Top tips to help a carsick canine

Dogs in need of fresh air.
Dogs in need of fresh air. Photo: Getty

The summer holidays are just around the corner, which means many of us are making big road trip plans. If yours include bringing along a carsick-prone pooch who isn't as keen on car time, you might be feeling a little apprehensive.

Contrary to popular belief, not all dogs love going for a car ride. Dogs, like humans, can get carsick, which spoils the ride for everyone. If you've noticed that your dog is fearful or anxious around the car, there are some things you can do to ensure that your road trip is enjoyable for the whole family.

Why do dogs get carsick?

The physiology behind canine carsickness is very similar to what causes the motion sickness we humans get. Dogs have special mechanisms within the ear, called the vestibular apparatus, which send signals to the brain. These signals help to regulate things like balance, movement and body position. When a dog is in a moving car these signals can overload the system, resulting in carsickness.

All dogs can suffer from carsickness but it is especially common in younger dogs, as their balance and inner ear structure are still developing. It's important to note that puppies who experience carsickness often outgrow it without the need of medical or behavioural intervention.

Experience plays a big part in behaviour. If your dog has had a bad experience in the car, they can develop stress and anxiety responses, like vomiting, as a result. For some dogs, the bad experience might have been a particularly painful trip to the vet. Others might have been startled by a car horn or inadvertently knocked by a door. These fear responses are powerful, but they can be overcome with practice, leading to desensitisation.

Keep an eye out for these symptoms

It doesn't matter if you're going for a three-minute or three-hour drive – if your dog is a passenger in your car, you must keep an eye out for symptoms of distress. Have a chat to your vet if you notice the following behaviour during your trips:

  • vomiting
  • excessive yawning
  • excessive drooling
  • whining
  • agitation
  • uncontrollable shaking or shivering
  • pacing

Treating canine carsickness

Carsickness can be treated a few ways. One of the most common is by the use of anti-anxiety or anti-nausea medication prescribed by a vet.

If you believe the root of the problem is stress or anxiety related, another treatment option is working with your vet or an animal behaviourist to help reduce sensitivity to the car using conditioning techniques.

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Dr Joanna Paul of Creature Clinic suggests that the best way to help your dog feel less anxious is by creating positive associations with the car. "Try giving treats, cuddles, toys, or whatever their favourite thing is, near the car," she says. "If this goes well, the plan is to gradually get them closer to a car ride without creating anxiety."

As with any behaviour modification treatment, it's important to understand that the process will take time. "If you take baby steps you can make the car a pleasant or even fun thing," says Dr Paul. "If your dog is not enjoying what you're doing and shows signs of anxiety then you've pushed them a little bit too far. Don't use force and don't punish anxious behaviour, as this won't help and will probably make things worse."

Seven tips to save your road trip

1. Make sure your dog is physically comfortable in the car and safely restrained. Some dogs prefer being confined to the safety of a crate.

2. Don't feed your dog an hour or two before travelling. The worst thing for a carsick-prone dog (and those sharing the car with them) is a full stomach. Withhold food but not water.

3. Like humans, dogs can benefit from seeing passing scenery. If possible, give them access to a window or position them so they are facing forward.

4. Airflow is important. Crack a window or two to ensure that your dog is getting enough fresh air. This also helps to regulate air pressure inside the car.

5. Frequent stops are a must, especially on longer journeys. This is not only good practice for dogs but drivers too. Stretch your legs and give your dog the chance to sniff around for a few minutes.

6. We all love listening to music (did someone say "road trip mix tape"?!) but to keep your pooch calm, restrict the internal chaos.

7. Praise and reward her. When you've arrived at your destination, or at one of your stops along the way, let your dog know what a great job she is doing by giving her plenty of pats and lots of love.

Have you helped cure your dog of carsickness? Let us know what worked for you.

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