Some pets just can’t stomach travelling.
Most dogs love a good car ride, for others, the mere sound of an engine sets their stomachs churning. Just like some people, dogs and the occasional cat can be affected by motion sickness.
There are two basic categories of car sickness in pets. True motion-sickness is caused by a disturbance in the balance-centre of the brain whereas anxiety-related nausea may be triggered by stress and fear that has somehow become associated with car travel – perhaps too many trips to the vet’s office.
If your pet is normal until well underway, he most likely has real motion sickness. The condition can cause restlessness, lip-smacking or drooling, progressing to vomiting. It may only occur at particular speeds, when cornering or on hilly roads. Some animals get nauseous when they are in certain positions. I had one patient who was fine on the seat of his owner’s truck, but in a car he had to be on the floor.
The underlying cause of motion sickness is not known. Studies in people indicate it is triggered by the brain receiving mixed signals. The eyes, looking at objects in the car, tell the brain the person is stationary. Meanwhile, motion-sensors in the inner ear perceive movement and give conflicting information. It’s an argument that ends up stimulating the brain’s vomiting centre – enough said.
About 15 per cent of dogs suffer from true motion sickness at some point in their lives. It is most common in puppies who often outgrow it. Unfortunately, what starts as a medical condition can become a behaviour problem. Some dogs may remember being sick as puppies and become stressed about getting into cars, even though the underlying brain imbalance no longer occurs.
Desensitizing pets to cars can help with stress-related vomiting. First, put the animal in a stationary vehicle for brief periods of petting and rewards. Gradually increase the time spent until any anxiety resolves. At future sessions, start the engine, then give treats and pets to reward calm behaviour. Later, drive for as little as 30 seconds, with calm stroking and rewards. Obviously, an assistant is needed for the stroking part. Trips are gradually lengthened and should be scaled back if nausea returns. Desensitization can take months and is not likely to help animals with true motion sickness.
To treat anxiety, alternative medicine specialists recommend the use of ginger extracts orally, lavender scent, pheromone sprays and acupuncture. For dogs, close-fitting Thundershirts may help. Tranquility training – a type of obedience lesson teaching dogs how to be calm – is also suggested. Again, these options won’t help much with severe motion sickness cases, but the good news is there are some effective medications now available for the condition including Cerenia or maropitant.
Motion sickness can be a frustrating problem for pet owners who struggle with leaving affected animals alone or staying home themselves. It’s a long way to Florida with a nauseated, miserable cat in the back seat, so one of my Siamese patients is now getting practice drives around Brighton to make that trip more pleasant. There are solutions worth trying if you can commit the time. Talk to your veterinarian.
Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital