Picture 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 AnyoneDoes 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 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 DogFor 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:
- Prepare your pup before you pack the car.
- Simple items like laundry or fresh air may help calm your dog.
- See below for many more things to try.
- 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 them, praise them, and give them treats (if they're really nervous, you may need to use "high-value" treats like little pieces of cheese, hot dog, or whatever you know they really love). Do this for just a few minutes the first time, or even just a few seconds depending on how stressed they are 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 them regular meals in the car, while you sit with them giving praise and pets. What you’re trying to do here is to get your dog to associate the car with positive experiences - this is called counterconditioning. 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 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 counterconditioned to the car, take short trips around town to gradually get them more comfortable with traveling in the car (this is called desensitization). 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 DogThere are certain products and tricks you can use to try and 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 find 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. After all, if they 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. You can also try putting clothes on your dog, such as the ThunderShirt anxiety-reducing jacket for dogs. These jackets can help calm dogs in a variety of situations, including during car acclimation and travel.
- Pheromones: Pheromones are chemical "signals" produced by an animal's body that help them communicate with nearby animals of the same species. For several days after giving birth to a litter of puppies, a female dog releases a pheromone that helps calm and soothe 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™, sometimes sold under the Comfort Zone name. Spray a little (a spritz or two) on your dog's favorite stuffed toy or blanket prior to car travel, or put the Adaptil Comfort Zone Collar on your dog to help decrease their anxiety.
- Homeopathic preparations: Essences of flowers and plants make up homeopathic remedies that may help to calm some pet’s anxiety. One of the more popular products for dogs is called Rescue Remedy for Pets — 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 (not "classic rock," but classical ;-) and/or opening the windows a bit. Just don’t let your dog put their head out the window. Doing so risks 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 (unless you do drive poorly, then it definitely is). 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, and check out the recommended pet travel restraint products below.
Travel Harnesses, Carriers, and Crates for Dogs
A proper dog travel harness, carrier, or crate is often the best and safest way to travel with your dog in the car or truck. The best restraint for you will depend on the size of your dog; their comfort level with the restraint; and the type of car, truck, or SUV you drive. Here are some of the best dog travel harnesses, carriers, and crates:
Best Dog Restraint
The Sleepypod ClickIt travel harness is, in my opinion, the best dog car harness on the market. It's well constructed, easy to use, and received top marks in the rigorous crash testing done by the Center for Pet Safety.
Restraint for Small Dogs
Though a bit pricey, the Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed is a great travel carrier option for small dogs (and cats)! Not only is it sturdy, comfortable, and attractive, it's also easy to secure with your car's seat belt.
Restraint for Large Dogs
For larger dogs that will be traveling in the cargo area of your SUV, or even the bed of your truck, a sturdy crate is the best option. The Gunner Kennel, though pricey, is a top-notch, sturdy, and crash-tested dog kennel.
Less Expensive Travel Restraints for Dogs
If you need a less expensive carrier option, you can go with a plastic carrier (like the one linked below) and secure it to the seat with carrier straps (also linked below). Just as with less expensive car travel harnesses for dogs, these can definitely help you reduce the likelihood of a crash (by preventing your dog from climbing on your lap or down by your feet), but be aware that many of these cheaper carriers and harnesses haven't been properly crash tested and may not hold up as well in the event of a crash or sudden stop.
Non-Slip Seat Covers for Dogs
Save your upholstery and give your dog something to grip so they don't slide and flop around at every turn. This seat cover has holes that allow you to clip in their travel restraint, like the Sleepypod Clickit above, which is a must for any seat cover you choose.
Medicate Your DogSometimes, 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 or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. 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 they have a habit of vomiting in the car. It may or may not help with their nausea, but it will surely save you a little bit of mess and clean up time!
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