Road Trips and Car Travel With Your Dog

By Anne Dagner, DVM; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM and Ernest Ward, DVM

We are taking a 2-day road trip to visit relatives. They've invited us to bring our dog, and we'll stay in our own bedroom suite within their home. Can dogs make such a road trip?

For the most part, dogs want to be with their humans, and “place” is not as important. This makes dogs lively travel companions if we take the time to create a positive experience for them. However, it is important to think through several important logistical issues to make travel as smooth and easy for them (and for us) as possible.

A successful road trip with a dog begins long before the day of travel. The best time to teach a dog to travel easily is when he is still a puppy. However, even for an adult dog, the sequence of learning to travel is essentially the same.

If you have a small dog, teach him that his carrier is a great, everyday place to hang out. Have the carrier open and available at all times to make it as inviting as possible. Feeding your dog in his carrier can create a positive association. Practice entry and exit from the carrier to make it as routine as possible, as this will be important during travel. Adaptil® pheromone wipes or spray can be used in the carrier to lower anxiety.

"It is important for your dog to be appropriately restrained during travel."

It is important for your dog to be appropriately restrained during travel. It is safer for him and safer for you! For larger dogs, there are several well-designed “doggy seat belts” for restraint in the back seat. Alternatively, you could consider either a crate or cage, set up and secured on the back seat or in the rear compartment of a van or SUV. Plan ahead to have a leash or harness on your dog before opening the door during your trip. Even dogs who aren’t usually escape artists may bolt in an unfamiliar setting.

If you travel with open windows, make sure the opening is too small for your dog’s head to fit through. It is easy for a dog to be injured by a flying insect or a piece of gravel if his head is hanging out the window. With power windows, set the child lock so that your dog cannot accidentally open or close a window on his own by stepping on the button. If he were to stick his head out an open window and then accidentally close the window himself, he could seriously injure himself.

For a 2-day drive, confirm that your dog is welcome at the accommodations you have chosen for the night. It is not worth “sneaking” him in!

Are there details I should consider when packing?

Gather your dog’s medical documents, including vaccination certificates, recent lab-work, his rabies vaccination tag, as well as any medications he takes. Take his regular food. Consider packaging his meals in individual containers for ease of feeding. Using his own familiar food and water dishes will contribute to his comfort – be sure they are unbreakable.

Also, take along some water from home. Water in different parts of the country sometimes contains different minerals and may contribute to stomach upset or loose stool.

"Make sure your dog wears identification during travel and consider a microchip for permanent ID."

Make sure your dog wears identification during travel and consider a microchip for permanent ID if he does not already have one. His collar should be snug enough not to slip over his head. Make sure to attach the leash to his collar before opening the door of the vehicle any time you stop. Also, consider making a temporary ID tag with the address and phone number at your final destination – just in case!

What else will help my dog be comfortable on this trip?

  • On the day of travel, withhold breakfast from your dog. Traveling on an empty stomach minimizes the risk of nausea and vomiting. Feed a small meal when you arrive at your evening destination.
  • Offer water at any rest stops you make during the drive. 
  • Pack pet waste bags for picking up after your dog as needed. 
  • Carry a couple of zip-lock food bags, some paper towels, and a few disposable gloves for any necessary cleanup and containment of a stool or urine accident in the vehicle.
  • Never  leave your dog alone in the car. The interior temperature can rise to a dangerous level within a very short time, causing heat stroke. It is simply not a risk worth taking.

What do I do if my dog gets car sick?

Your veterinarian can prescribe an effective medication to prevent the nausea and vomiting associated with car sickness, if needed. It is best given ahead of travel, and it can be used several days in a row if needed.

Should I ask my veterinarian for a dog sedative for travel?

Most of the time, dogs travel quite well with no need for any medication. Some dogs, on the other hand, do experience stress when traveling. Consult your veterinarian to create the best travel plan for your dog if he does not travel well.

Strategies to de-stress dog road trips include:

  • A Thundershirt® swaddles the dog like an infant is swaddled, and can reduce anxiety.
  • A pheromone calming collar can help reduce anxiety.
  • Medication prescribed by your veterinarian: trazodone (brand name Desyrel®), gabapentin (brand name Neurontin®), and alprazolam (brand names: Xanax® and Niravam®) are sometimes used to reduce the anxiety that some dogs experience when traveling. Test the medication at home as a “dry run” ahead of your trip so you know how your dog reacts to the medication.

With some advance planning, attention to detail, and consultation with your veterinarian, road-tripping with your dog can be a great experience.

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