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Road Trip With Your Dog? How to Avoid Car Sickness

By Christy True
published: July 3, 2020 • 5 min. read
Little dog in car.

Key Takeaways

  • As you hit the road for summer trips with your canine companions, make sure they won’t suffer from car sickness.
  • Dogs become sick either because of motion or anxiety about the car. Figuring out the cause will guide your approach.
  • Anxious dogs can be trained to like car rides with gradual conditioning, working your way up to a long car ride.

Is there anything worse than hearing the sound of retching in the car, only to see your beloved furry friend losing her cookies all over the leather seats? OK, a few things are worse, but not many.

With summer here and many people thinking about hitting the road with their pups, you may be wondering if your dog could get car sick and if there’s anything you can do to avoid it. The good news is, there is.

If you haven’t traveled with your dog by car much, you’ll definitely want to do some short trips around town to make sure they are comfortable in the car before committing to a long drive away from home.

What causes car sickness in dogs?

According to the American Kennel Club,  dogs generally become car sick for one of two reasons: motion sickness affecting their balance or anxiety caused by some fearful aspect of traveling in the car.

Anxious dog in car
Not all dogs like car rides. Some feel anxious, leading to car sickness.
Protect your pet

What are the symptoms of car sickness in dogs?

As you might expect, nausea and vomiting are the clearest signs that your dog is suffering from motion sickness. Other signs include:

  • Whining and pacing
  • Excessive drooling
  • Excessive panting
  • Smacking or licking lips
  • Lethargy or inactivity

If your dog displays these symptoms only when riding in the car, it’s probably car sickness.

Which dogs are likely to experience car sickness?

Motion sickness in dogs is more commonly seen in puppies and young dogs than in older dogs, just as more children than adults suffer from car sickness. The ear structures used for balance aren’t fully developed in puppies. Once they get older, some dogs will outgrow travel sickness.

If a dog had negative experiences with a car earlier in life, she may associate car travel with bad things happening to her. Maybe she was taken away from her mother as a puppy and placed in a car to go to the vet for shots. A few bad experiences at a young age can make a car ride unappealing.

What can I do to prevent car sickness in my dog?

Positive conditioning

If it is anxiety causing your pooch to feel sick, the best approach is to get them used to the car and develop more positive associations. The trick is to progress with small steps until she shows no sign of sickness.

The AKC says that one reason for motion sickness in young pups is the lack of early handling by humans. Try cuddling her upside down in your lap, pick her up in the air or roll her around on the ground like a log. These small motions a few times a day will mimic what she is exposed to in the car.

After that, start with putting your dog in the car with you for a few minutes a day. You don’t need to go anywhere or even turn the car on, just sit quietly, gently petting and speaking reassuringly.

After a few days of this, try starting the car and letting it run for a few minutes with her in it. Bring a toy and play with her in the front seat. Then shut off the car and exit. Do this for a few days until she is excited to go to the car.

The next step is to drive a short distance, then stop and get out of the car. Do this for a few days, increasing the amount of travel each time. If she gets sick, then move the process backwards until she is not sick and try again.

Don’t feed your pup just before a car ride

If your dog is prone to car sickness, avoid feeding her six to 12 hours before any planned travel. And don’t reward her with treats while in the car. Food will only stimulate her digestive system and contribute to nausea.

Choose the best location in the car

Where your dog rides in the car can also affect motion sickness. Avoid placing your dog in the farthest back where there is the most motion. Also, if your pup can only see out the side windows, the motion makes for a blurry view of objects that can cause or compound motion sickness. It’s the same concept as the seafaring advice to focus on an object on the horizon to help with motion sickness.

Instead, place her closer to the front, perhaps in the middle seat where she can look forward towards the windshield and see less blur.  Remember to use a seatbelt-like harness on any unsecured dog to keep her safe in case of an accident.

Another option is to place her in a secure covered crate to limit her visibility. Especially dogs that have been crated as puppies may find this the most relaxing way to travel. Include a blanket or T-shirt with smells of home for additional comfort.

Be a leader, model positive emotions

Remember that dogs are very tuned into your emotions, so don’t show your own anxiety or make a big deal about riding in the car. By acting as a strong pack leader, you can show her that being in the car is fun and relaxing.

In addition—and this is going to be harder—try not to make a fuss if she does vomit in the car. Don’t pull over to clean it up, as this signals that puking will stop the car. If you get upset when she is sick in the car, or yell, she will begin to associate your emotional reaction with something being “wrong” with the car.

By ignoring her and the mess until you arrive at your destination, she will not think anything is out of sorts. Then take her out of the car and go back and clean up the mess while she is out of sight.

If all else fails, talk to your vet about medication

If after all this, she still has problems, then you may have to ask your vet what they recommend as a mild sedative for car rides. A vet may prescribe Cerenia or Dramamine for nausea or Xanax or trazodone for anxiety. Benadryl can also be given to dogs, on a veterinarian’s recommendation, as it causes drowsiness and can reduce car anxiety.

You could also try some natural remedies such dog pheromones or herbs that have been used for anxiety and motion sickness such as lavender, valerian, ginger or kava. Many pet parents also find CBD oil to be helpful in helping their pet relax.

If you take your dog with you on vacation, consider protecting them with pet insurance to help cover the costs of unexpected accidents or illnesses on the road. Start by getting a free quote.

Christy True and Tomas
By Christy True

Christy has been writing about pets for Healthy Paws for 28 dog years. She also coordinates media requests. A background in journalism may be why she enjoys writing about offbeat animal studies and the latest viral pet trends. She has been owned by several dogs, and she volunteers with a local dog rescue. Outside of work, she can usually be found sliding down a mountain near her home in Bend, Ore.

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