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August 2010 Treatment of "Car Sickness" in Cats and Dogs
-Stacey Rebello, DVM, MS
The Causes of Car Sickness:
“Car sickness” can be caused by multiple factors, most commonly a combination of fear and motion sickness. It is important to differentiate which of these factors are contributing to your pet’s discomfort during travel, as the treatment recommendations may change. Many animals may fear being in the car simply because it is an uncommon occurrence, and often ends with a trip to the vet. For other pets, the main source of the problem is motion-related nausea. This is particularly common in puppies and kittens due to an immaturity of the inner ear which controls balance and coordination. For this reason, as your pet matures they may “out-grow” getting car sick.
Recognizing the Signs of Car Sickness:
In general, the signs of fear and motion sickness can be similar and may be difficult to differentiate. They both often include trembling, restlessness, vocalization, and drooling. However, pets experiencing true motion sickness and nausea may have more severe gastrointestinal symptoms and frequently experience vomiting or diarrhea. Fearful animals will sometimes hide, shed excessively, display reluctance to get into the vehicle, urinate/defecate, or become frantic and severely agitated.
The Prevention & Treatment of Car Sickness:
If you feel that fear and anxiety are playing a role in your pet’s car sickness, there are many options for treatment including behavioral modification techniques, homeopathic remedies, and prescription medication. If your pet is used to being crated, then utilizing their crate in the car may provide a sense of safety and help reduce their anxiety. Many behaviorists also recommend gradual desensitization by taking your pet on very short trips and gradually increasing the duration over a period of weeks or months until your pet can comfortably tolerate longer rides. Treats can be given for distraction and to reward calm behavior during travel. Eventually, the hope is that your pet will learn new, positive associations of being in the car. Homeopathic calming remedies include jasmine scented car fresheners, Feliway (feline pheromones) or DAP (dog appeasing pheromone), all of which have been proven to decrease stress in some animals. For many animals prescription medication is necessary, particularly in the early stages of desensitization. Veterinarian will often recommend a combination of sedatives (such as acepromazine or Benadryl®) and anti-anxiety medication (like Xanax or Valium).
To help prevent motion sickness, there are some simple travel practices you can employ to make your pet’s trip more comfortable. Try keeping the windows open a few inches to increase the air circulation which may help reduce nausea and aid your pet in regulating the pressure in his/her inner ears. Keeping them facing forward may also decrease the visual cues which increase nausea (Hint – try blocking off the side windows in the backseat, or (for dogs) use a specially-designed seatbelt harness. In many cases medication is required. Over-the-counter drugs like Benadryl and Dramamine may be useful and can be purchased without a prescription at any local pharmacy. However, you should discuss the recommended dose with your regular veterinarian prior to administration. Prescription medications (like Cerenia™, meclizine, or ondansetron) can be prescribed by your veterinarian to help reduce nausea/vomiting and are generally highly effective in combating “car sickness.” Ultimately, as each animal is unique, we encourage you to discuss all options with your regular veterinarian to determine the best possible treatment plan for your pet.