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Don’t Want No Stinkin’ Car Ride: A Treatment Plan for Car Sickness - By Debbie Kendrick, ABCDT and VP of ABC

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008 : 3:51:27 PM
The initial symptoms of car sickness are easy to recognize. They generally begin with extreme panting and/or an excessive amount of salivation which is often followed by gagging and vomiting. The question you as a professional dog trainer should ask yourself is, “Is it motion or anxiety that is causing the dog to react this way?”

Few dogs actually suffer from true motion sickness. True motion sickness is caused by an inner ear problem and should be treated medically as well as behaviorally. In my estimation, approximately 90% of cases labeled motion sickness are really anxiety related. Most dogs become anxious in the car because they were never properly de-sensitized to being in the car. They may also have had some negative experiences in the car. Consider that one of the first traumatic experiences a young puppy might have had to endure is a car ride to his new home leaving behind all the safety and security of his litter mates and mother. This experience alone could be enough to trigger anxiety based car sickness in some dogs.

The behavioral treatment plan below should be implemented when treating car sickness, whether it is motion based or anxiety based since both types will benefit from the therapy. If the dog does not progress at an acceptable rate, you should consider seeking the advice of a veterinarian and treating the dog for true motion sickness.

1. Don’t feed or water the dog for a minimum of several hours prior to any car ride. I would highly recommend a completely empty stomach if at all possible.

2. Transport the dog in a crate. Position the crate so the dog cannot see out the side windows. Just like people, most dogs are more likely to get sick if they see sideways motion.

3. Keep the temperature in the car cool using either the air conditioner or leaving the windows partially down. Providing adequate ventilation is a must.

4. Caution the owner about inadvertently rewarding the dog for stressed behavior by stroking or talking to the dog at any time while the dog is displaying symptoms.

5. Consider the use of non-prescription medications such as Serene-um, Pet Calm, and Rescue Remedy. I have also heard that ginger is very good for nausea so you might also check into ginger pills. Make sure to consult with your veterinarian regarding side effects, usage and dosage.

6. You might also consider the use of over-the-counter medications such as Dramamine or Benadryl. Be aware that both of these medications will make the dog very drowsy. As always, make sure to consult with your veterinarian regarding side effects, usage and dosage.

7. Talk to your veterinarian about possible prescription medications and make sure you are well educated regarding all side effects. I recently read that Pfizer Inc., the world’s biggest drug maker, won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a product called Cerenia. It has been advertised that Cerenia will be available by prescription only from veterinarians in the summer of 2007.

De-Sensitization Exercises
Determine the threshold for the onset of the symptoms of car sickness. Some dogs become anxious just walking toward the car while others are good for the first 10 minutes of the car ride. Once you have determined the threshold, begin the de-sensitization exercises. For the purpose of this article, I will assume the dog can sit in the car symptom free as long as it is not running.

1. Have the owner and dog get into the backseat of the car. Make sure the car is not running. The dog should be in a crate with limited or no sideways view of the outside. The temperature inside the car must be cool and comfortable so practice in the early morning or later afternoon if necessary. Have the owner praise the dog for showing no signs of car sickness or anxiety. They should spend a minimum of 5 minutes in the car twice a day for 3 days.

2. On the 4th day, have the owner and dog get into the backseat of the car and have someone else get into the driver’s seat. As always, the dog should be in a crate with limited or no sideways view of the outside. After about 30 seconds, instruct the person in the driver’s seat to start the car. Tell them to let it run for no more than 10 seconds for every single minute of the 5 minutes that the dog and owner are in the backseat of the car. Do this twice a day for 3 days. Make sure the owner is giving the dog lots of praise for staying calm while he is adjusting to the noise and vibrations of the car. If the dog shows any signs of anxiety at any time, the session must stop immediately. Make sure the owner knows to stop the next practice session prior to the threshold where the dog became anxious this time. For example, if the dog became anxious during the 10 seconds of the 4th minute of idling, the next day’s sessions should only last 3 minutes. Then the owner can move to 4 minutes and then 5 minutes as the dog improves. The owner should continue this exercise until their dog can sit symptom free in the idling car twice a day for 5 minutes, 3 days in a row.

At this point, the dog should be able to sit in the backseat of the idling car while the owner is now in the driver’s seat. Make sure the owner practices this as well until the dog is comfortable and is showing no signs of anxiety.

3. Once the owner and the dog have mastered step #2 above, have them go out for a very short trip down the block. Once down the block, have the owner stop the car and take the dog for an enjoyable short walk for a few minutes. After the walk, have the owner drive the dog home immediately and then play with the dog or give him a treat or possibly dinner. Many times, dogs have negative associations to car rides because they typically end with a visit to the groomers or the veterinary office. The owner needs to overcome this preconceived opinion about car rides. This step will help do that.

4. When very short trips down the block are successful, progress to trips around the entire block and then the neighborhood and so on. Try to think of fun places to take your pet, like to a dog park or a friend’s house that will openly welcome him. Remember, to move forward at a slow enough rate so as not to trigger any symptoms of anxiety. This could take weeks depending on the severity of the car sickness. If symptoms appear, slow down and advance more gradually to help ensure success.