Dogs With Car Sickness

How to prevent or cure car sickness in dogs.

It might be strange for most dog owners to perceive that some dogs become car sick in the same way people do. Yes they feel queasy and can even throw up. Dogs can also drool profusely and at the end of a short trip can look as if they are soaking wet all because of salivation caused by a car journey or the thought of one.

Some dogs learn to anticipate the car journey they are about to be taken on with cues like the car keys being taken up by the owner, the car doors being opened for their entry and so on. These dogs can then begin to drool at an incredible rate even before they have been placed in the vehicle. Other dogs can shake with fear – all round these are symptoms of car sickness in its various forms.

The Causes

Most dogs love travelling by car and even dogs which were once car sick on the whole become avid car passengers. This is no surprise; dogs like the proximity of people they have in a car and they know that they’re often going somewhere exciting, like a park. However, some dogs find the experience upsetting. This is caused by a combination of the disconcerting motion, braking and subsequent acceleration and association of the car with this trauma. The usual full symptoms of car sickness are excessive drooling, a dull facial appearance and vomiting in more serious cases.

Prevention – Puppies and Adults

The chances are that if you are reading this section your dog is car sick. Understanding how that can occur in the first place can also help alleviate the problem along with some behaviour techniques I use. This section applies to both puppies and mature dogs.

From the start, accustom your dog to car travel. This can take place as early as 6 weeks when the chances of forming positive associations with the car are highest. When the puppy has an empty stomach, take it for short trips lasting no longer than five minutes. If these trips are frequent they will quickly create a positive attitude and your dog will associate car travel with the rewards of attention, companionship and when it is old enough, shopping and park trips. These end rewards are what make dogs love the car.

It’s an error to think that the longer your dog is in the car the more used it will become to travel. In fact the opposite is usually true: your dog becomes sicker, though there are always exceptions.

Some puppies, however you introduce them to the car, are fine and car sickness on the whole is not as common as one might think.
Forming New Experiences

For puppies and older dogs who have already built up a bad association with travel, we need to adopt a plan to make car travel more attractive. So I have set out a plan of action which can be modified according to your circumstances.

Week 1: During this week don’t take your dog out for a ride in the car. Cover the seat or in an estate car, the floor, with an old blanket for grip and warmth. Begin feeding your dog at least two meals a day in the car. At first you may sit along side the dog and then after a few days, if all is well, close the door with the dog inside, for a few minutes. For the first few meals allow your dog to jump in and out when finished. The food, if the dog is hungry, should motivate it to investigate the car. After that, lock your dog in the car for five minutes at each meal time, making sure you leave the windows ajar. When you let him out, make no fuss; behave as if it’s no great feat, but a part of his routine. If the dog does not drool or show discomfort then we are ready for stage two. If you live near a busy road always use a collar and lead.
Week 2: Continue as with week 1, but now introduce five minute drives at least twice daily (don’t begin the drive until your dog has finished eating). Five minutes is not long enough for most dogs to become sick. When the dog has reached a stage where it no longer seems uncomfortable or sick we are ready for stage three.
Week 3: Take your dog by car to the park each day, providing the journey isn’t more than fifteen minutes from your home. Exercise him and then return home. You can place chews or tit‑bits in the car for him on the journey. Give no tit‑bits of food at any other time of the day.

By following this plan we give the dog good associations with the car: food and tit‑bits, your company and trips to the park. By lengthening the journey time you can then progress until the desired result is achieved.

This system works really well when people don’t try to rush the build up of training – patience really is required.

Additional advice

If you have a dog which is extremely frightened of travel then travel sickness pills may help, but long term they do not alter the dog’s associations with the car for the better. Consult your veterinarian for his advice.

Tips for Avoiding Dog Car Sickness

  • If practical, buy a seat harness which attaches to a seat belt. You can use this to strap your dog in to the rear seat and this sometimes helps to reduce the rocking motion.
  • Avoid journeys in heavy traffic, as endless stopping and starting only serves to exacerbate the problem.
  • During the daytime occasionally place your dog in the car for ten minutes. Then simply take your dog from the car without any fuss. In this way your dog won’t be able to anticipate a car journey and this should reduce his anticipatory sickness.
  • Don’t take your dog on long journeys until it can consistently manage short ones.

Colin Tennant MA Canine Behaviour & Psychology