Travel sickness, also called car or motion sickness, can affect pets as much as humans. Any form of travel can trigger travel sickness- dogs may shake, drool, yawn excessively, vomit and in some cases urinate or defecate. The association between the car and sickness often makes dogs afraid of the car. Luckily there are plenty of things you can try to help your dogs as well as travel sickness tablets which can be prescribed by your vet. Read our advice here.
What causes travel sickness in puppies and dogs?
The mechanism for motion sickness is not fully understood. The generally accepted theory is that when there is a mismatch between the brain’s input from the eyes and the middle ear (vestibular system) it triggers the vomiting centre of the brain. This is why, for humans, starting at the horizon as a stable point of reference can help. Car sickness is more common in puppies and thankfully many dogs outgrow their motion sickness as they get older.
What are the signs of travel sickness in dogs?
Early signs of stress/car sickness in dogs include; panting, whining, vocalising, excessive yawning, drooling, pacing and restlessness. This can progress to vomiting and in some cases urinating and defecating. If your dog associates the car with feeling sick they are naturally going to become fearful of getting in the car. This anxiety can be enough to cause sickness before the car has started moving. Preventing travel sickness also involves tackling this anxiety.
How can I stop my dog from getting travel sick?
Face your dog forward – facing forward in the back seat is the best option. It is a legal requirement that your dog is secured in the car, both for your safety and that of your dog. If your dog travels in the front make sure the passenger side airbag is off and that the passenger seat is as far back as possible
Fresh air – open a window to allow air to circulate
Position them so that they can see out the window – much like us having a point of reference outside the car can help. You may need to provide a cushion or booster seat to raise small dogs up
Don’t feed your dog at least 2 hours before a car journey – having a full stomach makes nausea more likely
Distraction – offering a special car trip toy which only comes out on car journeys can help take their mind off the journey
Keep the car cool and quiet – calming music may help
Try using a calming scent – products such as Adaptil and Pet Remedy have been shown to have a calming effect. Alternatively a blanket from home may make them feel more secure
Behavioural modification/ training – For some dogs the fear of the car (and the association with vomiting) can be enough to cause vomiting before the journey has even started. For any dog showing fear of the car-training can help (see below)
Medication – your physical vet will be able to provide motion sickness tablets but these are not recommended for regular journeys and should only be used for a maximum of 2 days in a row. Don’t be tempted to use human medication for your dog as this can be dangerous
How can I help my dog like the car?
Helping your dog like the car is a gradual process, don’t expect instant results but over time perseverance pays off. If you have a dog who is extremely fearful or the measures below don’t seem to be working consider seeking help from a behaviourist- look for behaviourists who are accredited by a recognised body such as Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CCAB) or Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC).
Preparation – if possible use a different car from where the dog has been sick before. Initially open all the doors so your dog doesn’t feel trapped. Add a blanket from home or try using an Adaptil collar or spray (15 minutes before training). If possible, plan to avoid car journeys with your dog for the next few weeks whilst you train them
Watch out for stress – Dogs show a whole range of behaviours when they’re scared as listed above. Your dog should be totally happy with the first step before adding anything else. Be patient
Baby steps – Start by asking your dog to get in and out the car a few times rewarding them each time they jump in. Try feeding your dog in the car as the ‘jackpot’ for all their hard work. If you have a dog who is too scared to even approach the car it would be best to talk to a behaviourist
Avoid ‘luring’ your dog – Try not to use high value treats as a ‘lure’ as this can create a stressful conflict for your dog (tasty food vs. scary place). Imagine, if you saw a bar of chocolate in a scary cave you might be tempted to run in and grab it, but the moment you’ve got your hands on it you’re out of there! Alternatively if you go into the cave even though you find it scary and THEN get rewarded with chocolate, suddenly the cave is a little less frightening
Building it up – Once your dog feels ok sitting in the back seat, try turning the engine on and not going anywhere. Watch for any signs of increasing anxiety. Once this feels okay try a 30 second drive and build from there, keeping drives as smooth and corner free as possible
Keep up the good work – keep reinforcing the idea that the car is an okay place to be. If your dog only goes in the car to the vets they will begin to form a negative association. Try to add in driving short distances to rewarding places e.g. for a walk to dilute the negative association
Give your dog a cue – If you HAVE to put your dog in the car whilst you are still training try using a special harness or lead which is very different from their normal set. This gives your dog a cue that they are going in the car and helps them continue to trust you when it comes to training
Is there a travel sickness tablet for dogs? What about sedation?
Yes, but it has to be prescribed by your vet. Motion sickness tablets can be used to see how much of your dog’s worry around car journeys is related to sickness vs fear. Tablets are also a good option for long or unavoidable journeys but not for use every time. Sedation is rarely the answer although it has its place either as part of a behavioural modification programme or for one-off unavoidable journeys. There is no long term ‘quick fix’ for fearful behaviour but if you’re having trouble seek help from a professional.