independent

Friday 24 October 2014

Motion sickness a common problem for many dogs too

Published 17/09/2013 | 16:17

George is a Labrador who hates travelling in the car. First, he refuses to get in. If he's manhandled into the car, he looks miserable. Then as soon as the engine starts, he begins to drool, making the carpet in the boot of the estate car soaking wet. If his owner continues to drive, George soon starts to retch.

It's no wonder that he hates car travel. The situation is so bad that George is never taken anywhere in a car these days: he goes everywhere on foot, and a house call is needed from the vet if he is too unwell to walk to the clinic.

Tag, the terrier, has a completely different attitude to car journeys: he loves them. If a car door opens, Tag happily hops in to the front seat, even if it's someone else's car. He likes to sit on the front seat, safely secured by a seat belt and harness, and it's obvious that he enjoys himself. The seat is pulled forwards so that he can put his front feet on the dashboard, and he enjoys looking around at the world during journeys. He has never suffered from car sickness.

Travelling in the car has become a necessary part of nearly everyone's life: even our pets sometimes have to take car journeys. But why do some animals have such different reactions to travelling in the car, and what can owners of dogs like George do to help them cope better?

It's important to understand the mechanism behind motion sickness. The salivation and vomiting reaction suffered by George is something which happens unconsciously. It's all to do with a series of reflexes which start in the middle ear, where specialised sense organs inform the body about movement, up, down and from side to side.

If you closed your eyes while in a car, you would still have a sense of which direction you were moving: this is due to those motion detectors in your middle ear. Nerve endings here are stimulated by the centrifugal forces caused by movement, and electrical impulses are sent from here to other parts of the brain.

In animals (and humans) affected by motion sickness, these electrical impulses are sent to a part of the brain called the 'vomiting centre', where they stimulate the physical symptoms.

Why is there such a big difference between different animals? Most importantly, the more often a dog travels, the more familiar he becomes with the unusual centrifugal forces associated with motion. The vomiting centre in his brain becomes less sensitive to the messages sent from the middle ear.

If a puppy is allowed to travel for frequent short trips in the car from a very early age (e.g. 6 - 8 weeks), he rapidly familiarises to the sensation of motion, and he is very unlikely to grow up to be a poor traveller. This was what had happened to Tag as a young dog.

If, on the other hand, a dog rarely travels in the car during puppyhood, it's likely that they will grow up to be unaccustomed to the sensation of motion during car travel, and they are far more likely to develop travel sickness like George.

It is possible to help dogs like George, but it isn't easy. You need to go through a gradual process of getting affected dogs familiar with travel. You begin by sitting the dog in a stationary car with the engine off, giving them a food-stuffed treat to occupy their attention.

When the dog is comfortable with this, you start the engine, and without moving, you sit in the driveway for five minutes. To make it easier for you, you can combine this process with something else useful, such as a weekly wash and clean of your car. Try to continually reward the dog while he sits there, praising him and giving him occasional treats.

You should gradually increase the time the dog spends in the car, and eventually even a dog like George will be happy to hop into the back. It's only at this stage that you can start to go for short drives together. At first, go for only two or three minutes, and gradually increase the distance. If the dog is unhappy or sick at any time, you need to stop the process and go back a stage.

Few people have the patience for this type of behavioural modification therapy. Instead, most people learn to manage, using simple steps such as fasting the dog before a journey (give him breakfast after his walk rather than before), by lining the car boot with newspaper, and be keeping car journeys to an absolute minimum distance.

There are some other simple tips. An Adaptil pheromone collar around a dog's neck will release calming pheromones around his head which will reassure him. Putting screens (such as pieces of cardboard) on the side windows, can help by only allowing a dog to look straight ahead rather than seeing dizzying scenery rushing past on either side.

Lastly, there is a potent, anti-travel sickness tablet available through vets, called Cerenia. It's pricey, but until a dog is used to travel, it can help when a car journey is absolutely necessary.

However, the best answer, of course, is to try to prevent the problem developing in the first place: don't forget to take your new puppy with you whenever you go out in the car.

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