Get Your Kicks on RT 66? Your Dog May Not!

Andrea Stone, CCS CDW

Motion sickness. Many of us have experienced it in our lives at one point or another. It is important to understand that just as children are often more prone to being car sick than adults, so puppies are also more likely to experience this than adult dogs. Although the inner ear and the vestibular apparatus which are responsible for sensing motion and controlling balance are fully developed prior to 8 weeks of age, the age at which puppies typically enter their new homes, young dogs are still more susceptible. Motion sickness often occurs when there is a discrepancy between what the individual expects and the actual motion sensed by this organ. This conflict leads to a confused signal in the brain, and thus symptoms of motion sickness – nausea, drooling and vomiting being the most commonly observed in dogs – develop. However fatigue, weakness, dizziness, and anxiety are also known symptoms. Remember that last one. It can also take up to 3 days for symptoms to resolve in extreme cases.

There are certain things that are likely to cause or exacerbate motion sickness, such as having eaten a large meal and/or a high protein meal, foul odors, stuffy or stale environments, excessive motion (bouncy car movement or turbulence, for example), changes in air pressure, and anxiety. If an individual is already worried about the trip, they are more likely to experience motion sickness.

Normally, once the brain adapts to these new patterns motion sickness dissipates. This can occur when an individual habituates – gets used to – the sensation of riding in a moving vehicle or with maturity. The brain adapts to these signals and thus the sensations go away. However as many of us know there are dogs who never “grow out of it”. Reviewing the paragraphs above will help explain why.

We know that the majority of learning in dogs is by association. That is, they make many, many connections between objects and events and their own internal responses or emotions. For example, when you get home from work and bring your dog’s leash out, he is thrilled. Leash = “YAY!” in that setting because he has associated the leash with fun. You don’t even need to go for a walk – he gets excited just seeing the object. Just like Pavlov’s dogs who began to drool at the sound of a bell, your dog can and does make associations between objects and events (related or not) all the time. So if we know that a symptom of motion sickness is anxiety and that pre-existing anxiety can also exacerbate motion sickness it is very easy to see how this can have a snow ball effect. From your dog’s point of view, “When I get in the car I feel anxious and sick. YIKES! I don’t want to go in.” And now if your dog is anxious prior to getting in the car – perhaps by the mere sight of it – he is even more likely to experiences motion sickness than ever before. He was right.

If your dog experiences motion sickness as a puppy for physiological reasons, we can easily imagine how that could translate into a behavioral problem later on even when his brain is able to accurately translate the signals his body is sending to his brain. That is, the “sickness” may no longer be physical but completely behavioral. For some dogs this can occur very quickly. Therefore treatment of “motion sickness” in dogs, particularly if it is severe or if it has been on-going for some time, must include training as well as treatment of the physical causes.

Benadryl and Dramamine (both antihistamines) are common drugs used to treat motion sickness both in dogs and humans. These often work best if they are used 30 to 60 minutes prior to travel. LTC Matt Takara DVM tells us, “Antihistamines can be viewed from two perspectives though. They are sedating and they are antiemetic’s [anti-vomiting]. So either way they may manage both the fear aspect and the nausea.” So from that we can derive that in mild cases where dogs have not already made strong, unpleasant associations with the car, either of these drugs may be enough to help your dog. But please, always consult your veterinarian prior to giving any drugs to your pet, even over the counter ones. If these are adequate you should see a nearly immediate change in your dog’s symptoms inside the car and after a few trips properly managed, any mild anxiety should begin to dissipate. If the dog is no longer physically ill from riding in the car and there are only mildly unpleasant associations with cars, owners should expect to see change in a relatively short period of time with normal, regular travel.

Other things you can do to help your dog:
  • Crack the window to help equalize air pressure inside the car
  • Avoid large or heavy meals prior to travel
  • Exercise! A tired dog is less likely to watch close range objects outside the window, which can induce car sickness
  • Have the dog ride in a secured, forward facing crate and cover the sides – this will help limit confusing signals about motion to your dog’s brain
  • Avoid bouncy rides – cars with poor suspension and bumpy roads will make it worse
  • Take short trips – sustained motion can contribute to car sickness
  • Make sure your dog’s crate is clean and aired out - strong odors can make motion sickness worse (and remember, we may have different ideas about what is an unpleasant odor)
  • Work on any anxiety your dog shows about getting into your car

    There are cases where dogs have made such unpleasant associations with the car that they will not even willingly approach or get into one and in extreme instances they may avoid the garage entirely or even run and hide when you simply get your car keys. In these cases desensitization and counter-conditioning will go a long way. Remember pre-existing anxiety will exacerbate motion sickness, so if your dog is already nervous about getting in the car he is even more likely to become sick once you are on your journey. Such dogs, already showing how nervous they are about the car before they are even inside will not “get used to it” once you put them inside or “out grow it” over time. In fact, things are most likely to get worse – once again, your dog was right! The car IS scary.

    If you have observed that your dog is only nervous about one car and not others that can tell you a lot. If it were physically derived motion sickness, logically he should feel sick in most vehicles. Even for those dogs only afraid of one car, remember, “fear generalizes”. That means that unless you make the effort to change your dog’s mind eventually that fear of just the one car – perhaps your pick-up truck – can quickly change to a fear of all pick-up trucks and eventually all cars. For some dogs this change can take time, but for others it can happen quite rapidly.

    So the moral of this story is that we all need to teach our dogs that the car is fun. This doesn’t happen by accident once a dog is displaying noticeable anxiety. (Avoiding the car is a big sign of anxiety.) Consult your veterinarian about the use of medication and come up with a training plan. If you have a puppy or young dog, work on it so that it never becomes a problem in the first place. The less severe the problem, the easier it is to work on. Summer is coming and it sure will be fun to take Rover and Fifi on outings, but remember the journey is half the adventure. Make it a good one for all of you.