Motion Sickness in Cats

By Ernest Ward, DVM

Medical Conditions, Pet Services

My cat gets sick when we travel. What causes this?

cat---tabby-in-bagMotion sickness in cats is a common problem. Unlike many dogs that can be “trained” to comfortably ride in cars, cats prove much more challenging to overcome their anxiety.

Most motion sickness cases in cats are caused primarily by the stress and anxiety associated with travel. Cats that travel only once or twice a year (typically when visiting the veterinarian) aren’t used to car rides and often associate the car ride with the stressful experience that follows. This reaction can result in motion sickness.

How can I tell if my cat is getting motion sickness?

Nauseous humans often “turn green” or pale when they feel an upset stomach approaching. Signs your cat may be experiencing motion sickness include:

•             Excessive vocalization (loud meowing or howling)

•             Pacing and restlessness

•             Excessive drooling

•             Lethargy or inactivity

•             Vomiting

•             Diarrhea

How can I prevent motion sickness in my cat?

Desensitizing or counter-conditioning cats to car travel may take some work, but it can be accomplished. Helping your cat overcome the stress and anxiety of travel will mean that your cat can accompany you on trips more frequently and will allow you to spend more time together.

Desensitizing or counter-conditioning cats to car travel may take some work, but it can be accomplished.

The first step in reducing your cat’s stress and anxiety associated with car travel is to make it more comfortablecat---in-carrier in its carrier. Start by teaching your cat that the carrier is a “safe place” in your home. This can be done by offering food and treats in the carrier. You can also place the carrier in your cat’s favorite sleeping area with its preferred bedding. Placing the carrier on the cat’s favorite chair or even bed can help your cat become more comfortable with going in and around the carrier. Using Feliway (a feline facial hormone) inside the carrier before travel or training can also reduce stress.

Offering special toys that your cat only associates with the carrier is another great way to make your pet more comfortable when travelling. The distraction of an interesting toy combined with feline facial hormone can help many cats during travel.

The best method for easing your cat’s travel anxiety is by taking several short trips before embarking on a long haul. Once your cat is comfortable inside the carrier in your home, it’s time to take it to the car. Start by simply placing your cat in its carrier inside your car, starting the motor, and sitting there without moving for a few minutes. The next day, repeat this process, but back out of your driveway and then return. Be sure to praise your cat and offer a food reward inside the carrier for good behavior once you’re back inside your home. Next, try a trip around the block. Gradually work your way up to riding comfortably for 20 to 30 minutes.

The best way to ease your cat’s travel anxiety is by taking several short trips before embarking on a long haul.

Conditioning your cat to ride comfortably in the car may require several days or even weeks. Be sure to gradually expose your nervous pet to more and more challenging stimuli. You can’t force your cat to “get over” or “deal with” its anxiety. Travelling in a confined space in a motor vehicle can be frightening for a cat and requires time to adjust. Make sure you maintain a calm and cool attitude, and don’t scold your cat if it begins to howl or whine. Visible anxiety is a sign to stop the current training and start again another day. Continuing to expose your cat to a stressful situation will only cause it to further associate the car with displeasure and fear and cause setbacks in your training. Car rides in a carrier can also be good practice for travelling in an aircraft or train.

Travelling in a confined space in a motor vehicle can be frightening for a cat and requires time to adjust.

Here are additional tips to make your cat’s travel more enjoyable and reduce motion sickness:

•             Withhold food 12 hours before travel – An empty stomach will help reduce nausea and the need for frequent potty breaks that are often unwelcome, especially during long car rides or airplane or train travel. Be sure to provide access to fresh water whenever possible. Water bottles that hang on the carrier’s door are a good option for many pets. If your travel time is over 6 or 8 hours, have litter available for your cat.

•             Use a carrier – Anxious cats can both hurt themselves and cause accidents. A carrier is often viewed as a “safe place” for many cats.

•             Keep the car cool and quiet – Play soft classical music, and keep the temperature cool.

•             Include the sweet smell of home – Add a t-shirt or blanket with your scent to your cat’s carrier. In addition to smelling like home, nothing’s cozier than mom or dad’s shirt.

•             Special trip toys – Offering really cool toys your cat only gets to play with when it travels can help your cat associate travel with fun.

If your cat seems to need a little more help to stay calm during travel, talk to your veterinarian about using one of the following remedies:

•             Feliway – These pheromones can calm a tense traveller. Add this to your cat’s carrier and bedding before a trip or training to help calm its fears.

•             Calming herbs – Natural remedies, including Bach flower (Rescue Remedy), kava, valerian, passionflower, ginger, and skullcap, have been used for decades to ease anxiety and motion sickness.

•             Anti-nausea medication – Meclizine (Antivert, Bonine, or Dramamine II). This anti-nausea medication can prevent vomiting in a stressed pet. Keep in mind that this drug only helps with motion sickness, not anxiety. Ask your veterinarian for dosages and frequency to administer.

•             Anti-anxiety medication – For use in extremely stressed pets only. Alprazolam (Xanax) or other prescription medications given the night before travel and repeated 12 hours later can relax even the most anxious pet traveller. Many veterinarians will recommend you give a second dose about 2 hours before you embark on your trip. Keep in mind that some prescription medications need to be started several days to a couple of weeks before travel to be most effective. Always follow instructions from your veterinarian carefully.

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