How to Treat Dog Travel Anxiety

Two dogs wait to exit the back of a vehicle.

Travel anxiety in dogs is the fear of car travel stemming from not knowing or understanding what’s happening, or associating an undesirable destination—the veterinarian’s clinic, for example—with car travel. Symptoms of car travel-induced anxiety in dogs include drooling, shaking, and vomiting.

Traveling with a dog does not always entail a long road trip or vacation—there are times when taking your dog in the car for quick jaunts is essential. So it’s important for her to adapt to car rides without anxiety.

Why does my dog have car anxiety?

A dog’s anxiety may be less about the car itself and more about the destination, particularly when the journey always ends at the vet’s, the groomer’s, or a boarding facility. Or something specific might trigger her anxiety, for example, the sound the car makes when you drive over rumble strips.

And sometimes dogs anticipate travel with anxiety because they’ve learned it will make them sick—in other words, they suffer from true motion sickness, which in turn makes them anxious about traveling in the car. But this is rare—there is usually another underlying reason for dog anxiety.

How can I tell if my dog has carsickness?

Your dog will respond well to medication if she has true carsickness. While vomiting in the car is commonly called carsickness or motion sickness, true carsickness results from an inner ear problem; consult your veterinarian about the specific medicine and dosage to try.

If your dog is prone to carsickness, avoid feeding her for a couple of hours before your trip. She may still get queasy in the car, but you’ll at least avoid cleaning up a mess. If you’re taking her on a long car trip, smaller treats given at well-timed intervals in lieu of a large meal before travel will help keep her sated enough for comfort over the long haul. (And this is not the time to experiment with new treats—stick with the tried and true.)

For many dogs, though, vomiting in the car is an expression of dread and fear of travel; motion sickness medicines won’t help these dogs. Some routinely react to car travel this way, others grow out of it as they become more accustomed to it.

My dog has travel anxiety: how can I help her?

The best way to treat your dog’s travel anxiety is a simple series of exercises in the car to desensitize her. It’s important to take your time and acclimate your dog to the car gradually:

  • Sit in the back seat or cargo area of the car with her. Pet her, praise her, and treat her. Do this for only a few minutes, fewer still or for mere seconds if she seems stressed, and then get out of the car.
  • Repeat the exercise daily or every other day, for as long as a few weeks if necessary. (Use common sense: avoid extremely hot or cold days.)
  • Gradually increase the duration of each exercise. Consider feeding her in the car while you sit with her and continue to offer praise and affection. Food is about the most positive thing she can possibly associate with the car—this exercise establishes that association.

Once she seems comfortable with the car, take your dog on short trips to fun destinations—to the park, on playdates with a doggy pal, or to the pet store, for example. You can use the same fun destination each time, but vary the route and make it longer as you repeat the exercise. Your dog will grow to associate car rides with more than just visits to the vet.

Quick Tip: Notice triggers for anxiety in your dog when you’re traveling, and address them. If your dog can’t bear going over rumble strips, for example, be prepared to treat her every time you drive over them.

How can I keep my anxious dog calm in the car?

There are several effective strategies to use before and during car travel with your dog to help calm and reassure her:

  • Exercise your dog about 20 minutes before your car trip. Activity stimulates endorphins (“feel-good” hormones) and will also tire her out; she might even settle down for a nap once you hit the road.
  • Bring her favorite dog toy. She’ll especially enjoy the recognizable smell of her plush toys.
  • Bring a familiar blanket with her dog bed, or grab something out of the laundry that smells like you (don’t choose something she’s likely to destroy in the back seat).
  • Keep the car comfortable. Regulate the temperature; crack the window or sunroof to allow in some fresh air (don’t allow your dog to hang her head out the window). Soothing music can also reassure your dog. If you teach her to travel in a crate, make sure the crate is level and flat, not listing to one side; cover it with a towel if that seems to calm your dog.
  • Talk to your vet about pheromones. These are chemicals animals release which affect other animals of the same species, usually through smell. A female dog releases a pheromone that calms and reassures her newborn puppies; its synthetic version is available in a spray or collar, and has been shown to help anxious dogs during car travel.
  • Anti-anxiety pressure wraps have been shown to help anxious dogs in stressful situations.
  • Use a dog restraint in the car; some dogs feel more secure if they’re crated or buckled in.

Failing these strategies, talk to your vet about medications to help your dog with travel anxiety. Examples are antihistamines, anxiolytics, sedatives, or a neurokinin receptor blocker called Cerenia®, which stops the vomiting reflex in a dog. But be advised that over-medicating an anxious dog can make her lethargic for days after you reach your travel destination; that’s no fun for anybody. Only a veterinarian is qualified to weigh in on which meds are right for your dog’s specific needs.

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