Car sickness / nervousness


In-Car Sickness/ Nervousness

Causes & Symptoms

Behaviourists believe that car sickness in dogs is predominantly stress related and not motion related. Anxiety, most often caused by the trauma experienced by a puppy when it was taken away from all that to him was safe and familiar, may be a major cause of this condition.  He is suddenly taken away from his mother and litter mates and is confined in a car with new smells, noise, unfamiliar people and strange movements. Many pups become so distressed during this first car trip that they are often physically ill before they arrive at their new homes. 

Typical behaviours of a dog that has a car phobia* are calming signals (licking of the lips, yawning, panting or sitting/lying down) as you attempt to bring the dog near to the car and restlessness and whining once he/she is inside the car. Dogs that are severely affected may drool, vomit and even release their bowls when inside a moving vehicle.

It is important that owners understand that dogs who suffer from this type of car related nervousness have no control over it. Punishing a dog for its behaviour or for making a mess in the car will only make matters worse. However, soothing and fussing over the dog is also not a good idea as the dog may interpret this as a sign that there really is something to be worried about.

What not to do!

Instead of discussing car nervousness problems with an animal behaviourist, some owners will often first try to solve the problem by forcing the dog to submit to their will. They will either drag the dog into the car or physically pick it up and place it in the car. In the process the dog may be physically hurt and will end up feeling trapped and even more afraid.  When dogs feel trapped they often resort to biting as a means of defence.

A further common mistake is often made when the only time a puppy is taken for a ride is when he is taken to the vet for his shots and checkups or to the grooming parlour for baths, blow drying and general plucking and manhandling by strangers. He soon learns to associate car trips with these visits and to detest riding in the car.

Desensitizing a dog to the car

Once a dog has been aroused to a state of anxiety it is not able to learn anything. In order to train the dog to willingly enter the car one has to re-introduce the car in a manner that does not cause this anxiety. This process of slowly getting an animal used to something is called desensitization. It can be divided into the following steps:

Toss/place a tasty treat or favourite toy on the ground at a distance from the car where no fear reaction is usually exhibited by the dog.

Gradually toss the treats nearer to the car to get the dog to voluntarily move closer to it.

Open the car doors and repeat steps one and two.

Once the dog is happily and confidently walking around the car to retrieve treats off the ground, toss a treat just inside the car so that the dog just has to stick its head in to retrieve the treat.

Once the dog is happy to do this, toss a treat farther into the car so that the dog is required to climb in to get it. Allow the dog to get out immediately again if it wants to.

Once the dog is enthusiastically jumping in and out the car, you can begin to close the doors and make the dog wait for a few seconds before you let him out. At this stage it is a good idea to get into the car with the dog, as you would if you were going out. Slowly extend the time the dog is kept in the car until he can happily sit for 5 minutes without showing signs of distress. It is a good idea to keep the windows as far open as possible at this stage and to give the dog a stuffed Kong or other tasty chew to keep it occupied.

Once the dog is able to comfortably sit in a stationary car, it is time to switch on the engine. Leave it on for only a few seconds and then switch it off again. Slowly increase the time that you leave it on for.

Begin your first trip by driving round the block for no more than two minutes. Slowly increase these trips until you can make it to the beach or to another place where your dog can get out and have fun! Once the dog realizes that car trips lead to fun outings he/she should be happy to ride in the car.

NB: All the steps above must be taken at a pace that is suitable for the individual dog. Some dogs may get through all the steps in one day, but others with severe phobias may only be able to cope with steps one and two in their first session. If a dog shows signs of anxiety at any stage, STOP IMMEDIATELY and go back to the previous, easier step before ending the session with the dog in a positive frame of mind.


Quanto’s first trip in the car was spent on a comfortable lap and within half an hour of leaving his mommy he was fast asleep! He has loved car rides ever since. However,
if the first encounter with a car is not handled properly, it can create lasting, negative associations. Car sickness can therefore best be prevented by getting puppies used to the family car while they are still very small and more receptive to new adventures. Begin by having someone hold the pup in the back of the car or place him in his crate if no one is available. Go for short trips around the block and no further. Talk to the pup in a happy voice so that he can focus on you and not the motion of the car. Be sure to take corners slowly so that he is not thrown about. (I’ll never forget taking young Bosun for a ride in the back of my brand new Kamper and as I rounded the fast bend he sank his sharp puppy teeth into the seat to steady himself.) When back at home, stop and reward him inside the car for being such a good boy during the ride. Repeat this process for a few days. When the pup begins to relax, the trips can gradually be lengthened. Soon short stops can be introduced when you leave the car for a very short while and reward the pup with a very tasty treat when you return. When he is happy to stay alone in the car for a short while, it is time to take him to the vet. Fortunately these days, veterinarians and their staff are very good at spoiling puppies with treats on their regular visits. With special treats administered by the vet, the puppy can be taught not to fear the kind veterinarian and to focus on his treats and not the injection. Killick, was the only one of my dogs that did not really enjoy being in the car. As a pup he contracted Distemper and the regular visits to the vet certainly had a negative effect on him.  

Tips for dogs that become physically ill in the car:

If the dog has been sick in the car then try and determine how long it was before he showed typical signs of car sickness such as drooling and swallowing down vomit. If he was fine for say 10 minutes then, instead of walking him to a park or playing field that you can reach within that time frame, drive him there! While at the park, play the usual games that he loves to play and make it so enjoyable that he will look forward to being driven there again. On the way back you should make a big fuss of him and end with tasty treats.

Do not feed the dog for at least six hours before a trip. Having an empty stomach will make him less likely to throw up. If he does, there will not be food in the vomit and it will be easier to clean up. However, while some dogs travel well on an empty stomach, others feel more comfortable on a small meal. Owners need to establish what works best for their dogs in this regard. Water will not upset his stomach and may make him feel more comfortable.

Watch your dog for signs of nausea (hanging the head and drooling). Stop before it is too late. Switch off the car and offer the dog some water. If he is not distressed by getting in and out of the car allow him outside for a breath of fresh air.

Drive as carefully with a carsick dog as you would with a carsick child. This applies particularly when going around bends.

Pets, like people, are less likely to get carsick if they are allowed to watch the passing scenery. Position the dog in such a way that he can be comfortable looking out of a window.

Fresh air is good for anyone that is feeling carsick. Wind the window down just enough for the dog to put his nose outside.

Try using Rescue Remedy.  This is a Bach Flower Remedy.  It tends to calm down an animal but doesn’t make them dopey like drugs do.  Give about 4 drops in the mouth or ears about 10-12 hours before starting the trip, repeating every four hours or as needed.

Try giving a little raw honey before the car trip.  It tends to calm the tummy.  Repeat as necessary.  (If your dog has a heart problem, however, do not give honey, as it tends to make the body retain fluid, which is not good in the case of heart patients).

Ginger is one of the best herbs for nausea. Ginger Snap cookies may help to settle the stomach.

For longer trips (over an hour) consult with your vet for the possible administration of tranquilizers to help control nervousness or a drug that is known to ward off car sickness. The age and the size of the dog need to be taken into account when medication is involved.

Some dogs genuinely suffer from motion sickness and/or a balance problem. They should only be moved in a car if it is really necessary and then with medication supplied by a veterinarian.

*A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, defined by a persistent and excessive fear of an object or situation. The phobia typically results in a rapid onset of fear and is present for more than six months. The affected person /dog go to great lengths to avoid the situation or object, to a degree greater than the actual danger posed. If the feared object or situation.