By Emily Gantt
Published: 10/02/2020, edited: 09/07/2022
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Road trips with dogs can be a lot of fun, but they can be equally stressful if your pooch has travel phobia. It’s a terrible feeling to know your dog is upset and you can’t do much to comfort them from behind the wheel.
Luckily, we have lots of tips for traveling with a dog that has anxiety. We’ll explore several ways to calm your terrified Terrier and make your next road trip the best yet.
How do I know if my dog is suffering from anxiety?
Anxiety is a tricky creature. Since dogs can’t verbalize their feelings, it can take months or even years to diagnose, and figuring out your dog’s triggers can take even longer.
Many dogs experience anxiety while traveling, but learning what exactly about car rides trigger the attacks can help you prevent them in the future. For some dogs, these episodes stem from prior bouts of motion sickness; others may be fearful that their destination is the vet. So how do you know if you’re traveling with a dog that has anxiety?
Anxiety manifests differently in every dog, but these are the most common signs:
- upset stomach
- accidents in house-broken dogs
- aggression or other behavioral changes
- wide/fearful eyes
- excessive sneezing, sniffing, or yawning
How do I calm my dog on a road trip?
Now that you know the signs of anxiety, here are a few ways you can keep your canine calm and collected on a long journey.
Some pet parents swear by herbal supplements to stave off anxiety during road trips with dogs. There are 3 main herbs pet parents use to minimize stress in canines: chamomile, St. John’s Wort, and valerian.
Chamomile is a mild sedative and relaxant for humans, and there’s supporting evidence that it affects woofers similarly. Avoid chamomile if your dog is allergic to ragweed, daisies, sunflowers, or other plants in the Asteraceae family.
Valerian is a slightly more potent, dog-safe sedative that belongs to the honeysuckle family. Valerian root is commonly ground and made into teas or capsules to promote sleep in humans.
One study noted that pet products containing valerian had “no discernible effect” on the dogs’ behavior. However, the study examined a small sample size and acknowledged that more research is needed. Consult your vet or live chat with a vet now if you have questions about valerian for dogs.
St. John’s Wort is a natural serotonin booster that many pet parents use for themselves and their dogs as an alternative for pharmaceutical anti-depressants. St. John’s Wort comes from a flower of the same name and can be found in capsules at any pharmacy or natural health store.
You can hide herbal supplement capsules in treats or cheese or steep dog-safe herbs in water and mix it in wet food or drinking water. Herbal tinctures also blend well with wet dog food but may taste stronger than the herbal tea. Try administering supplements before embarking on your journey rather than during an attack. Dogs are much less likely to take medicine (either voluntarily or mixed in food) when in a heightened emotional state.
Aromatherapy is another use for herbs in dogs with anxiety. But you have to be careful of what you use — some oils are very toxic to dogs. Steer clear of essential oil blends containing:
- sweet birch
- tea tree (melaleuca)
Pet parents searching for other natural solutions to ease anxiety on trips with dogs should try a compression vest or wrap.
Compression wraps alleviate anxiety and comfort dogs through deep pressure touch, much like swaddling does for infants. When wearing a wrap or vest, your dog should feel pressure similar to a snug hug. It should be tight enough to apply consistent gentle pressure, but not so tight that it causes discomfort or restricts movement.
It’s thought that applying direct pressure to nerve endings suppresses the body’s response to other external sensory inputs. According to the Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering, “DTP (deep touch pressure) can increase the quality of life of patients suffering from anxiety, pain, and unrest.”
Weighted blankets take a slightly different approach to deep touch pressure. While both use sensory integration tactics, compression vests apply a gentle squeezing sensation as dogs go about their daily activities, whereas blankets provide direct pressure when at rest.
Weighted blankets only work while your dog is lying down or sitting, so a compression vest might be better for dogs who stand or pace anxiously on trips.
When picking a blanket, make sure you select a weight that corresponds to your fur-baby’s body weight. Overly heavy blankets pose a suffocation risk for small breeds. Conversely, blankets made for toy breeds probably won’t be sufficient for big dogs.
A weighted blanket isn’t a cure, but it may help keep symptoms in check when traveling with a dog that has anxiety.
Some owners and veterinarians swear by calming pheromone sprays for nervous pooches. “Dog-appeasing pheromone” (or DAP) imitates the hormones secreted by mother dogs, which is why so many canines find it comforting. A study found that dogs treated with DAP showed significant improvement in appetite, reduced nervous tics (like excessive grooming and chewing), and a calmer demeanor.
Homeopathic pet companies market DAP in many forms, including DAP infused-collars, wet wipes, diffuser pods, and sprays. Another great thing about pheromone products is they’re relatively inexpensive and available at most pet retailers.
Massage is another deep touch pressure technique that can sometimes help on trips with dogs that get nervous.
A good rubdown will give your dog the sensory input they need to distract them from their triggers. Even if you’re not a great masseuse, it will comfort Fido to have you by their side. Research shows that dogs (and their humans!) release stress-relieving endorphins during petting sessions.
Dog training professionals suggest practicing massage techniques when your dog is at ease since trying new things when a dog is in distress can worsen the problem. Need some tips? Check out our guide on doggy deep tissue massage techniques, or this tutorial on how to give your dog a great noggin rub.
CBD oil dog treats
Many parents of anxious puppers turn to CBD oil to find relief for their pets. CBD is a derivative of the hemp plant. Unlike the THC in medical cannabis, CBD doesn’t carry a risk of toxicity or cause impairment in dogs.
Researchers speculate that CBD molecules attach to the neuroreceptors that regulate pleasure hormones and elicit feelings of contentment. CBD has the added benefit of reducing nausea and may curb stomach upset in motion sickness prone dogs. It’s a good idea to have always anti-nausea and calming meds on-hand when traveling with a dog, even if just for emergencies.
There are tons of CBD dog treats, drops, salves, and even CBD-infused honey on the market, but these products can get pretty expensive. Remember, even though honey is a superfood and treats are delicious, these are best enjoyed in moderation.
Behavioral modification therapy
If you're searching for a more permanent solution for eliminating anxiety on trips with dogs, behavioral modification might be it. Animal behaviorists often use desensitization and habituation techniques, where they gradually expose a dog to their trigger until it no longer brings fear.
Behavior modification isn’t a short-term solution — if you need a quick fix, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Desensitization happens over a long period and in small steps to avoid overwhelming the dog and exacerbating their fears. You can apply some basic behavioral modification principles at home, but you’ll need to seek out an applied animal behaviorist for more in-depth therapy.
If all else fails, talk to your dog's vet
If your dog has extreme travel anxiety or seems to be getting worse, you should bring it up to your vet. Your vet can determine if underlying issues are causing your dog’s anxiety and help you figure out a game plan for handling your pet’s episodes.
There are many prescription medications available that may help your dog’s condition. Your vet may prescribe sedatives, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, or a combination of these to help manage your woofer’s stress.
If you’re planning a road trip with a dog and want more info on how to help them through nervous episodes, check out our article on how to train your dog not to be fearful.
Before you head out on your road trip, consider investing in pet insurance. You never know what might happen out on the road — it's always best to be prepared! Start comparing insurance plans from leading insurers like Healthy Paws and Embrace and save over $270 a year.