Motion Sickness in Dogs

By: DogTrekker Staff
car sick
TK unhappy in the car – Photo Casey Robbins

Melissa Robinett, DVM
Bel Marin Animal Hospital, Novato, CA

The car is packed and everyone’s excited to finally be on the road. Now you’re 15 minutes down the highway and your dog is drooling, panting, acting anxious and ooops! He just vomited in the back seat. What’s the deal?

Motion sickness may be to blame. There are, of course, oodles of reasons why your dog might get sick. True motion sickness is just that: drooling (that signals nausea) and vomiting when the car is in motion. 

Motion sickness is still a bit mysterious as to its definitive cause, but most agree it is triggered by the vestibular system, which is located in the inner ear. In people, it is thought that the eyes may tell the brain the body is not moving while the inner ear tells the brain that the body is, in fact, in motion. 

The conflicting input from those two senses is thought to incite a vomiting response. Whatever the cause, motion sickness can lead to your best friend being left behind more often or worse, never getting to travel with you at all. Puppies are particularly sensitive to this condition, so it is important to work with them in the car early on.   

Devote some time to playing and treating your pup in the car without it even being turned on. Progress to starting the car, driving short distances at first. Reward calm, non-anxious behavior and strive to end the sessions before any drooling or vomiting occurs.  Gradually lengthen time and distance of the trips.

If your newly adopted adult dog comes to you with preexisting symptoms of motion sickness, you can also try this desensitization-type behavior modification, but it may be a long process. You must also factor in that your adult dog may have developed anxiety in the car for other reasons, like only ending up at a place he perceives as frightening, such as a groomer, kennel, or veterinarian’s office. A behavior consult with your vet or a trainer may help you decide why your dog gets sick in the car.

If it is determined that your dog is suffering from true motion sickness, there are safe pharmaceutical options to treat it.  One class of drugs that has historically been relied on for relief is the antihistamines. Common motion sickness drugs, such Dramamine® and  Benadryl®, belong to this class. 

A relatively new drug, Maropitant (Cerenia®), acts on the emetic chemotrigger zone in the brain to prevent vomiting. It is more expensive than the antihistamines but is very effective. This newer drug has the added benefit of absence of sedation that may occur with other drugs used to treat this condition.

Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, acupressure and herbal remedies such as ginger, chamomile, peppermint and lemon balm have been tried in people with modest success. So far the alternative therapies have been disappointing in preventing motion sickness in canines. Also, we don’t know how to get a placebo effect in a dog!

Talk to your veterinarian about any contraindications to using medications for motion sickness as well as appropriate dosages for the size of your dog. Motion sickness is treatable and your dog will thank you for helping him overcome it!