We’ve all seen dogs that seem like they were born to go for drives with their family. As soon as they realize it’s time to go for a drive, they jump in the car with energy and enthusiasm. It’s as though they can’t wait to start sniffing the passing landscape. Some dogs, however, are the exact opposite: they dread car rides because they are prone to carsickness—and they know what’s coming when the doors close and the engine starts.
How common is carsickness in dogs?
If your dog gets carsick, you may find some measure of comfort in the adage, “Misery loves company.” The fact is, more dogs than you may have suspected suffer from this condition. According to research conducted in Europe*:
- About 1 in 3 dogs that travel suffer from travel sickness.
- 75% of dogs experience travel sickness for the first time when they are puppies.
- 47% of dog owners would travel more with their pet if they did not suffer from travel sickness.
Know the symptoms
Dogs that are prone to carsickness usually aren’t subtle about it. If you notice that your dog is hesitant—or downright anxious—about entering a car, that may be a signal that he doesn’t find car rides a pleasant experience. Once you’re on the road, you may find your dog displaying one or more of these symptoms: excessive drooling, obvious panting, trembling, heaving, and vomiting.
Desensitization training: Some pet psychologists think the problems begin with a dog’s first car ride, which is often the day when he leaves the security of his mother and littermates. An early trip in the car might also include a traumatic visit to the veterinarian. These first encounters leave a powerful impression on your pet. That's why he might be associating fear and stress with the car.
In those cases, desensitization training may help. Though this potential solution requires patience, it is often effective in reversing problems. The key is to reprogram your dog's attitude by replacing negative triggers with positive conditioning. First, put your dog in the car (in the place he will be sitting) and let him settle and relax for five minutes. Leave the doors open. Don't go anywhere. Don't even start the car. Praise and reward him with words, affection, and small treats.
Next, start the car—but don't drive. Observe your dog for signs of stress, which might include shaking, drooling, or drooping ears. If these are present, turn off the car until your dog calms down. Do not attempt to calm him, as soothing and attention as a result of his anxiety can actually reinforce the behavior. Eventually, when your dog is able to deal with the sound and vibration of the engine running, go for a short drive to a place he enjoys, like a park or dog run. Reward him with a toy, treat, or praise. You can continue this desensitization process until your dog is no longer queasy in the car. This generally takes several sessions.
Make sure your dog travels on an empty stomach: Many owners have discovered that an empty stomach is an effective way to prevent carsickness.
The security of a crate: It might also help to travel with your dog in his crate, if it can be securely fastened on the car’s seat or floor. The crate generally comforts your dog and gives him a place to lie down, which can reduce motion sickness.
Make frequent rest stops: If you dog realizes that he’s not going to be confined to a moving car for too long a period, he may enjoy the trip more. So take frequent rest stops for him to stretch his legs and relieve himself.
Open the windows for fresh air: If you’ve ever been carsick, you know how fresh air can help revive you. So open the windows a safe amount—not enough for your dog to escape or stick his head out—and let the air (and its distracting and ever-changing array of odors) refresh your dog.
Medication: If all else fails and you must travel with your dog, consult your veterinarian about possible medications that can be prescribed.
*Harris Interactive, February 2008