Car Sickness and Nausea Control in Dogs: New Drug Recommendations from the Front Lines

Dr. Patty Khuly

terrier on car seat

Almost everyone with a new puppy has been forced to confront the disturbing realities of backseat barf. There you are, on your way to your very first vet visit when you hear the unmistakable sound of vomit about to happen. The tendrils of drool followed by a lurching abdomen, retching sounds, and inevitable presence of upchucked puppy kibble all over your floorboard are telltale signs that your pup is experiencing motion sickness.

Apart from the understandable disgust you feel (not to mention the revulsion by the prospect of cleaning up all that goo), you’re now wondering to yourself, “Is this going to happen every time she rides in the car?”

It might – but probably not. Most pups “grow out” of this. The unbalanced neurochemical dynamics of canine motion sickness seem to even out either with age or with practice. The more car rides she experiences, the less likely she is to suffer it. You won’t necessarily have to cover your backseat in plastic every time you take her for a spin.

At this point you may be interested in a little information about nausea itself:

Car Sickness in Dogs

The science of nausea isn’t well-understood, though neurologists and gastroenterologists try. It’s a highly-subjective experience humans describe as encompassing both physical and psychological discomfort, a sensation that’s widely considered more uncomfortable than the act of vomiting itself.

Motion sickness is a subset of nausea. It happens when the balance (aka vestibular) system sends a withering volley of negative reports to her brain’s nausea center (aka chemoreceptor trigger zone), leading to the expulsion of more chemicals that a) make her feel yucky and b) stimulate the stomach to contract and spew forth its contents.

As a pup’s vestibular system develops, we believe it equilibrates in a way, interpreting the motion sensation as a normal event. However, some dogs’ vestibular apparatuses won’t do this effectively. These dogs may always feel nauseous on car rides. Or perhaps only on long rides or winding roads. Or when anxiety exacerbates the condition.

Preventing Car Sickness

Thankfully, dogs who are sensitive to motion sickness don’t have to suffer – nor do their owners. Medications are now readily available to help manage motion sickness. Here are a few, including one that might surprise you:

Ondansetron (Zofran®): This drug has been around for decades but is recently off patent and now more available to veterinarians and their patients at an affordable price. Though not terribly well studied in animals, ondansetron has been shown to significantly reduce nausea induced by anesthesia and chemotherapeutic drugs in humans. In dogs, veterinarians often use it to control nausea for all kinds of reasons, motion sickness included.

Maropitant (Cerenia®): This is the best-known drug for treating nausea and preventing motion sickness in veterinary medicine. At higher doses it’s great for car rides and other motion sickness-inducing events. Ask your veterinarian for this one if you’re planning a long road trip. It has the added benefit of once-a-day administration.

Cannabinoids (CB): Surprise! The cannabidiol molecule found in the hemp and marijuana plants can help too. It does not produce a high effect and it reportedly reduces the kind of nausea produced by motion sickness – but it’s efficacy hasn’t yet been quantified (on the plus side, it does enjoy a high margin of safety).

The high-inducing active ingredient of marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has been found to be highly effective. Unfortunately, dogs can’t tolerate this molecule, which is why veterinary medicine is newly excited about the development of a synthetic alternative, drobinol, for use against nausea. But it’s not yet available. Stay tuned for future news on this one. It may well prove a powerful appetite stimulant too.

These are all great for treating the nausea itself, but what if your dog’s nausea is primarily the result of anxiety? Since nausea may be – to some extent in some dogs – a direct symptom of heightened stress (or inextricably intertwined with it), it’s important to manage the anxiety itself too.

Tips, tricks, and medications for anxiety abound. Pick your veterinarian’s brain for all the information he or she has to offer on managing car ride anxiety in particular. A combination of anxiety-reducing medications and nausea drugs may be in order for ensuring the most humane, happy summer road trip ever!

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