Is It Motion Sickness or Anxiety in dogs?

Figuring out why your dog feels unwell during car rides, and how to fix the problem.


Most dogs love car rides, so much so that even though we’re not supposed to let them stick their head out the window because gravel can fly up at their faces (and also because it means they’re not secured safely in place), many owners take the risk. They allow their pets the joy of looking around and feeling the wind on their faces as the auto rolls along. Happy dogs looking out car windows as their owners chauffeur them around are a pretty common sight, in fact.

But for a small but significant minority of dogs, riding in a car is anything but joyful. It’s not hard to tell. Rather than showing excitement about the ride or being out and about with you, they kind of hunker down. They drool. They yawn — or whine or smack or lick their lips, or all of the above. Sometimes they even vomit.

What is hard to tell, at least up front, is whether it’s actual motion sickness — a physiological condition — or stress or anxiety about riding in a vehicle.

Motion sickness
True motion sickness is a physiological condition. The vestibular system, which includes parts of the inner ear, does not work properly to help maintain a sense of balance, and that leads to the nausea that can make a dog feel sick to her stomach. It’s usually a condition of puppies and other young dogs; sometimes the maturation of the vestibular system lags a little. Once it catches up, the dog grows out of the problem. Once in a while motion sickness persists into a dog’s adulthood, but that’s more the exception than the rule.

More often, a dog feels sick during car rides for emotional reasons. In fact, after separation anxiety, fear of car rides is one of the most common emotion-based problems of dogs, particularly young dogs. It could be that a dog had a bad experience in a vehicle that sensitized her. Perhaps in being brought to your area to be adopted by you, she was vanned from someplace far away soon after being separated from her mother and litter mates. The problem can cause the very same symptoms as motion sickness brought on by an immature inner ear: queasiness and vomiting and general discomfort with attendant drooling, yawning, and lip licking — all of which indicate stress.

Getting to the root of the car problems — and treating them
If the situation is severe enough that your dog is vomiting even on short car rides or experiences excessive salivation and other untoward signs pretty much from the moment she gets into the car, you’ll want to take her to the vet, or perhaps a veterinary behaviorist, to try to get a handle on the cause of the problem. By examining her demeanor in general and considering her affect in combination with her age, the doctor will be able to get some sort of handle on whether the issue is more likely to be vestibular or emotional in nature.

If it’s motion sickness plain and simple, drugs can help. Some are over-the-counter anti-nausea medications like Dramamine (dimenhydrinate). Meclizine can reduce nausea and vomiting, too. Antihistamines like diphenhydramine may also come in handy. Do not administer over-the-counter antidotes —not even ginger — without consulting your dog’s vet to see which is best for her in her particular situation and how much to give depending on her weight and other factors.

Prescription drugs include the anti-vomiting preparation Cerenia (maropitant citrate).

Drugs can also help a dog who gets sick in the car because of stress. But not all of the solution is about drugs, and that’s true whether the dog feels ill in the car because of her vestibular system or anxiety. (Sometimes it’s both. Knowing that she feels ill while riding may bring on stress that only makes the problem worse.) Try the following to reduce nausea and the vomiting that sometimes comes with it:

– Lower the car windows a couple of inches. Fresh air may help ratchet down discomfort.

– Keep the car as cool as you can without becoming uncomfortable. A hot, stuffy environment inside the car can make things worse.

– Don’t feed the dog for several hours before car travel. A lot of food in the gut might only serve to increase discomfort.

– Consider keeping the dog in a crate covered on the sides and the back so that she can only see forward. All the blur of things whizzing by on the sides can make a nauseated dog (or person) feel even worse.

Behavioral solutions if solely stress or anxiety is causing the problem
At a certain point you’re going to get a handle on whether stress is causing the carsickness, or making it worse. If anxiety is contributing to the nausea, you can desensitize your dog to riding around in the car. How? As we always advise, gradually.

You might want to start simply by doing something next to the car that the dog (usually a puppy) really enjoys: feeding her or giving her a favorite toy to play with, or just petting and cooing over her. Once the dog shows she is comfortable — and this may take several tries over several days — move onto engaging with your dog just outside the car but with the car door open. From there, put favorite foods or toys on the floor of the vehicle. Once you see she’s comfortable with that, turn on the car engine but don’t drive. When you do decide to drive with the dog in the car, make it a very short hop to someplace wonderful — the park, or perhaps a favorite friend who has a dog your pet really likes. Over time, she will learn that cars do not need to make her nervous. Some say it’s worth trying driving the dog around in another vehicle to dissociate car rides from the unpleasant sensations she has learned to feel in a particular car, with its own odors and other sensorial effects.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) suggests that if your dog is still a very young pup, try cuddling her upside down in your lap, picking her up in the air, or gently rolling her around on the floor like a log. These small motions a few times a day will mimic what she’s exposed to in a car and can further work to desensitize her. The AKC also wisely says not to make a big fuss if your dog does vomit during a car ride. Don’t pull over to clean it, as that signals that retching will stop the car. And don’t start yelling, or she’ll associate your emotional unbalance with something being wrong with the car, not with her having thrown up, and that will only make her more anxious about being in it. Better to stay calm and loving and clean up after the dog is out of sight.

The good news here: with patience, and sometimes medication, virtually all dogs get to a point that they can tolerate, and often even enjoy, going places in the car.


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