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Car Sickness

Does your dog get sick when you take them for a car ride? For some dogs, the motion of the car is what causes the sickness, and for others, it’s a physical response to fear and anxiety. Unfortunately, the two can overlap. If a dog experiences motion sickness, they may start to develop anxiety about car rides, causing an even more heightened physical response.

Puppies are especially prone to motion sickness, as their vestibular system is not fully developed, though many grow out of it between 6 – 12 months of age. For adult dogs, many factors may play into the cause of their motion sickness. For example, they may not have gone for many car rides prior to living with you, so this might be a new and scary experience. Many adult dogs have also learned that going for a car ride is often followed by something unpleasant, such as going to a veterinarian’s office. Luckily, there are ways you can help your pup enjoy the ride!

Signs of Travel Anxiety & Motion Sickness

Your dog may have travel anxiety or feel motion sickness if you notice any of the following responses when you’re in the car or while attempting to get them into your vehicle:

  • Excessive drooling
  • Yawning
  • Inactivity, listlessness, or uneasiness
  • Pacing
  • Whining
  • Stress panting
  • Shaking
  • Smacking or licking lips
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea 

Behavior Modification for Travel Anxiety

The goal of a behavior modification training plan is to alter the dog’s behavior patterns by changing the way they feel about a specific situation or stimuli. This involves more than just “getting your dog used to” the car. Simply driving them around a lot will not suddenly change your dog’s physical and/or emotional response to the car. Instead, you need to create a situation where your dog associates the car and travel with something good. You want to help your dog become comfortable with each piece of the puzzle before progressing, so it is important to go slow and not skip steps. It’s important to work at a level where your dog remains comfortable and is not showing signs of fear and anxiety. During this process, you may need to avoid any unnecessary car trips so they don’t have a bad experience, as it may cause setbacks. Unless it’s vital, your dog should stay home outside of training sessions for now.

Below are some steps that you can take to help your dog become more comfortable with the car. Please remember that every dog is different, and the steps of this specific procedure may need to be changed or broken down into smaller pieces depending on the dog. Also, if this is a combination of anxiety and motion sickness, you can talk with your veterinarian about medication to help alleviate their nausea. 

  1. See if your dog will approach the car willingly. If your dog shows signs of fear while approaching the car, give a few high-value treats while being close to the vehicle. Signs of anxiety might be licking their lips, yawning, panting, stopping their forward motion, or trying to pull back on the leash. If your dog will not eat the treat and is showing signs of fear and anxiety, increase the distance between your dog and the car. Repeat this over several sessions until your dog will willingly approach the car. Depending on your dog’s history, this step may go quickly or it can take a lot of repetition over time; again, it’s not a process you want to rush.
  2. Next, work on getting your dog to willingly go in the car (or enter their crate in the car, if applicable). Use high-value treats to reward your dog for small steps towards entering the car (ex. dog looks into car, dog puts paws up on the car, dog puts head farther into car, etc.) You can also use treats to toss into the car and try to lure them in. Another option is having both car doors open and trying to coax them in by having someone on the other side encourage them. If you choose this method, remember to keep rewarding them with high-value treats. Do NOT force your dog into the car; it’s crucial that you let them make the choice to enter the car on their own. You may choose to use a ramp or steps to make it easier for your dog to enter, especially if they cannot jump up due to physical ailments or size. 
    -- If this step seems to be too much for your dog, you can take a step back and just work on getting your dog used to being near the car with the door open. Open the car door and continue to reward your dog for being near it. Always remember to break it down into smaller steps and slow down if your dog is struggling.
    -- If you are introducing a ramp or stairs, practice going up those objects away from the car. This may mean bringing in the pet ramp or stairs into your home and having the dog go onto the couch, bed, or other elevated platform so they can practice using these tools in a less stressful environment. As always, we don’t want to force them onto or down it; if they’re hesitant, try leaving a trail of treats up it and letting them get comfortable at their own pace.
  3. Start getting them used to being in the car with the doors closed, but without turning it on or driving. Offer many small pieces of high-value food while they’re inside. You can also feed them a meal in the car or offer them a favorite chew toy or bone to make it rewarding. Repeat several times until your dog is comfortable before moving onto the next step. Remember to keep the dog's time in the car short at first, and increase the duration slowly. 
  4. Next, it's time to start the car. While inside the vehicle, start giving your dog a handful of small, high-value treats, start the car, leave it running for just a minute or so, and then turn it off. Repeat this several times, praising calmly and tossing more high-value food when your dog shows calm responses. If they seem fearful, end the session immediately; next time, you’ll need to shorten the session and stop before they become anxious. Take your time and make sure they are relaxed before ending the session, and work up to having the car idling for longer periods of time. 
  5. Now we get the vehicle moving very briefly. Once they are used to the car running without any fearful reactions, give your dog a handful of high-value treats, back the car up a short distance (perhaps to the end of the driveway), then pull forward to your original location and park. Praise them and continue to toss treats. If your dog is not eating them, go back a step or try moving the car a shorter distance next time. Repetition is the key. The more you do this, the quicker your dog will learn that the car can be a great place for attention, praise, and food. 
    -- If you live in a busy area where you do not have a garage or driveway, make sure your dog is relaxed in their surrounding environment before continuing. If your dog is fearful of noises from passing cars, trucks, etc. you will need to prioritize desensitizing your dog to those things before proceeding. If your dog is fearful of the surrounding environment, making them get into the car and drive will only increase their fear and anxiety.
  6. Finally, you can practice longer drives and add in destinations. Once your dog seems relaxed, you may take a short trip up the street, then eventually around the block. It will be handy to have someone else in the car at this point to feed them treats and praise your pup while doing this. Gradually increase the distance traveled until your dog is calm, no matter how long they are in the car. Travel to places that are fun for your dog, not just to the vet or groomer. Go to a dog park, the beach, a pet-friendly store, a fellow dog parent’s house for a play date, or go camping! You can even take your dog to a drive-thru and buy them an extra tasty reward, like a hamburger or a “puppachino!”

Motion Sickness

If your dog truly suffers from motion sickness, there are steps you can take to help alleviate your dog’s symptoms. While driving, try to imagine balancing a full cup of coffee on your dashboard – if you turn sharply, slow down too fast, accelerate suddenly, or hit a bump, your coffee can spill. Those same sudden movements are what make your dog feel ill, so adjust your driving technique accordingly. If your dog begins to salivate, is licking their lips a lot, or acts distressed, pull over and let them get their feet on solid ground and get some fresh air for a few minutes. 

Some dogs feel better when they can’t see out the window and may benefit from riding in an enclosed crate (which is much easier to clean up than your upholstery!). Others feel better when they have a wide range of view and can see more of the world outside the car. Either way, it’s best to position your dog so they are facing the direction of travel. In any case, keep the car cool and well-ventilated. Many dogs do better when two or more windows are open about three inches to help equalize the air pressure in the car. 

Unless you are systematically working on getting your dog over their fear of the car as described above, do not feed them right before a car ride. You should also make sure your dog has had plenty of exercise prior to travel to aid with their overall relaxation. 

Always remember to travel prepared! Keep their leash handy for emergency stops, pack cleaning supplies and paper towels, and consider covering the car seat and floor with a sheet or towel. There are also products called car hammocks that are sold that protect your back seat and floor from dog hair, mud, and, in this case, vomit; just be sure to invest in one with a non-slip backing, otherwise a soft fabric may slide around under their feet, increasing their motion and stress. Most importantly, do not scold or punish your dog if they do vomit, as it will only increase their anxiety. 

You can talk to your veterinarian for advice about possible medications to help settle your pup’s tummy, as well. If they are suddenly responding negatively to the car when they hadn’t in the past, also talk to your veterinarian about possible underlying medical conditions that may have played a part in this behavior change.

You can also contact our Behavior Department for information on how to use Dog Appeasing Pheromones (DAP), Anxiety Wraps, or a Calming Cap on your dog to help ease their anxiety while in the car. 

Other Tips for Travel:

  • Get your pet microchipped or ensure their current chip information is up to date. If they were to get loose at roadside stop or in the unfortunate event of an accident, a microchip is your best chance at getting reunited with your best friend quickly.  
  • Make sure your pet has an ID tag that has all current information, including your phone number where you can be reached.  
  • Never leave a pet in a car on a warm day, even if the windows are left open. The car can turn into an oven in mere minutes and can lead to heat exhaustion or even death. Similarly, cold weather can be lethal for a pup left in a vehicle, so it’s best to bring them inside with you or leave them at home for longer errands.
  • When traveling with your companion, please use a device to keep your pet safely inside the vehicle and prevent them from being a distraction while you are driving. Acceptable options are pet barriers made to keep dogs in the backseat or cargo area, a seatbelt tether and harness, a doggy “car seat” their harness can clip to, or a crate. These protect both you and your dog in the event of an accident and will keep your dog safely inside the vehicle. Also, if a dog is allowed to travel loose in the car, it’s easy for them to escape whenever the door is opened. By using a harness or crate, you maintain control of your dog after you open the car door, which eliminates those accidental escapes. 
  • Never let your dog stick their head out the car window. While it may look fun for them, the potential hazards far outweigh their enjoyment. Rocks/debris can fly up from the road, wind can cause irritation or ear infections, bugs can hit their eyes or get into their nose/mouth, and more. While you assume your dog is content inside the vehicle, an unrestricted dog may leap out the window if they see something interesting enough. And if you need to brake suddenly and your dog is not secured, they could easily fall out a window they were standing in. Even a harnessed or leashed dog can fly out and end up dangling outside the car if the tether isn’t short enough. Instead, search for window guard products, or turn on your window locks and lower the windows a couple of inches to allow for all those exciting smells without the danger. 
  • Check out our travel tips resource for more suggestions!