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Travel Sickness in Dogs - do you really understand it?

A lot of people find travelling with their dogs difficult, and they’ll almost always blame “travel sickness”. In some cases, it can be so severe that dogs cannot be taken on car journeys, and must be left at home or in kennels - or the owners can’t ever go away. However, most people make one big mistake when thinking about it and trying to manage it - and that mistake means that in most cases they’ll never be able to get on top of the problem.

Informative image: dog in car

Here’s that mistake:

Travel sickness isn’t one condition, but two.

When thinking about the reason our dog drools and throws up in the car, we, of course, draw from our own experience. And in most cases, we would be right to do so - our bodies and those of our dogs work in very similar ways. However, our minds are very different: ultimately, we can rationalise what we feel, a dog cannot.

So, when we see these symptoms, we automatically assume they are inevitably because the dog suffers from motion sickness. In some cases, this is true, but for the majority of dogs, the vomiting is secondary to a more serious problem - Travel Anxiety, or travel stress. For some reason, between 10 and 25% of dogs find travelling in a car to be innately frightening or stressful.

So, we have 2 separate conditions - and yet we tend to assume they are the same, which is REALLY unhelpful!

The first condition is motion sickness. This is something that many people suffer from, but it is relatively uncommon in adult dogs. The cause is an imbalance between what the dog’s eyes are telling them (that they are sat in a solid cabin) and what their ears say (that they are moving up and down and from side to side). The balance organs in a dog’s inner ear are just as good as ours, but our eyesight is better - so while we can fix on a distant point and use our eyes (and brains) to override our ears, a dog cannot.

The symptoms of motion sickness are usually a relaxed, happy dog, who starts drooling and then begins to vomit. Occasionally, dogs may seem disoriented, or stressed, but vomiting is not in and of itself inherently stressful or upsetting to most dogs. Once they’ve thrown up, they’ll usually feel better!

Many puppies do seem to suffer from motion sickness, but it is something that most dogs appear to grow out of. While motion sickness may persist into adulthood, if it suddenly recurs, this suggests an underlying medical problem - in this case, make an appointment to get them checked out by one of our vets.

Motion sickness can be controlled with the use of potent anti-sickness drugs from us or (in many cases) with more careful, slower, smoother driving! In many cases, travelling on an empty stomach will also make a major difference - dogs are less likely to feel or be sick if their stomach isn’t full of half digested food. Remember, though, NEVER use human travel sickness drugs, which don’t work the same way in dogs - they are unlikely to be effective and may not be safe.

Far more common than motion sickness, however, is Travel Anxiety. This is a stress-based condition, where the dog’s vomiting is due to their underlying stress or fear response. This condition impacts on your dog’s welfare FAR more severely than mere motion sickness, and typically shows up as an anxious, reluctant or hyperactive dog who is restless and vocal in the car, then drools, vomits, wets and may defecate as well. Yes, there is some overlap - but these dogs are unhappy in themselves and stressed out by their predicament.

No-one really knows the reason it occurs in any one dog; however, possible causes are previous stress (for example, being rehomed, being in an accident, or being taken to a nasty place in the car); inexperience; or even a generalised anxiety disorder (e.g. Separation Anxiety).

Compared to motion sickness, this condition is often much more complex to manage. Possible approaches include:

●     The use of pheromones, in this case Adaptil collars or sprays, to reduce stress levels.

●     Avoid reprimanding the dog if they behave “badly” in the car - it’ll just make it worse!

●     Reward the dog for getting into and being in the car - possibly even when the car is stationary, so they start to associate being in the car with nice things.

●     In some cases, a formal behaviour modification programme from a qualified canine behaviourist may be required - our vets will be able to recommend one.

●     The most severely affected dogs may require medication.

To manage a dog’s “travel sickness” it’s essential to realise which type you’re dealing with - and if you have any questions about it, give us a ring and our vets will help you find the right solution for your pet!