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What to give your dog for car sickness

Approx. 6 minutes read

It’s time to take your furry friend for their annual check-up and vaccination, but the moment you give them all the cues that they’re about to take a trip, your dog appears lethargic, slobbery and generally not well. Even worse, when you eventually do get them into the car – backseat laden with old towels because you’ve done this before – your dog sits there, forlorn. And as soon as the car is in motion, they become a pukey mess.

Car sickness is a common experience for pet pawrents, so don’t feel alone. Not every car trip is going to be flappy-ears-in-the-wind and happy puppy like in the movies. Read on for what causes dog car sickness and a few effective ways you can deal with your nauseated dog to help them have a calm and relaxed car trip.

What’s the difference between dog car sickness and travel anxiety?

In a previous article we spoke about travel anxiety in dogs who are afraid of car trips. The symptoms of travel anxiety and being afraid of the car include nervous behaviours like tail-tucking, shaking, lip-licking, panting, salivation, and even extreme fear behaviours like peeing and pooping inappropriately.

  • Car sickness is something a little different in that it’s not necessarily a fear response. Car sickness – also referred to as motion sickness – is a physical response to being in motion. When a dog’s brain receives sensory information that their body is in motion, it comes from various senses like their eyesight (vision), their muscles, joints and nerves (proprioception), as well as a little physical structure in the inner ear that helps them keep balance (vestibular system). If these signals become confused, the dog’s brain goes a little haywire trying to determine whether they are in motion or not, and this confusion leads to nausea and vomiting.
  • Travel anxiety is caused by a dog’s learnt fear of the car. Either travelling in a vehicle is an entirely new and unknown experience and they are afraid. Or, they’ve associated travelling with negative experiences – maybe they were in an accident, or the only time they travel is to the vet, which is not always pleasant. When a dog vomits out of fear, it’s a psychological response and is not the same as vomiting from motion sickness, which is a physical disorder.

What causes dog car sickness?

As mentioned, car sickness is also called motion sickness. It’s caused when the brain misinterprets the body’s signals of being in motion.

The sight of the landscape rushing by outside while your dog is sitting still in the car can trick their brain into experiencing conflicting sensory information. Even more subtly is when your dog experiences motion, but is looking at a fixed point – i.e. their visual system says they’re not in motion, while their proprioception and vestibular systems say they are.

Also, young dogs experience motion sickness more frequently than adult dogs because the structures in their inner ear that are meant to control balance are not fully developed yet. Usually, motion sickness goes away when puppies grow into adults, but some adults retain this syndrome.

What are the symptoms of dog car sickness?

Since motion sickness includes multiple systems in the body, the symptoms of dog car sickness can include central nervous, gastrointestinal, and autonomic system symptoms, such as:

  • central nervous system:
    • dizziness
    • headache
    • blurred vision
  • gastrointestinal system:
    • nausea
    • vomiting
    • salivation
  • autonomic nervous system:
    • elevated heart rate
    • elevated body temperature
    • sweating
    • panting/rapid breathing

What can I give a dog for car sickness?

Now that you know your furry friend may have actual motion sickness and is not simply a nervous traveller, let’s try to find a dog car sickness remedy to help them. Please note that before you attempt to give your dog any kind of treatment or remedy for their motion sickness, you MUST confirm this course of action with your veterinarian.

Counter-conditioning and desensitisation

Now, your dog may have a combination of physical motion sickness as well as car sickness from travel anxiety because of their motion sickness. For instance, every time they get in the car, they feel nauseated, get sick, feel lethargic and have just an all-round yucky experience. This can lead to an aversion to the car, so you may need to go through counter-conditioning exercises to get your dog to feel positive in the car again.

Make the car environment more comfortable

If your dog’s motion sickness is mild, a basic awareness of how the inside of your vehicle affects them is all it takes to try to keep it under control. For example, the most stable part of the car (where your dog will experience the least motion) is in the middle of the backseat. Place their booster seat, crate, or seatbelt clip in this spot to restrict your dog’s movement to this area.

Make sure the inside of the car is cool and comfortable, not too loud, and that there aren’t any overwhelming smells – like that of air fresheners, takeaway food, or other strong aromas. This can trigger nausea and vomiting.

Prepare your dog for travel

Don’t feed your dog for up to eight hours before going on a long trip; or for up to two hours prior to a shorter trip. Having a lot of food in their tummy can exacerbate the nausea; plus there will be a bigger mess to clean up if they vomit.

There is some proof that ginger can work wonders for dogs’ tummies as it also does for humans’ stomach upset. Ginger has proved to settle the stomach and can be taken ahead of car trips when motion sickness is a concern. It’s easy enough for people to simply chew on a piece of fresh ginger or enjoy a cup of ginger tea, but your dog may not find fresh or raw ginger all that palatable. Ginger biscuits for dog car sickness may be just the trick – but you’ll have to make your own doggy ginger biscuits, since people’s ginger biscuits are too high in sugar to be beneficial for your dog.

Doggy ginger biscuits can be a great double-whammy to ease your dog’s travel anxiety with positive reinforcement as well as settling their stomach if they have motion sickness.

Non-prescription medication for dog car sickness

Most medications prescribed or indicated for car sickness in dogs are aimed at calming the dog’s anxiety as well as settling their tummies and reducing their nausea. Calming medications will help your dog to relax in the car so that their central nervous system is not so triggered by anxiety. These include products like Adaptil, CalmEze, Pet Remedy, Zylkene and even dog food aimed at calming stressed pups

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Herbal remedies are another solution for keeping dogs calm and stress-free while travelling. Herbs like ginger, lavender, valerian, ginseng, chamomile, lemon balm, and skullcap (and products containing these as ingredients) can settle tummies and nerves and make travelling easier. However, it’s impawtant to get your vet’s approval for these products first, to avoid any risk of toxicity. Always make sure that herbal remedies are not contra-indicated to any medication your dog may currently be taking.

Prescription medication for dog car sickness

If natural remedies aren’t effective in reducing your dog’s car sickness, your veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety and/or anti-emetic or anti-nausea medications. Sedative medications can be combined with an anti-emetic to treat both anxiety and vomiting, but they may make your dog sleepy.

An anti-nausea prescription medication is maropitant citrate (Cerenia®). It can be prescribed specifically for treating nausea in motion sickness but is not anti-anxiety medication.

Human medication for dog car sickness has also been suggested when pet owners don’t have access to Cerenia®, but it’s crucial to only give your dog for-purpose medications from your veterinarian. There may be unexpected side-effects from human medication, when all you wanted to do was get your pup from A to B.

Final Thoughts

If your dog has inner-ear problems or struggles with motion sickness, don’t give up. With some counter-conditioning, calming medications, herbal remedies or even prescription medication, you may find a happy medium where your pup can ride along in the car without the risk of feeling ill or vomiting on the backseat. Work with your veterinarian to find a solution for your furry friend – there should be no reason why your dog can’t join you on your four-wheel adventures!

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