Before the journey - Stress can play a large part in travel sickness. Dogs quickly learn that car journeys are uncomfortable, so they may start to show signs of anxiety as soon as they realise that they are about to go in the car. Some may even vomit before the car is started or before they get into it.
During the journey - One or more of the following signs suggest that your pet may be feeling ill when travelling:
- Hypersalivation (excessive drooling)
- Panting, swallowing, lip-licking
- Restlessness, anxiety, trembling
The signs of travel sickness vary from dog to dog. For example, some may simply vomit without showing any other signs. If your dog exhibits one or more of the above signs whenever travelling with you, then it’s possible your dog is suffering from travel sickness.
What causes travel sickness?
Dog motion sickness is more commonly seen in puppies and young dogs than in older dogs, just as carsickness afflicts more children than adults. The reason for this is because the ear structures used for balance aren’t fully developed in puppies. This isn’t to say that all dogs will outgrow travel sickness, though many will.
If the first few car rides of your dog’s life left him nauseated, he may have been conditioned to equate travel with vomiting, even after his ears have fully matured. Stress can also add to travel sickness, so if your dog has only ever ridden in the car to go to the vet, he may literally worry himself sick on the road.
The exact mechanisms which cause travel sickness are not fully understood. What we do know is that a combination of stress or anxiety can produce very strong feelings of nausea and cause vomiting.
Humans and dogs manage to balance thanks to a clever mechanism contained in the inner ear which sends signals to the brain. The movement caused by being in a car or at sea stimulates this mechanism which then bombards the brain with signals. These signals can be made worse by stress (perhaps caused by previous bad experiences) and stimulate areas of the brain which cause nausea and then vomiting.
Only when the movement stops will the nausea slowly subside as the brain activity returns to normal.
Travel sickness drugs work by blocking the signals in the brain which cause vomiting. Some of these also cause temporary drowsiness or sedation because of their effects on other parts of the brain. However, not all travel sickness pills have these effects – ask at your vet surgery for more information on different treatments.
In the past there were few ways to treat motion sickness medically and vets would dispense a sedative on most occasions. This may have been a good quick fix, but the result was a sleepy dog at the end of the journey. On a practical level this is not ideal either as your dog cannot go for a walk, or do anything other than ‘sleep it off’ when you get to your destination. So much for fun in the sun!
A non-sedating medication is only available by prescription from a vet and comes in tablet form. The appropriate dose is given from one hour or even up to 10 hours before travel, so can be given the night before, if you intend to leave early in the morning. It acts on the emetic centre in the brain to prevent vomiting and has no sedative effect at all. As the medication prevents the dog from being sick or feeling sick, the journey becomes much less stressful.
During future journeys you could expect the stress level to go down even further because there is no longer that anticipation of feeling sick based on previous experiences. These medications should be used in conjunction with behaviour training as very few work alone in the long term.