The best way to deal with a travel sick dog

Vets CornerPaul Boland explores what options are available to pet owners whose dogs can be something of a handful when embarking on a long car journey.

One advantage of staying in the UK for a holiday or a long weekend is that we can take our beloved pets with us.

Sure, with the introduction of pet passports, it’s easier to book dogs on flights and ferries these days, but most of us feel much more comfortable taking our fury friends on slightly shorter haul journeys – and this often involves a car trip.

I hear from many people about how they struggle to get their dogs into a car and then, once they are in the car, they are unsettled, aggressive and quite often sick.

Although many owners of dogs in my practice attribute the signs of stress to misbehaviour, there are a huge number of stressors in the lives of our pets, which mainly arise when we take our animals out of their normal environments, or introduce something into their environment they don’t understand or can’t deal with.

I see a lot of anxious and stressed animals in my surgery—not many pets enjoy visiting the vet and may even have deeply buried fears from the last visit that can trigger a stress reaction. In fact, many pets only experience a ride in the car when they are going on holiday or to the vet, so it’s not surprising that they build up negative associations with travel and immediately become anxious when they get anywhere near a car.

Signs of stress in animals take the form of panting, sweating, aggressiveness, pacing, trembling, barking and drooling. Besides visits to the vet or travel, the most common triggers include kennel stays, haircuts and grooming, loud noises, overstimulation, other pets and separation anxiety.

Some vets recommend sedation for animals about to undergo a stressful situation, but the drugs currently available have been created with only one aim in mind: to disguise signs of stress. They don’t solve the problem or help your dog cope better with the stressful circumstances.

What’s more, sedatives used on animals come with a vast range of negative side-effects. Acepromazine (ACP) can cause low blood pressure and even cardiovascular collapse, as well as rapid heat loss while inhibiting thermoregulation (physiological changes such as blood flow to maintain a constant body temperature). Benzodiazepines can cause liver damage, vomiting and dependence and withdrawal symptoms such as, ironically, an anxiety response, while alpha-2 agonists can lead to second-degree heart block (slowed heart conduction with missed heartbeats, weakness and fainting), a reduced coronary circulation and increased respiratory rate.

In my view, it’s not necessary to give drugs to anxious pets because there are better, cheaper and safer solutions available that can help your dog get used to journeys and associate them with pleasant memories.

What I recommend

My advice for anyone travelling with pets is to start planning early. I focus more on dogs than cats as very few people take their cats on holiday, although these suggestions are just as applicable for cats. In general, cats don’t adapt to change as readily as dogs. Cats thrive on consistency, and any disruption to their environment can foster stress-induced behavioural changes.

The key to training any pet to cope better with travel is to ‘desensitize’ him to the situation. First, slowly introduce your pet to sitting in a stationary car. After he’s learned to do this without fear, have him sit in the car while you turn on the engine and keep it running. Once he’s used to that, start making short trips with him in the car.

Gradually make the trips longer, but stay alert to any signs of discomfort. The pace at which you advance from one stage to another depends entirely on your dog’s reactions at each stage but, as a rule of thumb, you may need to allow weeks or even months to complete Sammy’s desensitization process (see box, opposite page).

It’s also extremely important to ensure that dogs are restrained with a safety harness or safety gate during travel, as an unrestrained, agitated dog can be very dangerous while you’re driving.

Try Supplements 

I always recommend giving pets prone to anxiety during travel a natural calming remedy before any journey. Luckily there is a wide range of natural products available to help your dog with stress-inducing journeys or any other stressful situation. I like to use a combination of agents as each one works in a slightly different way and is more beneficial when combined.

L-Tryptophan one of the most complex amino acids and a precursor of the production of the B-vitamin niacin and the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate mood and anxiety, is found in many plant and animal proteins.

The body absorbs tryptophan from dietary protein sources and converts it to 5-HTP and then to serotonin, which in turn is converted to melatonin, an antioxidant neurohormone that helps regulate sleep. l-Tryptophan has also been shown to have sedative effects without impairing performance.2

According to one study, animals placed on a tryptophan-free diet, which reduces serotonin levels, show more aggressive tendencies, especially during competitive social interactions such as feeding.

I recommend at least 150 mg of l-tryptophan for each 10 kg of your pet’s body weight. This can be increased as required until the stress levels reduce. Valerian, a flowering plant (Valeriana officinalis) with a long history of use as a remedy to promote sleep and reduce restlessness, has well-known sedative and calming properties due to synergistic actions among its components, many of which have been scientifically demonstrated to work. Sesquiterpenes, valerenic acid and kessyl glycol have all been shown to have tranquilizing effects in animals.

Valerian root extracts can also inhibit GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) uptake and metabolism, which may explain its usefulness for treating anxiety and depression. This brain neurotransmitter balances excessive excitatory neural activity, such as when humans or animals are stressed, and the action of valerian leaves more of it in the brain.

I’d recommend at least 50 mg of valerian for each 10 kg of body weight. This level can be increased as required until Sammy’s stress levels reduce.

Camellia sinensis—more commonly known as tea—and especially green tea, contains the amino acid l-theanine, thought to decrease stress and anxiety without sedation. Theanine can cross the blood–brain barrier and so has psychoactive properties, which means it affects brain function, mood and behaviour.7 It appears to work in anxiety by increasing levels of GABA and serotonin.8

I recommend giving at least 25 mg of l-theanine for each 10 kg of a dog’s body weight, although I have on occasions prescribed far higher dosages with no negative effects.

Ashwagandha. Also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry herb, this Ayurvedic herb is an adaptogen, which means it acts on the sympathetic nervous system, allowing it to return more quickly to normal after a period of stress. Like other kinds of ginseng, it appears to normalize the adrenal glands (which release stress hormones) and benefits both the immune and central nervous systems.

I prescribe Ashwagandha at dosages of at least 50 mg per 10 kg of body weight. Calcium and magnesium are both necessary for proper nerve transmission and regulation of heart rate, plus helping to maintain muscle tone and nerve function, muscle contraction and muscle cramps. Low levels of either mineral will predispose your dog to stress, so it’s likely that giving these supplements will help to relax both his mind and body.

I recommend 30 mg per 10 kg of body weight for each mineral.

If possible, experiment with a supplement combining some or all of the above ingredients, or administer them separately, and then learn from your pet which dosages and combinations offer the best results.