Do journeys with your pet drive you both to distraction? If your cat, dog or rabbit hates car trips, it can be upsetting and limiting. Jo Leevers looks at how to help your companion become an easy rider.
An aversion to car travel is common to cats, dogs and rabbits, and they can react with panic, nausea and even aggression, making it a stressful experience for all. What’s more, problems may get worse if not addressed. So what can owners do?
Spot the triggers
Helping an unhappy pet starts with identifying the root of their distress. One easily overlooked reason is straightforward travel sickness. ‘Pets get motion sickness in the same way we do,’ explains David Ryan, clinical animal behaviourist. Your vet should be able to prescribe suitable medication. However, physical and psychological causes often overlap. ‘Once animals experience that nausea, the memory can stay with them,’ says David, ‘And next time, they think, “Oh no, the car! I’m going to be sick again!” So, even if medication works, you may still need to recondition your pet’s response.’
‘Cats feel safest on their own territory and, in contrast to dogs, are happier staying put than exploring new places,’ says Pippa Hutchison, clinical animal behaviourist. That’s why cats often perform a swift vanishing act as soon as the basket appears. To allay their fears, put the basket out several days before a vet trip or cat show, with a small portion of food inside. If your cat vomits in transit, talk to your vet about medicine to gently calm their stomach. Try it out at home first, so it’s not new to them on the day of the trip.
Bunny on board
As prey animals, rabbits are always alert to danger. Being in a moving car can heighten their sense of threat, so Pippa advises getting your rabbit used to short rides, then progressing to longer trips. Make sure the cage or crate has a non-slip surface, and place your rabbit facing a side door, not forwards, so he doesn’t risk injury by ‘digging in’ if you brake or speed up.
Causes of anxiety
Jasper the Whippet is an easygoing dog, until it’s time to get into the car! Heading out on the highway is his idea of hell. ‘Jasper starts panting, then howling and scrabbling at his crate on our driveway,’ explains his owner Caroline. ‘By the time we arrive, he’s often been sick and we’re both nervous wrecks.’ If Caroline’s predicament sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
Many dogs are anxious about cars because of a fear of the unknown. ‘A rescue dog who has lived outside may have only rarely been in a vehicle,’ David points out, ‘or he could have had a scary experience in one.’ But even a dog purchased as a puppy can be nervous, which can stem from that all-important first journey. ‘Imagine it from his perspective,’ says David. ‘His first trip is usually when he is plucked from his mother, shut in an unfamiliar place and jolted from side to side. No wonder he’s not sure about getting inside a vehicle again.’
So if you’re collecting a puppy, plan ahead to make that first ride as stress-free as possible. David says, ‘If it’s a short trip, I think it’s OK to hold a pup on a passenger’s lap. With bigger dogs, a harness means a passenger can sit next to them to help keep things calm.’ To be on the safe side, don’t feed your dog before a trip and start with short journeys that end somewhere positive, such as the park. Day by day, increase the length of that feel-good trip by using a slightly longer route.
Lessen the emotion
But what if your dog is already set in his or her ways? ‘Then you have to work on changing their emotional responses,’ David advises. What are the signs that a car ride is coming up soon? It might be picking up your car keys or putting on walking boots. Your aim is to desensitise those cues when you’re not going on a trip. Pick up your car keys at random and each time, reward your dog with a treat. Slowly but surely, the association with the keys becomes more positive. Next, you need to forge a different link with the car. Park up safely and try giving meals as close to the car as possible. And once your dog is more relaxed, it’s time to turn that car into a play zone.
Make it fun
Still off-road, try throwing a favourite toy onto the back seat. Every time your dog comes close, give lots of praise. If they’re still reluctant to jump in, try this game: open both rear doors to make a ‘tunnel’ and, holding your dog’s lead, climb in enthusiastically, with your back to him or her. Your dog will probably resist, but keep offering encouragement and stay facing away. Eventually – and this can take several goes – they will follow you in. Climb through and out of the car and, as if it’s the best fun ever, run round and climb into the ‘tunnel’ again. Once your dog is happily jumping in, move on to lingering a while on the back seat, rewarding with treats. Remember that results take months, not weeks, and gradual reconditioning is the best way to achieve lasting change.
A crate or harness is essential for safe dog travel. If your dog isn’t used to a metal crate, try a soft one, which can seem cosier. Place the crate in your home before a first journey so it acquires familiar scents, or try a spritz of a dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) inside. If a harness is more suitable, remember these take time to get used to. For cats and rabbits, it helps if they feel that their crates are safe hiding places, so try covering them with thin cloth or newspaper (not a thick blanket). Provide water to keep your pet hydrated (juicy apple slices are great for rabbits). And don’t ever open an animal’s crate while the car is moving as this may increase your pet’s panic or, at worst, cause a crash.
With planning, patience and persistence, you can help your pet become a happier traveller, opening up new horizons to enjoy together.