Handling your dog’s car sickness

Photo by Martin Usborne.

My childhood dog, Emma, was not a great car passenger. The car made her extremely anxious and caused her to drool uncontrollably and vomit (even when the car was standing still). At the time, we were all fairly ignorant of any training techniques to mitigate her car sickness/fear. Her vet recommended Dramamine and so we gave her a small dose any time we had to take her anywhere in the car. It mostly worked, but she was always (understandably) woozy whenever we arrived at our destination.

Because of her terror of the car, we didn’t often take Emma anywhere. I always regretted this and have since been hoping for a dog who was an easy passenger. But I don’t know if I’ve actually encountered any dogs who actually enjoyed the car; most of them who are termed “good in the car” seem to express small signs of distress. Bo, for example, totally balks any time we ask him to jump in the Jeep. I always have to pick him up and put him in. Once we start going, he doesn’t get sick, but he does drool more and seem anxious about the whole endeavor. In another instance, I once took a short car ride with my friend Anna and her German shepherd Heidi. Anna told me that Heidi was great in the car, but Heidi flipped out for the duration of the ride. She kept trying to climb into both of our laps (a restraint would have been a good idea) and started crying and screaming like she was in physical pain–but as soon as we opened the door, she was happy-go-lucky and acted like she had no memory of her former panic attack. It was a stressful 10-minute car trip, to say the least.

So, if you have a dog who rides well in the car, how did you do it? Is it something you trained, or did you just get lucky? Do you have any tips for training a dog out of his or her fear of the car? I’m all ears!

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11 thoughts on “Handling your dog’s car sickness

  1. Our dog, Nikita, rides well in the car. When we pick up our keys, she gets all excited and can’t wait to go with us. From the time we adopted her at two months old, we took her everywhere in the car, even when she could not see out the windows yet, so she got used to riding in the car with us. When she was little, we had to lift her up into the car, now that she is almost two years old, she just jumps up on the seat and is ready to go! I believe that you can do anything and get a dog used to anything, as long as you do it with repetition. By taking her with us every time we did errands, even if it was a short trip, she got used to car rides. All we have to say now is “want to go bye bye?” and she goes nuts as she knows that bye bye means car ride!

  2. Kyuss likes the car although he drools a lot while in it. I think it’s more from excitement than anything else.

    I had a first generation Mazda 3 when I first got Kyuss, and he always rode in the back seat of it. I knew he would eventually grow to be too large for the front of my little sedan. However, on one trip, he somehow managed to squeeze his little sausage body under the drivers seat while I was driving, and then attempt to tuck himself up under the pedals!

    It was then, that I bought a pet barrier (this was before I had kids)

    When I get a new pup however, I’m going to start crating him/her from the get go while in the car. I now have the space for a crate in the back of my new crossover. LOL

  3. All of my own dogs have been from good to great in the car. The most stressed one got so excited that she whined a little in stop-and-go traffic, but she was great during highway driving when she would just settle in. Everyone else has just laid down and enjoyed the ride. My current dog will sometimes go sit by the garage door when he is bored as if to remind me that we could go take a trip somewhere.

    As you mentioned, lots of short trips when they are young (or new to you) helps here and absolutely don’t make every trip a visit to a vet or a groomer. I like a ratio of 10:1 for pleasant/neutral: stressful trips. If you start with a little anxiety with your new dog, don’t even bother heading anywhere for the first trips, just drive around the block, and let them get home quickly – since that is what they most want if they are uncomfortable. I also feed my dogs anywhere where they are uncomfortable to use some of that lovely ds/cc so you can even start “trips in the car” by going nowhere. If you’re game, you can make the car a dining room (stationary of course) for a few days. That’s quick and easy: hop in -> get your dinner -> hop out.

  4. 90% in agreement with Kerry. Elli had carsickness as a puppy. She grew out of it as I started rewarding her for touching a target to get into the car and out of the car. Sometimes we never went anywhere other than in and out of the car. It’s the same with the bathtub and nail clipping. Sometimes we drive/bathe/nail clip, but most of the time, we don’t. If you can make the hard things into games for your dog, no doubt you’ll have a happy-go-lucky non-carsick dog.

    After hopping into the car with great enthusiasm, she will typically watch out the window (unopened) during stop-and-go traffic, but on the highway, she curls up in a sunspot if there is one.

  5. My dog is a chihuahua and every week we make two 3 hour trips, he is fine in the car, we’ve done 8 hour journeys with him in the car going on holiday too no problem. I took him on short journeys regularly from when I first got him and as soon as he was safe to walk on the ground I did the first 3 hour journey with him, he has never had a problem with the car. He falls asleep as soon as we get on the motorway and only wakes up when we get off so he can watch where we’re going.

    I think some of the reason he’s so relaxed is I got him a car seat, it’s basically a large piece of moulded foam which the seat belt holds in place and then Ted is attached by his harness to the seat belt using a strap. He can move around the seat, fully lie down and it is non slip so he doesn’t slide. Without this he wouldn’t be able to see out of the window and I don’t think that would be that great given he’s in there for 3 hour journeys on a regular basis. So I think the dog being secure but being able to lie down and relax but also to be on a surface where it doesn’t slide about is important.

    I also always give him a little chew at the start of the journey, he looks for it now when I put him in his seat!

  6. Car sickness is so common in dogs, it’s like a right of passage! It’s accurate that many dogs outgrow car sickness and anxiety from the combination of repeated car rides and some kind of physical security (crate, seatbelt or barrier), however for many dogs that’s just not enough!

    Here are a few tips I have tried and given to my clients over the years:

    Nice long run or walk before car ride (short or long ride).

    Small snack and tiny bit of water–no large meals or big bowls of water (many dogs act if the car is a roller coaster, so think about what you’d want in your system before a ride).

    Having your dog be able to see out the window is helpful for most dogs, as well as a little fresh air.

    Regarding over-the-counter and natural remedies:

    Dramamine works for dogs like it works for people, but check with your vet for the exact dosage.

    Homeopathic remedies for anxiety/stress:
    Rescue Remedy
    Calm Stress
    Calm Down

    For nausea:
    Crystallized Ginger is very soothing on the stomach
    Peppermint oil or fresh mint mixed into a tea

    Whatever you do, remain calm. Being upset will only make your dog feel more stressed.

    Good luck!

    Stacy Alldredge
    Canine nutrition and behavior specialist
    Author of A Dog is Not a Fish blog (http://www.adogisnotafish.com/)

  7. We have the same problem with one of our two adopted dogs. She gets very anxious, drools and often vomits in the car (not when it is still, though). She has to be lifted into the car under great protests, and it is a struggle… she is a ridgeback cross! We got her at 9 months old and don’t know what has caused her car phobia. I would love to hear advice that works for curing it.

    What we do that may work:

    We always let the other dog jump in first to ‘invite’ her, and they sit together on the back seat. We drive with the windows open, and praise the dog to make her feel comfortable. We are planning to systematically make short drives in the area to nice places where nice things happen (e.g., get a bite of fast food). However, I would love to know if it is ‘just’ anxiety or if she gets sick due to a physical problem.

    Our other dog loves to drive and to be in the car. She bulldozes in as soon as a door is open, and is hard to get out of the car again when we come home! She seems to perceive the car as a sort of magic box that gives access to fascinating new places not otherwise within reach. She was afraid of driving when she was a puppy, but after seeing that great experiences await in the other end of each car travel, she loves it.

    Generally, in my experience most dogs love to drive for the reasons our 1 dog loves it.

  8. don’t even bother heading anywhere for the first trips, just drive around the block, and let them get home quickly – since that is what they most want if they are uncomfortable.

    Thanks Kerry M. That sounds like a good idea. Also the hop-in hop-out exercises sounds like a good idea.

  9. I highly recommend doggie seatbelts if your dogs are going to be loose in the back seat. For even our most anxious traveler (our Aussie) the doggie seatbelt helped him feel more secure and cut down the amount of time it took him to relax substantially.
    The other quick trick we learned, if we were going somewhere further away than the dog park or vet, was to drive a little ways, 5-10 minutes maybe, then have everyone get out of the car for a few minutes and then get back in. The dogs were always much calmer once we’d all gotten out and all gotten back in together. Tired dogs also make really good passengers, so lots of exercise right before you get in the car helps, too.
    Currently, out dogs are pretty good car dogs. June would be happier if I let her stick her head out the window, but I’m paranoid of debris getting in her eyes, and she wouldn’t stand for doggles, so the window is only down enough to let her get the tip of her nose out.
    Larry likes to wander the car to see out all windows. I need to find a small dog restraint that I’m not afraid he’ll hang himself in.

  10. Here in New South Wales (Australia), seat belt (travel harness) is required by law. It costs $300 to travel with a dog without it, if stopped by the police. So that is not even up for discussion.

  11. I found my dog when she was a few days old. She required bottle feedings and a lot of attention. I took her to work with me everyday until she was 8 months old. She loved the car and would only ride in the backseat. It was all a part of life for her. My greyhound also loves to ride in the car.

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