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Behaviour Advice for Canine Car Sickness

Sad-looking Boxer dog in the car with a window halfway down
You can see the look on your dog’s face, the panting, the long shoelaces of drool hanging from the corners of their mouth, they are hunching over… and then you notice the smell. It’s happened, your dog has vomited again. And it’s getting worse. This time they’d only been in the car a minute or two! 

Car sickness is a common, distressing and unpleasant problem for both pet parents and dogs. There’s the mess and the smell to deal with and car sickness can escalate to the point where some dogs will defecate in the car as well.

I’ve been in the position to be called upon to help many a dog with car sickness and developed a protocol in response, which has had good success. It is definitely easier to address in puppies, but adult dogs can benefit from intervention too

There are a number of physical and behavioural reasons why dogs develop and continue to have car sickness.

When the problem is physical…

Some of the physical reasons why car sickness occurs are - weak stomachs that are prone to nausea, poor balance, lack of access to fresh air or ability to focus the eye on a point of horizon and having a full belly from a recent meal or drink. 

These physical causes can be easily tackled.

✔️ Better timing of feeding and drinks before a trip will assist dogs with weak or full stomachs. Allowing food or water should be done well ahead for better digestion. 

Small dog with his head out of the car window
✔️ Nausea can also be improved by providing fresh air through a window. 

✔️ Providing a spot where they are able to sit and look at a point of horizon improves balance and reduces nausea, although not all dogs take this option when available to them. Poor balance which is related to poor sensory perception or integration can be improved by doing shorter trips to develop this skill.

Dog sitting in a crate at the back of a van
Many an owner makes the mistake of making their dog’s early car trips far too long. If your first car trips are going to be long then make sure you make frequent toilet and stretch stops. 

Sensory perception and integration can also be improved over time through doing agility type exercises, which will lead to increased tolerance to motion. Rarely, some dogs are sick from visual over stimulation and they need to be kept settled by a harness, crate or a position on the floor so they can’t see.

When the problem is physical, this is when it is useful to go to your vet for therapeutic assistance. Your vet can prescribe “Metronidazole” - a medication that acts on the sphincter muscles at the top of the stomach, reducing the queasy feeling leading to vomiting (which is the same medication given to people with gastro to reduce vomiting). While "Metronidazole" is prescribed often, if sphincter control isn’t the issue - it isn’t going to help. 

A natural option to reduce nausea is "NAS TravelEze". Rarely some dogs have physical anomalies such as an internal organ that presses on the stomach causing the dog to feel sick. These anomalies are hard to diagnose, the surgery is usually radical and expensive and it may have little to no impact.

The Drugs Approach…

Drugs are often prescribed to treat behavioural problems. Some of the drugs that are prescribed when dogs present with car sickness are "Xanax" (used for people who suffer panic attacks) and ACP” (Acepromazine) which sedates, so they cannot act out (and the dog is awake but immobile, and potentially still stressed). These act on the dog within a short period of time and remain temporarily in the dog’s system.

Neither usually has a great impact on the long-term improvement of the behaviour
Little dog with many bottles of pills

A word of caution. Beware if your dog’s stress only presents when travelling in the car but they are prescribed ongoing anti-anxiety medication such as Prozac, Clomicalm or Reconcile. That is akin to using a post hole driver when a hammer will do! 

Any drug that is prescribed for a behavioural purpose should never be dispensed on its own without a behavioural modification program. 

Drugs are intended only as a bridge, to help get over the hump and are not meant as a permanent solution. If don’t believe this, then read thoroughly the insert that comes with the medication and if they don’t give you one then ask for it!

"Adaptil" is another option. It is a synthetic pheromone that mimics the pheromone bitches produce to calm their puppies – although I haven’t seen astounding or definitive results, particularly with car sickness. A natural behavioural drug alternative is "Bach Flowers Rescue Remedy".

When the problem is behavioural - the most success I’ve seen success with is through rehabilitation. In my 18 years experience including as a veterinary nurse, predominantly I’ve seen behavioural training have greater success over “drug” interventions.

When the drugs don't work!

If you have tried these measures and you are still dealing with a dog being sick, then the problem is in their head – literally. Their behaviour has become a conditioned (learned) response. The tell tale sign of “learned sickness” is when your dog is showing signs of sickness earlier and earlier, to the point you have barely driven anywhere or the car isn’t started. 

All too often I have heard this from pet parents and unfortunately that key information is not red flagged when it should be, and the focus turns to physical causes and/or drugs to control the behaviour. Learned behaviours can be unlearned

German Shepherd Dog lying on the ground refusing to get into the carAlthough being sick may have physical origins, once your dog connects car rides with feeling nauseated they become understandably highly anxious at the thought of going for another car trip. Negative anticipation sets in. 

The fear of becoming sick produces its own nausea and is worse than the car ride itself, so they vomit again then they feel better for it - and a nasty biologically self-rewarding pattern has been established. 

This learned pattern of anxious anticipation gets stronger and stronger with each time the dog is sick until just the thought of going in the car elicits stress, then nausea, then vomiting. 

It is at this point when you will see the dog pulling back from getting in the car, or crouching and panting and drooling as soon as they are placed in the car. In this situation, tending to the physical causes of sickness will help, but the learned pattern (stress and vomiting) must be unlearned.

When the problem is behavioural...

It took time for this behaviour to develop, and it is going to take time to undo. 
For younger puppies this can be undone in a week or two. For older dogs it can take 2-3 months. 

I’ve had 5 rescue dogs over 5 months of age with this problem. Three had no sickness after one month and the other two took a full three months to completely recover. In dispensing this advice through thousands of puppy schools, I’ve had countless puppy parents remedy it quickly. I’ve also had success with much older dogs, that is when the owners as much as possible implement the strategies below.

Two smiling dogs at the back of a car To unlearn this response you are going to need strategy, time and patience. The sooner you implement these interventions the better, as the longer it goes on the greater the learned response is. 

This may involve some deliberate “training” trips designed to help your dog. You may also need to get yourself some toys or treats, and if your dog has a favourite friend (dog or person) this will especially assist in the process.

Car Sickness Behaviour Saving Protocol: How to Unlearn Car Sickness

Step 1: Hop in the car and don’t go anywhere. Don’t even turn the engine on. Just play and do fun things (easy for puppies). Use toys, balls, treats and patting – what ever your dog likes. If you have another dog that really loves the car then they can help your dog get caught up in the excitement and have a positive experience in the car. 

Make the initial repetitions super short* and then let them out of the car and have a good old play and run around. Save their favourite activity for when they get out of the car… like they have reached an awesome destination. Do several repetitions until there is less resistance or improvement through being more relaxed, and then give it a rest. Then repeat the process again. Increase the time of the repetitions as you go until they can happily be in the car without signs of sickness or distress.

* Super short means no longer than a minute. Even 20-30 seconds will do.

Step 2: Now turn the engine on, and don’t go anywhere. Return to doing very short repetitions. Continue to do fun things. If your dog wants to lay down and settle, that’s fine too – just as long as they aren’t cowering and showing signs of stress or sickness. And again save the best, most fun reward until they get out of the car at their “destination”. Do super short repetitions then have a break, and then repeat the process again until they are easing into it and familiar with the concept. Then increase the time of the repetitions.

Two dogs running on the grass after a car trip
Step 3: Take a very short trip – down the driveway or down a few doors to the neighbours. This is when meeting up with a playmate is really helpful. If you have a neighbour, friend or relative nearby with a friendly well trained dog that you can tee up) - take them just down the road in the car and let them get out and have a splendid play (that is if your dog likes other dogs; if not, you will have to sub for toys, games, treats or their favourite person. Logically don’t use treats if vomiting is going to follow). Have a break and repeat this process several times until they are easing into it and familiar with the concept.

Step 4: Take a short trip for a few minutes to somewhere fun like the local park or dog school or a relative’s house (if they are safe fun places). You may need to be smart, if you don’t have somewhere to take them, then you will have to organise one. Perhaps set up a pooch playschool somewhere that friends and family can bring friendly safe dogs to play with. Again substitute some other sort of fun if you cannot introduce them to a dog that they would love to play with.

You will notice your dog is unlearning to be sick in the car when it either doesn’t show signs of stress and nausea or, shows signs of willingness and even enthusiasm to get in the car. This means, they’ve learned the car represents a kind freedom and a wormhole to fun experiences. Nausea will go once stress has diminished. They key is to replace the stress for pleasure.

A word about your short trips – these will help build up your dog’s tolerance to motion as well as establish a happy relationship with the car.

    ✔️ Don’t take your dog for long car rides if you can help it, even if it is coming home from the breeders, taking them to the vets or puppy school, as this can accidently establish or reinforce the behaviour. And if you must – then allow for frequent stops and play breaks. Often owners don’t realise that those early long car rides are having an effect on their dog’s behaviour. 

    ✔️ You must, to the best of your ability avoid them becoming sick. Any vomits can increase the likelihood of it occurring again. 

    ✔️ What is a “long ride” for a dog? If they are sick it was too long for them and you will need to do shorter trips. And if you must take them for a long trip then you should be doing many of these shorter/mini training trips before and in between to break the pattern. 

    ✔️ It goes without saying that training your dog is going to benefit them immensely. It is more difficult to modify behaviour in an untrained dog that you don’t have an established relationship with. The trust, leadership and communication you build through training can assist greatly when your dog is looking for guidance. 

    ✔️ Be careful not to unintentionally reward unwanted behaviour by trying to ease their suffering through patting and praising them, it will not make them feel better – but the positive attention they receive at this time can reinforce that feeling sick or being stressed is appropriate and rewarding or it can send the wrong message that there IS something to worry about. 

    ✔️ Never punish or reprimand your dog for feeling or being sick. It is not their fault, and because it is out of their control you can induce further anxiety. Do better reading of the situation next time and take appropriate preventative action.

    Renee Visentin Veterinary Nurse and Dog Trainer
    About our writer

    Renee Visentin began training with Alpha Dog Training in 1998. She is trained as a Veterinary Nurse, has held over 3000 puppy classes and has worked as a kennel/dog handler and groomer. 

    Since 1999 Renee has provided behaviour training services for clients, vets, shelters and rescue organisations. She also fosters difficult dogs to re-home for rescue organisations. Renee is working as a senior professional trainer at Alpha Dog Training and is co-owner of the Alpha Canine Centre. She developed a number of behaviour saving protocols for the treatment of very difficult behaviours.

    The information in this blog does not constitute advice. If you need advice about your pet, consult a veterinarian or a qualified animal behaviourist or dog trainer, as appropriate.
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