Motion sickness is defined as the observable discomfort felt by some companion animals (and some people) during transportation on land (by car, bus, train), in air (by airplane) or on sea (by boat, ship, raft). This is a fairly common problem in domestic dogs.
Causes of Motion Sickness
Motion sickness is caused by irregular and unfamiliar motion that disturbs the dog's organs and sensory pathways of balance. Receptors located in a part of the inner ear called the "vestibular apparatus" normally help an animal process its body position, balance and movements. When stimulated, those receptors relay signals via the 8th cranial nerve to particular areas of the brain - in particular, to an area called the "chemoreceptor trigger zone," or CRTZ. The CRTZ is one of the areas that control the vomiting reflex. When a dog is riding in a car or other vehicle and is not familiar or comfortable with the sensation of traveling, this pathway is triggered and over-stimulated, causing the dog to develop what we know as motion sickness, or "car sickness." Some dogs develop motion sickness simply upon the sight of a vehicle, or when they are inside a vehicle even though it is still stationary. This form of motion sickness is probably triggered by fear, based either upon unfamiliarity with vehicles or more likely upon prior unpleasant travel experiences.
Prevention of Motion Sickness
Frequently, motion sickness can be prevented by conditioning the dog to travel. Dogs affected by motion sickness may benefit by some or all of the following conditioning concepts and techniques:
Don't feed a large meal just before traveling, as that meal may reappear inside of the transportation vehicle shortly after the trip begins. However, it can be helpful to feed the dog a small, bland meal before traveling so that his stomach has something in it to absorb gastric juices.
Take very short trips when first conditioning a dog to travel. Start with just sitting in the car with the dog. The next time, take a short trip around the block, then maybe to the local convenience store or gas station. Very gradually, increase the length of the car ride, as the dog builds up tolerance and seems more comfortable.
Allow the dog to see outside the vehicle during travel; in other words, let it look out the window. This has been shown to help alleviate the discomfort of motion sickness in both dogs and people. A dog confined in a plastic crate inside a car cannot really see the outside world. Under those conditions, the dog's internal sensory balance pathways cannot adjust to the motion of the car and tend to become over-stimulated.
Provide enough room for the dog to lie down, sit, stand up and turn around. This makes it easier for the dog to maintain its balance and to stabilize stimulation of the vestibular apparatus.
Keep the vehicle cool and well ventilated.
Provide short "walkie" breaks every so often during a long trip, so that the dog has an opportunity to get away from the motion of the vehicle fairly regularly. In people, we call this "getting your land legs back."
A number of other desensitization and conditioning techniques may help dogs with motion sickness – either as aids to prevention or as "treatments" after the fact. Some techniques that may be appropriate, in addition to medical treatment and managed behavior modification, might include massage therapy to reduce anxiety and stress; possible application of acupressure techniques; use of herbal or other non-regulated supplements or "remedies"; or other forms of supportive care which might help to promote relaxation, calmness, confidence and comfort. Some of these adjunct approaches lack controlled studies of their effectiveness and may not have established quality control methods or ways to assess their benefit to dogs prone to motion sickness. However, when a dog is gently, kindly and consistently desensitized to travel, and when it learns to associate travel with positive feelings and outcomes, that dog can quickly become a calm and enthusiastic travel companion. While the details of conditioning approaches are beyond the scope of this article, veterinarians and referral behavioral professionals can discuss them with owners in much more detail. What owners of dogs with motion sickness should know is that help is available.
If necessary, certain medications can also be useful to prevent motion sickness in dogs. Currently, these include a class of anti-nausea drugs referred to as phenothiazine antiemetics. These prescription medications have anti-nausea and sedative effects, both of which can be helpful to prevent the effects of motion sickness. Antihistamines are another class of drugs that can be used with good results to prevent motion sickness in dogs. They provide mild sedation and also help reduce drooling. The attending veterinarian probably will want to assess the dog's general health before prescribing phenothiazine derivatives or prescription anthihistamines, and before recommending an appropriate dosage for over-the-counter antihistamine medications.
Most young dogs that initially develop motion sickness during car rides eventually grow out of it. Many if not most well-socialized companion dogs enjoy going out and about with their owners, especially if it routinely is a thoroughly positive experience. If a dog associates care rides with unpleasant experiences (going to the veterinarian, getting an injection, being restrained by unfamiliar people, having its owner "abandon" it), it is highly likely that the dog will resent car travel and will try to avoid it at all costs, whether or not motion sickness is involved.
There obviously are times when owners need to transport their dogs - whether to the veterinarian, the dog park, doggy daycare, obedience classes, boarding facilities, dog shows or other places away from the home. With the dramatic increase in the number of dog-friendly hotels, parks, beaches, campgrounds and other vacation spots, more and more people are taking their dogs with them when they travel. Whether traveling by car, train, boat or airplane, dogs - like humans - can experience motion sickness.
Symptoms of Motion Sickness in Dogs
In some cases, the symptoms of motion sickness are brought on by anxiety or fear even before the vehicle moves, especially if the dog is not used to traveling. Other times, motion sickness is caused only during motion, when the vestibular apparatus within the dog's inner ear is over-stimulated. When traveling with their dogs, it is important for owners to recognize the signs of motion sickness so that they can take steps to prevent or treat them, depending on the circumstances.
The symptoms of motion sickness in domestic dogs are very similar to those in people. They can include all or any of the following:
Excessive drooling (hypersalivation)
Inappropriate vocalization (whining, crying, yelping)
Signs of uneasiness or uncertainty
Signs of dizziness
Diarrhea (loose/soft stool; inappropriate elimination in the vehicle)
The symptoms of motion sickness typically go away shortly after the vehicle stops moving. If a dog's symptoms are extreme or do not improve after movement has ceased, the owner might consider consulting with a veterinarian about sedatives, anti-nausea drugs, or other potential solutions for the dog's next travel adventure.
Dogs At Increased Risk
There is no breed, gender or sex predisposition to developing motion sickness. However, it seems to be much more common in puppies and younger dogs that have little experience traveling. Many puppies become nauseous and vomit on their first car ride home. New owners should not be overly concerned about this, as it is a completely normal reaction.
Motion sickness in our canine companions is fairly common, especially in young dogs or other dogs that have spent little or no time traveling. It is easy to diagnose motion sickness based on history and clinical signs. However, other possible causes of the dog's symptoms must also be considered.
How Motion Sickness is Diagnosed
Motion sickness is usually obvious. A typical scenario is when the owner takes her dog on a car ride for one of the first times (bringing it home from the breeder, first trip to the veterinarian for puppy shots or a routine wellness examination, puppy kindergarten, etc.), and her dog becomes nauseous and vomits in the car. Once the motion of the vehicle stops, the dog quickly returns to normal. If the symptoms of motion sickness only happen when the dog is in the vehicle – whether it is stationary or moving – motion sickness is the presumptive diagnosis.
However, if a dog does not eventually adapt to travel, or if the symptoms do not resolve shortly after the dog gets out of the vehicle, there may be something more serious going on. In those cases, a trip to the veterinarian might be appropriate. Owners might consider contacting the clinic right before leaving for the appointment, so that the veterinarian or one of his technicians can be ready to observe the dog as he arrives in the clinic's parking lot. The information from this real-time observation can be invaluable to the veterinarian in coming up with an appropriate diagnostic plan, if one is needed. It may be that by seeing how the dog acts in the car and for a short time thereafter, the veterinarian will be able to conclude that motion sickness was the cause of its discomfort.
If further assessment is required, the veterinarian will take a complete history from the owner about the dog's symptoms and will perform a physical examination. Depending upon the information obtained from those assessments, he may recommend further testing, including blood work and a urinalysis to evaluate the dog's overall health. If motion sickness is the cause of the dog's condition, advanced testing is typically unnecessary.
Most dogs with motion sickness quickly adjust to and ultimately enjoy travel, especially by car with their owner present. If discomfort persists, a veterinarian can recommend and/or prescribe a number of medications that can prevent nausea and provide mild sedation to calm a stressed dog during travel. There also are a number of non-medical preventive techniques that owners can try.
Successful resolution of motion sickness often requires a combination of pre-travel conditioning and administration of medication. Each dog is unique, and its primary care veterinarian is the best person to assess which of the possible strategies will be best. There may be underlying medical conditions that contribute to a dog's discomfort during travel or that might affect the choice of medication. When an owner suspects that her dog is having motion sickness, she should discuss the situation with her veterinarian. There are a number of preventative measures that can help to reduce the incidence of motion sickness. However, some of our canine companions just weren't meant to travel, and no matter how hard we try to prevent it they may still experience motion sickness. In those cases, the condition usually needs to be managed through medication.
The best way to "treat" motion sickness is to prevent motion sickness from happening in the first place. A number of conditioning techniques have been used to desensitize dogs to traveling and to make them calmer and more relaxed overall.
The most effective medications to treat motion sickness in dogs are antihistamines and anti-nausea drugs. Antihistamines are most effective where the motion sickness seems to be caused by extreme anxiety and/or fear of travel; these drugs usually calm the dog, reduce anxiety, promote tranquility and provide mild sedation. They also can reduce excessive drooling. Antihistamines are short-acting and have limited side effects.
Anti-nausea medications, especially those which contain phenothiazine, are most effective where the dog develops motion sickness as a result of the physical motion itself. Many of these dogs love to travel, but they just cannot "stomach" the motion of the vehicle. Phenothiazine derivatives provide sedation and reduce or prevent nausea and vomiting. These drugs are longer lasting than antihistamines, but they can cause more side effects, such as confusion and possibly aggression. Stronger sedative drugs, such as phenobarbital or valium, are generally reserved for severe cases of motion sickness in dogs traveling for extended periods of time. These are not used frequently to treat motion sickness in dogs. Each of these medications can have side effects, and they will only last for a certain period of time. Owners will need to talk to their veterinarian about what protocol would best for their dog given their particular travel circumstances.
The prognosis for dogs with motion sickness is excellent. Most dogs that experience motion sickness naturally acclimate to travel within a short period of time, especially if they are conditioned to it slowly but regularly. Most dogs adore going on car rides with their owners, once the initial "jitters" about travel are resolved and they begin to associate travel with pleasure. The prognosis is also very good in those uncommon cases where dogs do not adjust to travel naturally, because there are a number of medical and non-medical techniques that have an excellent track record for managing this condition.