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6 tips for helping pets that get queasy in the car

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6 tips for helping pets that get queasy in the car
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Jan 20 2015

I remember the day quite clearly, although it was over fifteen years ago. I had just adopted a dog—the first as an adult living on my own. She was about 3 months old and as cute as a button. As we headed out of the door of the SPCA to begin our lives together, the staff member who helped me called out, “Crack the windows on your way home—puppies tend to get car sick!”

It’s true—young animals (just like children) are more prone to the effects of motion sickness, but adult dogs and cats can certainly grace your backseat with their fair share of vomit, too.

Motion sickness comes from an overstimulation of the part of the ears that maintain balance and equilibrium. Aside from being a perfect mechanical miracle that transfer sound waves to our brain, the inner ears contain an apparatus called the semi-circular canals. These 3 fluid-filled canals are positioned vertically and horizontally, and the fluid acts much like the fluid does in a level—it tells the brain about the body’s position in space.

When a body is in motion, but not moving, such as in a car, boat or plane, conflicting signals reach the brain and cause trouble in the part of the brain that controls vomiting. Motion sickness doesn’t always have to include vomiting. Whining, nervousness and drooling indicate that your pet is uncomfortable on your joy ride.

Because the inner ears of young animals are still developing (as is the rest of their body and mind), they are particularly apt to experience motion sickness. But the good news is that many young pets will outgrow motion sickness as they grow.

One caveat, though: if your young pet’s first few car rides are fraught with misery, anxiety associated with these rides can continue throughout their lives. Sometimes getting sick in the car isn’t due to motion sickness—it’s due to anxiety.

So, the more you can do to make car rides fun, the better. Here are some tips:

  • Keep car rides short at first. The more times your pet experiences a car ride that causes no stress, the better.
  • Don’t go to the vet or groomer every time you take your pet somewhere. If you went to the doctor or dentist every time you rode in the car as a child, you’d be anxious in the car, too!
  • Do crack the window. The SPCA staff member I met almost two decades ago was right—fresh air does help.
  • Keep your pet facing forwards. You should be using a seat belt, harness, or crate for your pet, anyway. Ensure that your pet is positioned in a forward facing direction to minimize motion sickness.
  • Withhold food and minimize water intake in the couple of hours before your trip.
  • Ask your veterinarian about over the counter or prescription medications that combat motion sickness. These medications interrupt the signals between the inner ear and the brain to minimize motion sickness.

For some pets, riding in a car is a dream come true (“I can fly!!!!”), but for others, it is an anxiety-filled nightmare. If your pet is in the latter category, talk to your veterinarian about ways to help her ride in comfort.

Want more tips on traveling with your pet? Point your paws to our Pet Travel Guide, which covers traveling in planes, trains and automobiles with your furry friends.