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Medically Reviewed by Veterinarian Angela Dwyer, DVM on January 1, 2018
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For many people all across the nation, the winter holidays mean a lot of time is spent driving. From one party to another, from one round of visiting to another, from one gift drop-off to another…it can be a lot of time spent in the car. If you are lucky, you’ll be able to take your dog with you for most of these trips. After all, being stuck at home all day while you’re out doing holiday errands is no fun, and can lead to some destroyed Christmas trees if your dog gets really anxious or bored.
But with car travel comes a new type of worry: car sickness. Many dogs get car sick, leaving you to clean up vomit all over your car any time you need to take them to the vet, the groomer, or on errands with you. It’s a pretty common issue to be honest, and it has to do with several factors, including:
An under-developed vestibular system in puppies
Past traumatic experiences with travel, like being taken to the vet repeatedly during illness
The stress of a new experience
Car sickness in dogs doesn’t even have to look like vomiting. The signs of car sickness include:
Excessively licking lips
Lots of yawning
Crying or whining
Being unable to move or shaking
All of that sounds like a bad time for your dog, and it isn’t much fun for you either. So today I want to share the five best remedies I know of to help a dog with car sickness. That way, the two of you can hit the road together no matter how many errands you have to run before the en of the season.
(1) Start with Making Car Trips Desirable
One of the biggest problems for most dogs is that car rides are new, scary, and associated with going places they don’t like. You’ve got to alleviate the stress of a car ride and make it something your dog looks forward to. Start by showing her that the car goes to fun places too. Skip your walk to the park a few times and take the car instead. Bring along their favorite toy to play with in the car, or pack some of their favorite special-occasion-only treats, to give them after the car ride is over. This can help them feel more interested in getting in the car. Another great idea is to take them through drive-throughs where they offer puppy treats, like Starbucks. You can also bring along the blanket that he sleeps with, and put it in his carrier to give him a safe space inside the car to retreat to if need be.
Don’t do all of these things at once. Just a small change here and there, slowly, will start to show your dog that the car is a good place to be. Practice taking slightly longer trips each time, circling the blocks around your house if you need to extend the time a little bit, until your dog seems calm and relaxed during the entire car trip. Be sure you take potty breaks frequently during longer trips, and play with your dog a bit on these breaks to keep up the spirit of having fun on the trip.
The window is going to be your savior when it comes to car sickness. In my experience, having the right set up with the window will alleviate almost any chance that your dog is going to vomit. If you think about it, opening the window for some fresh air is one of the ways that people prevent themselves from getting car sick, and it works for two reasons.
The first reason is that being near the window, looking out the window, helps your dog orient himself. If he’s got something nice to look at to stay distracted, and his eyes can visually adjust to his body being on the move, he’ll be less likely to give in to the feelings of nausea. And the second reason is that the fresh air can help calm down sensitive tummies. All the new smells also offer distraction. Just be sure to only crack the window a little bit – dogs with their heads out the window can get an eye injury from insects, rocks, or other random flying debris.
Now, I see a lot of dogs riding in the front seat with their heads out the window, but be aware that air bags (made for humans) can seriously injure dogs if you were ever in an accident. It’s better to use a doggie harness to keep your dog in the back for their safety. If your puppy is too small to see out of the window, don’t give in to the temptation to let them ride on your lap. A safe dog is preferable, even if you have to deal with some mess in the bargain.
One way to help reduce car sickness in dogs is to ensure that the timing is right on every little detail before, during, and after the car ride.
For example, don’t feed your dog right before a car ride, but do feed him about a couple of hours before. Both an empty tummy and a full tummy can cause nausea to pop up. But giving her water right before and during the road trip is very important, because water can help settle the stomach and keep her hydrated and cool – this means less panting, less drooling, and far less nausea. Bring a collapsible bowl or a water bottle with a built-in bowl so that you can offer her drinks throughout the entire trip.
Don’t forget those potty breaks if you’re giving her water. Ideally, you’ll want to do a break right before you leave for the trip, and then several throughout the trip depending on how long it is. If the trip is more than 15 minutes, total, you need to do at least one potty break. So be sure you’re scheduling a stop in your errands. Play with your dog during these breaks so that they feel positive.
After you get home, be sure to give your dog lots of praise and affection so that they continue to associate the car ride with good feelings. If you brought any favorite blankets or toys with you, bring them back into the house for consistency. You may also want to practice having your dog just hang out in the car with the doors open sometime while you are doing yard work nearby. This can help them acclimate to being in the car, and that helps reduce stress-related nausea.
Some people do give their dogs motion sickness medication, like Dramamine, for longer trips or if their dog just can’t get to the vet or the groomer without making a huge mess. Adult dogs that are in good health are generally okay to take Dramamine, but be sure to ask your vet about the dosage. I would recommend getting some yummy pill pockets, and giving them this medication a little before you leave so that they have time to adjust and use the bathroom. There are other motion sickness medications, like Cerenia, that are made just for dogs. However, these require your vet to prescribe them, and sometimes even to administer them. They are better left for things like airplane trips, where you really need your dog to be as calm as possible.
You can also try natural remedies, like ginger. Ginger capsules or ginger snap cookies can work just fine. If you offer the dog the cookies in the car, you are also giving them that special treat that they don’t get anywhere else. Ginger is a dark spice that does stain if your dog drools it onto light colored car cushions, so be aware of that.
Finally, one way to help a dog get through car sickness is to just give him a safe space to go inside the car. This may mean getting him a carrier and strapping it down in the back, where your dog can hide away from the unfamiliar sights and smells. It may mean just creating a special canine nest with their favorite blankets and toys in the backseat, and tucking them into the nest before you take off.
Some dogs seem to find it easier to avoid vomiting if their safe space is in the floorboard of the car – maybe because there is less chance of getting jostled around off the seat. If your dog seems unsteady and unsure of his movements in the car’s seat, consider trying this out to see if it helps. If you have an SUV or something with an open loading area in the back, you can also put their safe space back there so that they have a bit more room to lay down and spread out. Bigger dogs especially might find this more comfortable and less restrictive on their already sensitive stomachs.
Now that we’ve gone through how to help your dog deal with car sickness, I have a few tips for dog owners as well – because your comfort is important on car rides too:
Always keep clean up supplies in your car, even if your dog hasn’t been car sick in ages. I’ve learned this one the hard way. Keep some paper towels, spare grocery sacks for trash, and some upholstery cleaner in the car. You may also want to add some gloves to that kit, and a spare air freshener, for your own comfort.
Don’t forget the clean up supplies for your dog as well. Bring a towel to wipe them off or maybe some grooming wipes. No one wants to sit in their own filth, and your dog is no different. Plus, you’ll feel better without the smell.
Even if your dog doesn’t ride in a crate, consider bringing one to contain them if they get violently ill. This can help you get them back home without more messes. Just be sure that you’ve cleaned them off so they aren’t sitting in a small crate smelling themselves.
Be sure to have the nearest vet clinic or emergency vet services mapped out if you are taking a long road trip. If your dog becomes uncontrollably car sick, they may need medical attention.
Finally, don’t forget that driving a little slower, and take corners a little smoother, can help your dog feel less car sick if they are clearly having troubles. Cut them a little slack where you can, and consider leaving earlier if you have a deadline to be somewhere.
Those are just a few extra tips for your own comfort and theirs, that you can use even for dogs that are acclimated to car rides.
Taking road trips with your dog can be a great way to bond. I love taking Janice and Leroy with me as often as I can, even just on a quick run to the bank. Having your dog with you for holiday trips is also a good way to make time for them when you’re in the midst of the busiest time of the year. And even in the midst of car sickness, I believe that your dog would rather be with you than anywhere else in the world. They love the attention and the companionship, so you really are giving them something they want.
But car sickness is no fun for you or for them, so it’s a good idea to take it slow and be sure that you have several backup plans in place. For some dogs, just getting used to the car is all it takes to avoid car sickness. For others, it’s an ongoing struggle to feel comfortable off the sturdy ground. But you can get there if you practice and keep these tips in mind.