Everything You Need To Know About Dog Car Anxiety
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Does your dog suddenly start panting and shaking once he realizes you’re taking him in the car?
Dogs with car anxiety have a fear of going for a drive, and it’s actually pretty common. These dogs usually need to be treated with medication and special training known as desensitization and counterconditioning before they become comfortable with riding in a car.
The Dodo spoke with several experts to find out more about the symptoms of car anxiety and its treatment, including how to keep your dog calm in the car, so you and your pup can finally hit the road!
What is dog car anxiety?
Car anxiety is when your dog shows signs of agitation and distress while riding in a moving vehicle.
“Most dogs love a trip in the car as this usually leads to exciting places, like a walk, friends or doggy daycare,” Dr. Jonathan Roberts, a veterinarian from Doggie Designer, told The Dodo. “However, some dogs, especially puppies or dogs new to the experience, might suffer with anxiety while traveling in a car.”
Dog car anxiety symptoms
Dog car anxiety symptoms include both behavioral and physical signs, like:
- Resisting entry to the car
- Looking for a way out
- Salivating and licking of the lips
- Licking his paws
- Trembling or shivering
- Vocalizing (like barking, whining or whimpering)
- Inappropriate urination or defecation
Dog car anxiety vs. motion sickness
The symptoms of dog car anxiety and motion sickness can be pretty similar, and a lot of the time, motion sickness can actually cause car anxiety. However, they’re different in the sense that car anxiety is generally a behavioral illness, and motion sickness is generally a physiological illness.
In other words, car anxiety happens when your dog has a mental fear of car travel (which can cause physical symptoms), while motion sickness happens when your dog’s body actually has a physical response to car travel.
“Vomiting can be associated with anxiety or motion sickness,” Dr. Ellen M. Lindell, a veterinary behaviorist and owner of Veterinary Behavior Consultations in Connecticut, told The Dodo. “Once a dog has become ill in the car, there can be anxiety in anticipation of feeling poorly, and differentiating the two can be tricky. In reality, there is not always a true line between physical and behavioral illness.’”
Ultimately, your veterinarian can help you figure out if your dog is struggling with car anxiety, motion sickness or both.
“Sometimes response to treatment can help with the diagnosis,” Dr. Lindell said. “If a dog responds perfectly to a medication to treat nausea, then it is likely that the behavior is largely related to motion sickness.”
What causes car anxiety?
Your dog might be anxious to ride in the car for a few different reasons, with motion sickness being the most common.
“Just like humans, dogs are susceptible to motion sickness, and this is the number one cause of car-related anxiety,” Dr. Roberts said. “Car anxiety is a double-edged sword — when a dog starts to feel nauseous from motion sickness, this increases their anxiety, which then worsens nausea, and on and on it goes.”
Your dog might also be anxious of car rides if he’s just fearful in general. “Other causes include fear related to being confined in a small space, fear of the unknown, fear of the noises your vehicle or traffic makes and feeling unstable or off-balance while in motion.”
Additionally, if you only take your dog to destinations that he doesn’t like, like the vet, he can “develop an association with the car and the ‘nasty place,’” Dr. Roberts said, which can definitely trigger symptoms of anxiety.
Treatment for dog car anxiety
If you suspect that your dog has car anxiety, and he shows some of the symptoms listed above, you should take him to the vet for a diagnosis and a treatment plan, which can include a combination of medication and behavioral modification (aka training — more on that below).
Car anxiety medications for dogs
“Often, car anxiety is treated with medications that reduce nausea and medications that reduce anxiety,” Dr. Lindell said.
Dr. Roberts suggests that your vet might start with a medication to treat motion sickness to see if that stops the symptoms.
“Anti-nausea and motion sickness medications are a good place to start when first treating this type of anxiety,” Dr. Roberts said. “Often, by controlling the motion sickness and nausea, you prevent the anxiety from starting.”
If your dog still has symptoms, your vet may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication. And if that doesn’t work, “sedatives are next in line,” Dr. Roberts said.
Sedatives reduce your dog’s level of awareness of what’s going on around him and can make your dog sleepy, both of which will help him relax on a car ride.
If your dog suffers from generalized anxiety, and he’s afraid of more than just car rides, your vet might recommend chronic behavior modification drugs, like antidepressants. “Just like in anxious humans, dogs can benefit from certain antidepressant drugs that help to increase serotonin levels in the brain and control anxiety-related behavior over the long term,” Dr. Roberts said.
Keep in mind that you can only get these medications with a prescription from your veterinarian.
Dog car anxiety training
Training your dog can also be super effective at reducing his anxious symptoms, and is often included in a vet’s treatment plan for dog car anxiety.
“Anxiety can be treated by using behavior modification such as desensitization and counterconditioning,” Dr. Lindell said.
Desensitization “means introducing the trigger at a low enough intensity that there is no sign of anxiety,” Dr. Lindell said. (In other words, helping him get used to the car without actually going for a drive.)
“Counterconditioning refers to retraining your dog’s brain to associate the car with pleasure rather than fear,” Dr. Roberts said, which means bring some toys, treats and even his favorite blanket along for the ride so he can associate the car with positive things.
The first step of desensitization is simply hanging out in the car with your dog, engine off. “Start by just placing your dog into the car for a few minutes, but don’t actually drive anywhere,” Dr. Roberts said.
Once you do this a couple of times, you’ll probably notice your dog becoming less stressed out by the experience. Then you can try turning the car on the next time to see his reaction. If he seems comfortable, you can start by taking him on very short drives.
“Behavior treatment often begins by sitting in a quiet car, then gradually building up to taking short, smooth trips and, finally, longer trips,” Dr. Lindell said.
During dog car anxiety training, choose car routes that lead to fun destinations for your pup, like the dog park instead of the vet. This will help get him more excited to go for car rides instead of dreading it.
“Start by taking the dog on very short trips to destinations that are very pleasant for the dog,” Dr. Lindell said.
It’s going to take some time before your dog enjoys being in the car, so the key is to be patient during training. “Don’t give up too quickly,” Dr. Roberts said. “Puppies learn to adapt quickly, but even older dogs will slowly learn to love or hopefully just tolerate the car.”
If your dog’s still anxious despite your best efforts (or you just want to leave the task to the professionals), you can also contact a behavior specialist or trainer to help with the behavioral modification process (or your vet can give you a reference).
How to keep your dog calm in the car
In addition to your vet’s treatment plan for your dog’s car anxiety, there are some tips you can try to make the drive more comfortable for your dog and to help keep him calm.
Don’t travel with a full stomach
According to Dr. Lindell, you should avoid feeding your dog before getting in the car, especially if he has a history of throwing up on car rides.
“Most dogs do better when they do not have a meal prior to travel,” Dr. Lindell said. “Wait several hours after a large meal before driving.”
Secure your dog in the car
Also, make sure you’re practicing dog car safety and that your dog is restrained in the car, which can actually help to reduce his travel anxiety. “Dogs that feel more physically secure in the car will be less anxious,” Dr. Roberts said.
You can use a dog car seat, a dog crate (if your dog can comfortably sit inside of one) that’s secured in the car or a car harness. “All of these will help them keep their footing, and they will not feel so off-balance,” Dr. Roberts said.
Try calming supplements
You can also add over-the-counter calming supplements to your dog’s diet to help keep him calm and potentially reduce his car anxiety.
To find the best calming supplements, “look for supplements containing L-theanine ([like] Anxitane), L-tryptophan and/or milk protein hydrolysates (like Zylkene),” Dr. Roberts said. “These are great natural products that help to ‘take the edge off.’”
You might have to wait some time for the supplements to start working, though. “Depending on the supplement used, it may take up to six weeks to see the full effect,” Dr. Michelle Burch, a veterinarian from Safe Hounds Pet Insurance, told The Dodo.
Try pheromone products
Pheromone products like collars and sprays can help dogs feel more comfortable in their environment. “These products contain DAP, dog-appeasing pheromone,” Dr. Roberts said. “This is the same pheromone released by the female dog when puppies are suckling.”
Dr. Robert recommends pheromone products from Adaptil.
Try a compression jacket
Compression jackets are a great way to keep your dog calm, especially when you’re on the go.
Compression jackets or wraps are “snug-fitting jackets or wraps that mimic a warm embrace,” Dr. Roberts said, which can help to keep dogs calm during times of stress.
Play calming music for dogs
Playing calming music, like classical or soft rock, can actually chill your dog out, which might help reduce his anxious symptoms.
“Play calm music in the car,” Dr. Roberts said. “This will help to dull out the engine and outside noise and may help your pooch remain calm.”
“I recommend purchasing the ‘Through a Dog's Ear’ album, which uses scientifically proven songs to induce calmness,” Dr. Burch said. “The songs are bioacoustic compositions that are specifically designed to appeal to your dog's sense of hearing.”
Car rides should be super fun for dogs, so it can be upsetting when your pup struggles with them. But luckily, with a treatment plan from your vet and a few adjustments to your normal car ride routine, your dog can beat car anxiety, and you and your pup can finally take a stress-free ride together.
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