Animals can make excellent travel buddies, but before you grab your keys and load them in the car, there are things you can do to make the ride more comfortable, safe and less distressing for animals who suffer from travel anxiety.
Travel anxiety in pets can be caused by a number of different factors. Pets can hold a negative association with car trips caused by:
- Motion sickness or another bad experience while travelling
- Falsely thinking that all car trips are leading them to the vet (or somewhere bad)
- Certain sites and sounds (car noises, traffic etc)
- Feeling unstable or insecure while in motion
Travel anxiety won’t go away by itself and it could get worse if not attended to. Medication can be helpful but is best combined with other training and behaviour techniques and it should be a last resort. With any luck, simply following a few comfort and safety tips can see your pet travelling easier.
Recognising travel anxiety in your pets
Whether you’re planning a long road trip or simply trying to get from one place to another, looking for signs of travel anxiety is important. Pet’s anxiety can range from mild discomfort to full-blown panic and an anxious pet can be an unwelcome distraction to its human driver.
Plenty of dogs and cats love getting in the car but when you think about it from an animal’s perspective, there’s lots to feel uncomfortable about. Their footing is unstable due to the car’s movement, they may lose their balance and fall, there are strange and loud noises, and they’re exposed to an overwhelming amount of stimuli!
Common signs of travel anxiety in dogs include:
- Reluctance to get in the car
- Running away from the car or cowering
- Whining, panting or barking
- Pacing or acting restless
- Excessive drooling
- Shaking or trembling
- Lip licking
- Holding their tail tight against their body
- A general inability to settle
Common signs of travel anxiety in cats include:
- Extreme vocalisation
- Fully dilated pupils or staring
- Slight panting
- Hiding in a dark place
- Holding their ears back
- “Marking” in places other than the litter box
- Hair standing up
- Holding their tail tight against their body
- Nausea or vomiting
Relieving travel anxiety in pets
When planning any journey with your pet, safety comes first. The correct animal transport options will depend on your pet’s size and age, so learn the rules before you travel to choose a suitable solution. Safety, of course, also relates to your pet’s wellbeing so here are some steps you can take to relieve travel anxiety in pets:
If your pet shows signs of anxiety when just being near your car you may need to invest the time in counter conditioning. Counter conditioning means changing the pet’s emotional response, feelings or attitude toward a stimulus (in this case, your vehicle).
Changing their attitude means getting them to understand that the stimuli that triggers them is not a threat. You could try praising them every time they are near the car or you could play a fun game of tug-of-war next to the car, gradually getting closer. You may need to do this for several weeks to get them used to it.
From here you can build on their confidence by opening up a car door and then finding ways to entice them inside without pressure. The car is an interesting new place, so naturally they will be curious about what’s inside. When they are in the car, give them lots of praise and comfort. Practice this until your pet is confident to jump in and out and not in any rush to escape.
If your pet appears skittish when the car is turned on it could be that they have negative associations with travel. This could be based on past trips to the vet or boarding kennel and it may require you to do some desensitizing to get them feeling positive about being on the road.
When your car is in the driveway, put your pet in the car and give them praise and a couple of treats. Then take them out again. Start with the car parked and turned off. Make sure the surrounding environment is familiar, calm and quiet to mitigate any stress. Sit with your pet in the area where you plan to have them ride (eg. next to your travel restraint set up). After a few sessions you can mix things up by moving yourself to behind the wheel while your pet remains where they are. Pass treats back and praise them when they are calm. You can then try turning the ignition on and finally a trip around the block, praising whenever you’re stationary.
The length of drive can play a part in your pet’s anxiety so start small with a few short trips. Drive around the block on day one and then take in a few local streets. Increase the time spent in the car slowly and pay attention to signs of distress. If your pet begins to get restless, turn around and head back, ready to try again.
Making it fun
Embarking on a destination your pet loves to visit is a great way to teach your pet that car trips can be fun. Meet another dog for a play date. Go for a walk on the beach. Throw a ball at the park or visit a designated dog park and let them run with others. The more fun you make your trips the more they’ll want to jump in the car.
To reduce the risk of injury to your pet and any distraction from driving, it’s important – not to mention a legal requirement – to keep your pet restrained while driving in your car. Dogs should be restrained either with a dog seatbelt or safety harness, preferably in the back seat and away from air bags. A cat or small dog can be placed in a crate but the carrier should be big enough for them to comfortably lie down and rest. To get your pet used to a carrier, bring it out a few days before your planned trip. Keep the door open and use treats to entice your pet to enjoy the carrier by themselves. Mix up what you put in the carrier each day to keep it interesting and intriguing.
Adequate air flow
Making sure your pet gets enough air flow will work wonders for their anxiety levels and it will also keep them safe. Keep the air con on to stop your pet from becoming too hot and never leave your pet unattended in the car due to the risk of death from heat stress. This is true even in the mildest of weather.
Pets can easily become bored during a long car ride and this will feed their anxiety. To stop them from getting bored, you can introduce interactive toys to keep them busy. Chew toys can also be effective and they have the added bonus of acting as a teeth and gum cleaner. Just be sure to choose toys that aren’t noisy and distracting for the driver.
Staying away from windows
We all love those images of a dog happily hanging its head out the window with the wind in its hair and a smile on his face. For a dog who isn’t quite used to car travel, however, seeing everything whizz past at a fast speed can be an anxiety-inducing experience. For a dog who suffers from motion sickness it can be an even worse experience, so try to keep your pooch away from the windows.
For pets who suffer from motion sickness, there are things you can do to settle their tummy. Keep the temperature cool in the car and lower the windows for fresh air. Limit your pet’s food and water a couple of hours before the trip, spray pheromones in the car, and consult your vet about motion sickness medication.
Staying hydrated is important and you should always carry a no-spill travel bowl and water for when you rest. Stop regularly and go for a short walk with your pet restrained on a leash. Cats that are in a carrier can be brought outside for a change of scenery but be aware that they can be escape artists.
Pack a travel kit
If you’re taking your pet on holiday with you your pet requires its own bag too. This can be filled with treats, toys, bottled water, poo bags and bowls to use as you travel. Make sure you have your dog’s leash and harness within easy reach for when you pull up for toilet breaks. If you’re taking your cat you may want to pack a disposable litter box.
Pet-friendly apps can be your perfect accompaniment to a pet-friendly holiday. They can provide tips and tricks for keeping your pet safe and happy and can tell you things like where the nearest dog-friendly park is. You can also find pet-friendly accommodation and cafes and log things such as your pet’s microchip details.
If you’re particularly concerned about your pet’s anxious behaviour, talk to your vet about medications. Some pet owners have reported success with artificial pheromone products and Benzodiazepine medication. Never give a pet human medication without consulting your vet.
Relieving your stress about pet anxiety
It’s easy to get frustrated when your pet performs a bad behaviour. Urinating in the car, excess barking or scratching at the seat are not things to get mad about, however. You should never scold or discipline your pet for showing anxious behaviour. This will only create more stress and fear.
Keep in mind your pet doesn’t refuse to hop in the car or crate to spite you or show defiance. Your pet simply needs to be taught to act in a way that pleases you because making you happy is what makes them happy. THe best way to teach your pet is through positive reinforcement.
Name: Jacqueline Coombe
Email: [email protected]
Author’s Bio: Jacqueline Coombe has been a prolific reader since childhood, and now channels her love of the written word into writing content on a range of topics from business, marketing and finance to travel and lifestyle. Jacqueline is also a Principal Consultant specialising in Search + Content Marketing at international digital marketing agency Webprofits.