Nothing ruins a pet-friendly vacation like car sickness. One moment you’re anticipating a game of fetch on the beach, and the next you’re cleaning a puddle of pre-digested kibble out of the car. For pets with serious car sickness trouble, even a routine trip to the vet can turn your car into a rolling hazardous waste site. With planning and care, however, carsick pets can become better able to accompany you without accidents.
Why Do Pets Get Carsick?
Like humans, pets experience nausea due to a discrepancy between the motion sensed by the inner ear and what is seen by the eyes. In addition, jerking movements like sudden stops or sharp turns can disrupt the fluid in the inner ear. When this happens, the ear sends nausea-causing signals to the brain. This usually leads to vomiting, possibly repeatedly. Because young animals’ ear structures are immature, car sickness can be worse in immature pets.
Sometimes pets who were car sick frequently when young continue to become ill on car rides during adulthood because nausea has become a conditioned response to riding in a car. Others simply continue to experience inner ear disturbances during car rides, even after the ear is fully developed.
Treating Car Sickness in Pets
If your pet gets sick on car rides, you should visit the vet in order to discuss these symptoms. Various health problems, from inner ear infections to joint disease, can contribute to motion sickness in pets. If a health problem is at the root of the issue, you’ll need to treat it before moving forward. To keep your pet comfortable when heading to the vet for treatment and checkups, consider an anti-nausea drug (prescribed by your vet and used only as directed) until the medical problem has been resolved.
If you eliminate a health-related reason for nausea, next look at how you’re transporting the pet. Pets left loose in the car to slide around and fidget often experience motion sickness. Instead, use a crate, carrier, or seatbelt restraint, and consider adding an anti-slip mat to the surface where your pet rides. Some pets’ car sickness is reduced if they ride in the front seat with their eyes facing forward, but this creates substantial risk to pets in the event of an accident if the car has a passenger airbag. If your pet rides in the passenger’s seat, see if your car has an option allowing you to disable the passenger side airbag for the duration of the trip.
Conditioning can also help to reduce motion sickness. Take short trips in the car, even just to the end of the driveway, as frequently as possible. Feed a small treat for getting in the car, and another small treat when the “trip” is complete. Pets who have learned to expect nausea when getting into a vehicle may be able to learn instead that a ride in the car means treats. An anti-nausea medication may help with reconditioning your pet to respond positively to car rides, but I recommend trying to do without drugs, because they can become a crutch that allows procrastination. Then, if the drug becomes less effective after prolonged use, you’re back to square one and no longer have medication as an option for necessary trips.