There are several viable treatment options for dog car anxiety.
Motion sickness is the cause of some dog car anxiety.
The symptoms of anxiety and motion sickness are often the same.
You've probably seen this scene on the road or on TV -- a dog with their head out the window, ears flapping in the wind, mouth open, tongue hanging out. Some dogs love a car ride, but others have dog car anxiety. The causes vary, but symptoms are similar.
Dog car anxiety is often confused with motion sickness. Either way, your dog looks at a trip in a car as if it's a roller coaster ride -- and not in a good way. If you get your dog's anxiety under control, they may end up loving to cruise around with you. They may even want to drive! Disclaimer: don't let your dog drive your car.
What Is Dog Car Anxiety?
Dog car anxiety is just as it sounds -- fear or nervousness when your dog is around or in a vehicle. You may be familiar with some of their symptoms if you have a dog with generalized anxiety. Other symptoms may show up when they are in the vehicle, specifically.
Some signs of anxiety in your dog are obvious because they are out of the norm. Some are more subtle, and you might miss them if you're not paying attention. Keep an eye out for these symptoms:
Reluctance to get into the car
Attempts to escape
Excessive drooling, licking, panting, or nose-dripping
Barking, whining, or whimpering
Shaking or trembling
Several of the symptoms of dog car anxiety are the same as motion or car sickness. See these listed later in this article.
Car anxiety has a range of severity. In a 2021 article, the medical team at Bond Vet explains that this could mean "mild discomfort to full-blown panic, or any degree of stress between these two extremes. In addition to the mental and emotional consequences to a dog, an anxious dog can also be a dangerous distraction to the human driver."
It's important to get this issue under control, not only for your dog's sake but for yours as well. It's not just about comfort but safety too.
Causes of Dog Car Anxiety
With a dog, it's difficult to know what exactly causes their anxiety. They can't tell you, but there are a few possibilities. It helps to put yourself in their paws to get a better understanding of what they're going through and what to do to help them.
Your dog may associate a car with going to a shelter or away from a home that they loved. If you adopt a rescue dog, you may not know that they were in an accident involving a vehicle, whether inside of one or hit by one. Whatever happened, a trauma from their past sticks with them for a long time.
Many dogs experience anxiety when exposed to loud or strange noises. Even in the car, there are unfamiliar sounds like the air conditioning, thumping bass from the radio, honking horns, the rumble of the tires on a rough road, or the sounds of the air rushing by on a windy day.
If your dog has an aversion to noises, you likely see the symptoms appear at times when they're not in the car, like during thunderstorms, fireworks displays, nearby trains, loud music, or noisy cars driving by the house. Even if your dog gets used to these noises around in their home, a car ride presents an entirely new set of sounds.
A journey in a vehicle has a lot going on -- other cars whizzing by, music or radio sounds, the feel of the bumps in the road, views of unfamiliar places, new smells, etc. There's so much to take in that involves all of their senses. This may be overwhelming for them and they want out of the situation.
Whenever you get sick, you often experience some anxiety with the illness. For dogs, motion sickness is most common in puppies and they grow out of it as they get older, but this isn't always the case. Spot this particular cause by your pup's vomiting, drooling excessively, whining, and restlessness.
Puppies' inner ears aren't developed yet and that makes them more susceptible to motion sickness. Try to limit the time your puppy rides in the car and talk to your vet about the best age to begin taking them on longer car rides. You don't want to create a negative association with the car right off the bat.
Dr. Jason Nicholas graduated with honors from The Royal Veterinary College in London, England, and completed his Internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City.
In a 2019 article for Preventive Vet, Dr. Nicholas explains that the movement-sensing areas of the inner ear conflict with the dog's visual perception. One tells them they are moving and the other shows them the inside of a stationary vehicle. This disparity causes nausea and vomiting.
Treatments for Anxiety
Whether it's generalized or brought on by a particular trigger, your dog's car anxiety is treatable. There are different options depending on the trigger, the situation, and your dog's temperament.
Calming Wrap or Collar
A dog calming wrap is a garment that fits snuggly around your dog to give them a sense of security. ThunderShirt is the most popular brand of calming wraps. Don't try it at the last minute because it takes some practice to fit it onto your dog and you need to see how they respond to it.
Rather than physical comfort, a calming collar appeals to your dog's sense of smell. The collar emits pheromones a mother gives off to soothe her puppies. It's easier to put on your dog than a wrap, especially if they're already used to wearing a regular collar.
A lot of people play the radio when they drive, but your dog may not like the rock station you're listening to. The thumping bass and electric guitar may get them more amped up. Try switching to classical music for a more soothing sound. This also has a "white noise" effect, blocking out other less pleasant sounds.
Play the music in the house first to see how they react. You may like singing in the car too but be careful with that; you don't want to get them howling.
Dogs are den animals, so they prefer to retreat to an enclosed area when frightened. If the overload of sights is overwhelming for your dog, an enclosed, anti-anxiety dog crate -- or one covered with a blanket -- removes at least the visual distractions and makes them feel safer.
There are a variety of calming treats, hemp oil, and CBD products used to calm your dog's nerves. Calming Zen Chews use natural ingredients like chamomile, L-tryptophan, and L-theanine to soothe your dog without medication. Give them the treat before embarking on your journey.
For whatever reason, your dog sees a car ride as a negative experience so you need to change their view. Start off by playing with your dog near the vehicle without actually getting inside. Next, practice loading your dog into the car, but don't start the engine. If they react calmly, give them a treat.
Take a gradual step like starting the engine but remaining stationary. Then, take a short drive around the block. Since you have no destination, it's easy to turn around and go home if your dog begins to show signs of anxiety. Make your first real destination a positive one like a dog park, beach, or wherever they like to go.
Your dog may also become triggered before they even get to the car. Things like the sound of your keys jingling, getting the harness ready, asking them if they want to go for a ride -- these indicate to them that they're about to get into the car. Present these signs apart from the car ride to disassociate them.
This goes along with desensitization and replaces the negative associations of a car ride with positive ones. Giving your dog treats is one of the ways to do this. To make your dog more comfortable in the car, bring along familiar objects as well -- their bed, favorite toys, or other comfort items. In addition to their own objects, a shirt or other article that has their owner's scent may comfort them.
Give them a Kong or other food puzzle if you're the only two in the car. It's not only a positive activity but it keeps them distracted for a while too. If possible, have someone else ride with you to keep the dog company (and distracted) while you drive. If they're able to play with your dog, it becomes a fun experience.
Treatments for Car Sickness
Your dog may seem calm leading up to the car ride and doesn't show symptoms up until right before they get sick. This is more likely motion sickness as opposed to anxiety. If car sickness is the cause of your dog's anxiety, there are other treatment methods.
Stephanie Gibeault, MSc, CPDT (Certified Professional Dog Trainer), writes for the American Kennel Club and offers these tips for a dog with motion sickness:
Keep the temperature inside the car cool.
Lower the windows for fresh air.
Limit your dog’s food and water for a few hours before the trip.
Consult your vet about motion sickness medication or anti-anxiety medication.
Exercise your dog about twenty minutes before your trip to decrease stress.
Spray dog pheromones in the car. Available as collars, diffusers, and sprays, these pheromones mimic the odor of a nursing mother dog and relax even adult dogs.
Sometimes it's difficult to tell which came first, the anxiety or the sickness, because one may easily cause the other. A ride in the car may make your dog feel unsteady on their feet. This is one contributing factor to motion sickness, but it may also cause your dog to feel unsafe; thus, making them anxious.
Most of these remedies also keep them calm so they work for either situation. Use discretion when lowering the windows. If you see that your dog has an adverse reaction to this, it is more likely that they have anxiety.
Protecting your dog while traveling is a priority, but remember to use safety measures when entering and exiting the vehicle. If your dog has anxiety about the car, they naturally want to escape the situation. Always use a leash with a collar or harness when loading and unloading your dog.
Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM contributed to an article for VCA Animal Hospitals about safely traveling with your dog.
"There are several ways that you can travel quietly and safely with your dog, including using a carrier or crate, a harness or seat belt, or a head halter. Any of these devices will help to ensure the safety and security of both the pet and the driver."
They point out that it is important to practice using this equipment in the house before utilizing it in the car. Get them used to it in a safe environment and then it's much easier to use it in the vehicle.
You may want to take a joy ride with your dog, but it's not so fun for your dog when they have car anxiety. Try to understand their perspective and take into account all the possible triggers that give them anxiety. Turn those negative views into positive ones while your dog looks at their anxiety in the rearview mirror.
If you use the treatment methods above and there's still no change, talk to your vet about whether they think it truly is anxiety. They may prescribe anti-anxiety medication or something for motion sickness instead.
Chances are good that your dog will learn to love a car ride and you end up being their personal chauffeur.
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