A-Z of dog wellbeing: Motion sickness

It’s lovely to take our dogs in the car for days out and holidays, having our furry companion by our side on our adventures, however not all dogs do well in a moving vehicle.  Many pet parents make this unpleasant discovery the first time their dog ‘redecorates’ the interior of your car during your first road trip together. Some dogs may have medical issues that cause this, but for other dogs, the problem could be resolvable with a little support from you as most cases of carsickness in adult dogs are the result of stress, not the motion of the vehicle.

Signs of motion sickness

Some symptoms of travel sickness are obvious, while others are more subtle. These are the warning signs to watch for when you travel with your canine companion:

  • Constant yawning (a stress signal)
  • Excessive drooling
  • Non-stop whining
  • Uneasiness or being fidgety
  • Listlessness, inactivity
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea

What causes motion sickness?

Age – Motion sickness in puppies is a common problem, because the parts of the inner ear involved in balance aren’t fully developed. The good news is that most puppies will often ‘outgrow’ their travel sickness by the time they’re about 1 year old.

Conditioning – Most travel sickness cases where adult dogs become anxious or nauseous during travel are caused because they simply haven’t had the chance to become accustomed to the overwhelming unusual stimuli associated with moving inside a vehicle. This causes heightened anxiety and stress, resulting the symptoms above.  Read on for a simple plan that you can follow to help overcome this.

Travel trauma – Many dog’ first experience of car travel is a traumatic or frightening long trip with a stranger who has just collected them from their familiar breeder or rescue centre. They may then associate future travel with that stressful event of being removed from their familiar surroundings. If your dog has only ever been in the car to visit the vet, then they could also associate the car ride with the stressful experience that follows.

Medical conditions – Some dogs may have medical conditions such as middle- or inner-ear infections or vestibular disease (disease of the vestibular apparatus, located in the inner ear) that predispose them to nausea. Others may be taking medications that can cause vomiting or diarrhoea.

Helping your dog overcome the stress and anxiety of travel will mean that your pet can accompany you on trips more frequently and will allow you to spend more quality time together.

Where does your dog travel?

Of course your dog will be restrained in the car in some way, either using a car-safe harness that clips into the seat belt clip, in a crate on the seat, or behind a dog guard or crate in the boot.  Owners that don’t restrain their dog properly are breaking the law, but I still see dogs sat on parcel shelves or hanging out of windows and you run a high risk of killing them (and them killing you as their weight becomes a deadly force as they fly through the car) in the event of an accident.

You could experiment with how they travel if your vehicle allows you to try different options, however in all cases, the following steps should help you to re-educate your dog that car trips are fun.

How to prevent motion sickness

The ideal way to re-train your dog to be comfortable in the car will take a little effort on your part, but is well worth it for a ‘clean’ journey, and starts by breaking down the steps of your trip into more manageable, bite-size chunks, building them up over time.

Repeat each step several times, once or twice a day, until your dog is relaxed with that step and don’t move on until they are.  The most important thing to remember with this process is: Don’t rush it or go too far too soon.  Baby steps is key.

  1. Take your dog out to the car in the same way as if you were going out on a journey, but stop outside the car and just let them take it all in. Reward them with a treat or game with a favourite toy if they are relaxed and happy. If this is too stressful, move away until they relax and then reward, and get slowly closer over each attempt.  Now go and do something fun in the garden!
  2. Repeat step 1, but this time open the car door or boot to where they travel. Don’t let them get in, just stop outside the open door.  Reward them with a treat (or game with a favourite toy) if they are relaxed and happy, then move away and go do something fun with them.
  3. This time, encourage them to investigate the open door. If they can get in on their own, ask them to do so, or place them in the car, but leave the crate or car door open.  Speak calmly and reward them with a treat or toy.  If they won’t take it at this point it’s because they are too stressed to eat.  Don’t worry, it’s all good progress!  Now take them out of the car again and have a really good play.  This is really important as they are re-learning that car = fun (not stress or sickness). You may have to repeat this one a dozen or more times until they realise that they aren’t going anywhere and will get to have fun afterwards.
  4. Once they are keen to get in the car from step 3, then repeat but close the door for 2 seconds. If they are relaxed, then give them a treat and go inside for a play. Slowly build up the time to around 30 seconds over the course of a few sessions – don’t rush it.  If they start getting stressed, you’ve gone too fast.  Take it back a couple of steps and slow the process down.
  5. In the last step you built up the time you need to get into the driver’s seat, so now repeat step 4, walk to the driver’s door, get in and shut the door. Get out after 2 seconds, check the dog is still happy, give them a treat and go for a play.  Build this up slowly to 30 seconds then move on to the next step.
  6. Now we change the picture for your dog again as we build on step 5 and when you are in the driver’s seat, you will start the engine. This noise and vibration may trigger the stress for you dog, so be sure to only have the engine running for a couple of seconds before you turn it off and check on the dog.  As always, give them a treat and go for a play.  Repeat this until the engine doesn’t trigger any stress.
  7. It’s time for a trip. Repeat step 6 and now you will drive for around 5 seconds, either down the road or off and back on the drive, but no further than this.  Speak gently and reassuring to your dog as you travel. As always, give them a treat after and go for a play.  Repeat this until the very short drive doesn’t trigger any symptoms.
  8. Once your dog can cope with a 5 second trip, then you can SLOWLY start to increase the travel time: 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 5 minutes etc.   You must be aware that jumping from 5 seconds to 5 minutes will undo all your hard work to this point, so keep the increments very small so your dog barely notices.  Make sure to give them a fuss, a treat if they like it and big fun play session after each trip so they make a happy association.

Conditioning your dog to ride comfortably in the car may require several days or even weeks. Be sure to gradually expose your dog to more and more challenging stimuli.  Avoid roundabouts or speed bumps initially until they are comfortable with a flat, straight road.

To help guide you through this journey we’ve created a free printable plan so you can track your dog’s progress and follow the steps carefully.

Download your free guide:
Retraining your dog to love car travel

Ways to support the process

Keep the car cool and quiet – play soft classical music and keep the temperature cool as heat can increase the feeling of nausea.

Include the sweet smell of home – Add a blanket or item that carries your smell to your dog’s carrier to help them feel supported.

Have a special travel toy – Saving a really fun toy your dog only gets to play with when it travels can help your dog associate travel with pleasure.

Try a T-Touch anxiety wrap or Thundershirt to help them feel ‘hugged’ and safe which can calm them down and help them cope.

Offer calming essential oils – In a session with a herbal self-medication practitioner your dog can pick out the essential oils that help them feel more relaxed and less nauseous during a car trip.  It’s important to allow your dog to self-select the oils they need to support the process as forcing the wrong oils on your dog will most likely make the nausea worse.

If all else fails, try the ‘lampshade trick’.  Some carsick dogs are helped by wearing the big lampshade collars they get from the vet to stop them licking or chewing on a sore paw, or after surgery, but only the big plastic lampshade ones that reduce peripheral vision are known to work.

If you have to go on a long trip, it may help to withhold food for a few hours before travel. In some dogs, an empty stomach will help reduce the feelings of nausea and the need for frequent toilet breaks. Be sure to provide access to fresh water though.  Some dogs however need something in their stomachs, so you may have to test to see what works best for your dog.

In the worst cases, where none of these suggestions have helped, please speak to your vet.  It may be that your dog has a medical condition, such as an inner ear problem, that means they feel sick when moving, or that the previous conditioning is so strong that you may struggle to overcome it.  They can prescribe anti-nausea medications if symptoms are severe, but bear in mind that these drugs only help with the feelings of sickness, not the anxiety, so helping your dog cope with the stress is still an important part of the process.