Motion Sickness in Cats

By Courtney Barnes, BSc, DVM; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

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

Motion sickness in cats is a common problem. While many dogs can be “trained” to comfortably ride in cars, it can be much more challenging for cats to overcome their anxiety.

Most motion sickness in cats is caused by the stress and anxiety associated with travel. Cats that travel only once or twice a year (typically when visiting the veterinarian) are not 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 licking of lips
  • excessive drooling
  • lethargy or inactivity
  • vomiting
  • defecation

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.

The first step in reducing your cat’s stress and anxiety around car travel is to make them more comfortable in the carrier. Start by teaching your cat that the carrier is a “safe place” in your home. Do not only take the carrier out right before travel. Offer food and treats in the carrier. You can also place the carrier in your cat’s favorite sleeping area with her preferred bedding. Placing the carrier on your 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 pheromone) inside the carrier during training and before travel can help reduce stress.

Once your cat is comfortable with her carrier, you can condition your cat to ride comfortably in your car. Car rides in a carrier can also be good practice for traveling in an aircraft or train.

The best way to ease 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 is time to take it to the car. Start by simply placing your cat in the carrier inside your car, starting the motor, and sitting there without moving the car for a few minutes. The next day, repeat this process, but back out of your driveway and then return. Once you are back inside your home, be sure to praise your cat and offer a food reward, inside the carrier, for good behavior. 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 cannot force your cat to “get over” or “deal with” their anxiety. Traveling 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 do not scold if your cat 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 them to further associate the car and carrier with displeasure and fear, and cause setbacks in your training.

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

  • If it is not too stressful, withhold food for up to 8 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.
  • 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. Many cats view a carrier as a “safe place”.
  • Keep the car cool and quiet. Play soft classical music and keep the temperature cool.
  • Include the smell of home. Add a t-shirt or blanket with your scent to your cat’s carrier. In addition to smelling like home, nothing is cozier than mom or dad’s shirt.
  • Offer special trip toys. Giving your cat new toys that they only get to play with when they travel can help them 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®: Feliway® contains pheromones that can calm a tense traveller. Add it to your cat’s carrier and bedding before a trip (and during training) to help calm her fears.
  • Non-prescription medication: Calming medications such as those containing casein protein derivative (Zylkene®) or L-Theanine (Anxitaine® or Solliquin®) can help. Natural remedies, including Bach® flower (Rescue Remedy®), kava, valerian, passionflower, ginger and skullcap can also be helpful. It is important to consult your veterinarian before starting any medications or supplements, even non-prescription.
  • Anti-nausea medication: Meclizine (Antivert® and Bonine®), dimenhydrinate (Dramamine® and Gravol®), or Maropitant (Cerenia®) can prevent vomiting in a stressed pet. Note that these drugs only help with motion sickness, not anxiety. Ask your veterinarian for dosages and frequency to administer.
  • Anti-anxiety medication: As motion sickness is most often a stress response, these medications may be considered for very stressed pets. Alprazolam (Xanax®), gabapentin (Neurontin®) 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. These medications can be sedating.

Keep in mind that some prescription medications or supplements 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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