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Road Trips and Car Travel With Your Dog

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

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

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

For the most part, dogs care most that they are with their humans, and “place” is not as important. This makes dogs very 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 in order 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 in order 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 a process as possible, as this will be important during travel. It is important that dogs be appropriately restrained inside the vehicle.

"It is important that dogs be appropriately restrained inside the vehicle."

For larger dogs, there are several well-designed “doggy seat belts” for restraint in the back seat. Alternately, you may want to consider either a crate or cage set up and secured on the back seat or in the rear compartment of a van or SUV.

Regardless of the strategy, it is important for your dog to be appropriately restrained during travel. It is safer for him and safer for you!

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. Set the child lock on power windows 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.

"If you travel with open windows, make sure the opening is too small for your dog’s head to fit through."

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

Are there details I should consider when packing?

Gather together your dog’s medical documents including vaccination certificates, recent lab-work, his rabies vaccination tag, as well as any medications he takes. Take along 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. Sometimes water in different parts of the country has a different mineral content and may contribute to stomach upset or loose stool.

"Be sure to have your dog wear identification during travel."

Be sure to have your dog wear 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 of the folks 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.

"On the day of travel, withhold breakfast from your dog."

Never, ever 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 a very 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® which swaddles the dog much like swaddling an infant and can reduce anxiety.
  • A pheromone calming collar to contribute to lowering anxiety.
  • Medication prescribed by your veterinarian: trazodone (brand name Desyrel®), gabapentin (brand name Neurontin®), and alprazolam (brand names: Xanax® and Niravam®) are examples of medications that 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 in order to know how your dog will react to the medication.

With some advance planning, attention to detail, and consultation with your veterinarian, road-tripping with your dog can be as “smooth as silk”!

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