Using Sedatives for Pets While Traveling

Pets often get stressed out while traveling in the car or by airplane. Many owners seek to get sedatives for their dog or cat, to help calm them during the trip, but unfortunately, sedatives can be dangerous and often, they’re just plain ineffective. But, there are strategies that you can employ to help make your pet’s travels less stressful and more enjoyable.

In most cases, veterinarians do not recommend sedating a pet for travel, particularly airline travel (if a medical emergency arises, you can’t do anything while in the sky!) Sedatives can trigger an adverse reaction in some animals. Conversely, the drugs often fail to have any noticeable impact on your pet’s anxiety level.

My veterinarian once explained it to me like this: Imagine you take a sleeping pill and go to bed. In the middle of the night, you awaken to the sound of fire alarms — your house is on fire! Your “fight or flight” response is activated and your adrenaline goes through the roof, overriding the effects of the sleeping pill. During this stressful experience, you’re not going to have any problems staying awake! Your adrenaline easily overpowers the sedative.

The same concept rings true for pets. Their fear — and in some cases, sheer terror — renders the sedative medication ineffective. In order to achieve any meaningful level of sedation, the pet would need an extremely high dose of sedative — and for obvious reasons, it’s not safe to administer extremely strong sedatives outside of a veterinary hospital setting.

There are a number of ways to help reduce the pet’s stress level while traveling; these methods tend to be more effective than sedative medications. Though after a medical examination, your vet may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication or a very mild sedative like Benadryl (it’s actually an anti-histimine drug, but drowsiness is a primary side effect! And as an anti-histimine, it’s extremely unlikely that it would trigger an adverse reaction.)

One strategy involves getting the pet accustomed to sitting inside his crate, kennel or carrier. Encourage the pet to go inside the kennel by placing treats and toys inside. Once your dog or cat is comfortable entering the kennel, begin feeding meals to the pet while he’s inside, so he associates this environment with a positive, enjoyable experience.

For airline rides, there’s little you can do to prepare your dog or cat, other than getting him accustomed to the carrier. But for car trips, you can take the extra step to help your animal to become more comfortable and less nervous while inside the vehicle. Most cats and many dogs only ride in the car while en route to the veterinary clinic or kennel, so the carrier and car rides are associated with these frightening and potentially painful experiences. Therefore, it’s important to “neutralize” the car by helping the pet to realize that it’s not an inherently frightening place!

In our next article, we’ll discuss tips for helping your dog or cat overcome the fear of car rides, making for a stress-free road trip or ride around town! In the interim, read my related articles with pet care tips, including safety tips for traveling with cats and dogs.

Photo Source: Adriano Gonçalves on

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Mia Carter is a professional journalist and animal lover. Her furry family members include 6 dogs and 12 cats. She is also a feral cat colony caretaker. Carter specializes in pet training and special needs pet care. All of her animals have special needs such as paralysis, blindness, deafness and FIV, just to name a few. She also serves as a pet foster parent and she actively rehabilitates and rescues local strays and feral kittens.

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