Treat the Cause

Dogs who whine, pace, bark at the windows, and jump on their owners during car rides cause significant distress and potential safety issues. Our clients want that behavior to end. It’s our job to determine the cause first so we can advise them on the right treatment. Tranquilizers like acepromazine won’t cut it.

Motion sickness, more common in puppies, triggers nausea and hypersalivation, often with long strings of drool dripping from their lips. Neurologic messages from the vestibular apparatus in the inner ear conflict with ocular inputs causing misery. Camped-out on the floor of the car a queasy dog may vomit or even pass diarrhea, making an otherwise unhappy road trip downright revolting for the entire family.

Over-the-counter meclizine (Dramamine II, Bonine), given about 30-60 minutes prior to travel, can save the day. Give 12.5–25 mg per dog PO q24h and 2.5 mg per cat PO q24h. Withholding a meal prior to travel will minimize the risk of vomiting. Diplomatically advising your client not to drive like a maniac is sure to be appreciated by their nauseas pet.

Some dogs are simply anxious about the vibration and unnatural movement of the car. As-needed administration of the oral-transmucosal anxiolytic Sileo can help these freaked-out dogs relax until the weirdness ends. Approved for noise phobias there is consistent anecdotal support for Sileo in this application. It’s best given between the lower lip and gum about 20-30 minutes prior to travel. This safe treatment (dexmedetomidine) can be repeated every 2 hours.

Trazodone (dogs: 1-5 mg/kg; cats: 50 mg/cat) can be beneficial for travel anxiety especially if it is started the evening prior to the trip and repeated 2 hours before travel. Alprazolam, lorazepam, and diazepam have been used effectively but duration of action is often 3-4 hours. Benzodiazepines like these can be prone to cause paradoxical excitation.

And then there are dogs who get highly agitated just seeing so many interesting people, creatures, and vehicles that absolutely must be investigated and chased, zipping past the windows. Dogs who watch with growing fascination as the car gathers speed can instead ride in a covered crate in the rear of the car. Being unable to see the overwhelming stimuli will eliminate the frustration from the window (artificial barrier) that prevents a dog from literally jumping out and hitting the road. Collapsible fabric crates with windows that zip work well.

Finally, pheromones like Adaptil for dogs and Feliway Classic for cats have been valuable. The plug-in diffusers can be used with a 12 volt adapter in the cigarette lighter of the car. These products alone would be unlikely to make a significant difference in a pet’s anxiety but they can be a useful adjunct to pharmacologic agents plus good management.

I hope this information is helpful to you, your clients, and their pets.

All the best,
Jeff Nichol, DVM, IAABC
Residency trained by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Centers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe

I invite you to peruse and use any of the information from this and past nmvetlist missives. You will find the entire archive on the For Veterinarians page of my website, drjeffnichol.com/