in its drug class, dimenhydrinate can cause drowsiness and “dry mouth” in dogs.
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl ®): Another over-the-counter human antihistamine that can be effective in treating the signs and symptoms of motion sickness in some dogs. Similar to meclizine and dimenhydrinate, diphenhydramine can cause drowsiness and “dry mouth” in dogs. It can also cause agitation in some dogs. Once you've spoken with your veterinarian about using Bendaryl® for your dog, use our Diphenhydramine Calculator to determine your dog's minimum and maximum dosage.
- Ginger: Ginger is an herb that has been used for centuries to aid in digestion and help prevent nausea and vomiting. There are plenty of anecdotal reports of it being used successfully for these purposes in dogs, and several studies documenting its effectiveness for helping to control nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy in women and motion sickness in people in general. To my knowledge, there haven’t been any specific studies to show the safety and effectiveness of using ginger to help dogs suffering from car and motion sickness, but many people (and some vets) use and swear by it. The prevailing opinion is that either freshly grated ginger root or ginger root powder is more effective than things like ginger snap cookies and that it's best to give about an hour before travel. Talk to your vet about what dose and frequency are likely to be best for your dog and make sure that any liquid/tincture formulations you try don't have xylitol in them.
- CBD: Some people are using and recommending CBD or hemp oil for dogs suffering from car sickness. To my knowledge, there are no studies that have been done to test the efficacy of CBD oil in helping dogs suffering from motion sickness. Additionally, CBD can interfere/interact with certain medications and/or supplements that your dog is currently on, and the CBD industry, while growing rapidly, is at this point very poorly regulated. If you do decide to try CBD to help your dog avoid getting carsick (or for any other reason), please read our "What to Know if You Want to Give Your Dog CBD" article first.
PRO TIP: As you can see above, though there are several over-the-counter, anecdotal, and supplemental treatments for motion sickness in dogs, the fact that maropitant (Cerenia®) has proven safety, is specifically licensed for treating motion sickness in dogs, and is extremely and reliably effective is why I (and many other vets) love this medication for both diagnosing and treating car and motion sickness in dogs. If a dog’s car vomiting doesn’t resolve on Cerenia®, then there’s a very high probability that something more/other than motion sickness is going on.
Other Ways to Help Your Dog's Car Sickness
As discussed earlier in this article, for puppies and smaller dogs suffering from motion sickness, restraining them in an elevated pet travel booster seat may help them avoid the conflicting sensory signals that can trigger the vomiting of motion sickness. You can read about our recommendations for the best types of pet travel booster seats (as well as pet travel harnesses and pet travel crates) in our "Buckle Up Your Pup" article.
Travel on an empty stomach. As a general rule, dogs are less likely to throw up food on an empty stomach, so it’s best to avoid giving them a full meal before you take a ride in the car. However, for some dogs, a little bit of food in their stomach (like a teaspoon or two, or a couple of treats) may decrease their chances of getting nauseous and vomiting. A little bit of water prior to travel is good too, staying hydrated is important after all.
Roll down those windows a bit — getting some fresh and circulated air can help some dogs feel better.
Safety Note: Make sure your dog is restrained so they can’t leap out of, or even stick their head out of the window. (Sticking their head out the window, regardless of how fun and “free” it looks, puts your dog at risk of potentially severe injuries to their eyes, mouth, throat, and every other part of them that’s sticking out. It’s just not worth the risk.)
Make frequent stops, giving your dog regular breaks during long car rides. Doing so won’t just let them sniff around and stretch their legs on solid ground for a bit (and do their “business”), but it will also give them a break from the potentially conflicting sensory signals that might be causing their motion sickness, too.
Create a positive association with riding in the car. Take some time to build up your dog’s tolerance (and even enjoyment) of being in the car and address any anxiety they might have by desensitizing and counter-conditioning their car rides. Click here for step-by-step instructions on how to do this.
We hope this advice has helped you with taking some steps to help with your dog's car sickness. By taking some preventive measures or treating with medication, your dog should feel less sick while riding in the car and you can enjoy more road trips together!