The road to fearlessness
Clients can turn their dog or cat into a well-adjusted travel companion with a little help from you.
Many variables play a role in the formation of anxious or fearful behavior in traveling pets, but when clients receive good information about preparation, desensitization and stress-reducing products, our patients can have a safer and more comfortable experience.
It Starts at Home
For both dogs and cats, the key to reducing fear, anxiety and stress is preparation because, as we now know, anxiety can escalate every time a trigger initiates a fearful response. Preparation involves the patient, the carrier and the mode of transportation, such as a car.
Let me give an example. I’ve spent time in previous columns explaining the importance of having cat carriers — and small-dog carriers, for that matter — be part of the home furniture. Encouraging pet owners to leave carriers out and open year-round in inconspicuous areas and filled with positive reinforcements such as food, treats, soft bedding and toys reinforces the idea that the carrier is a safe, nonthreatening environment.
When a cat regularly gets treats or finds toys inside a carrier, it becomes a place of safety and security rather than an anxiety trigger. Keeping the carrier available inside the home also reminds the owner to keep it clean. Studies have shown that dogs and cats are incredibly sensitive to odors and how some pets can develop a permanent aversion, like when a dirty litterbox induces inappropriate elimination.
Clients should be encouraged to line the bottom of the carrier with an absorbent puppy pad to help with urinary or fecal accidents during travel.
Staying Calm in the Car
After the pet has been desensitized to the sight, smell and feel of the carrier, the next step is counterconditioning with the car itself. If the only time a dog or cat travels is in a carrier to a dreaded veterinary appointment, cars will have a bad association. We can help clients train their dogs and cats to like the carrier and even the car ride through similar counterconditioning.
Preparation includes providing the dog or cat with a favorite toy or owner-scented clothing to accompany them in the car. Some dogs respond favorably to an anxiety-reducing jacket such as the ThunderShirt during travel and other stressful events. The keys to effective use of a wrap are to place it on the dog at least 60 minutes before entering the car and to remove it immediately after travel.
Another essential component is a restraint system. Many options, customized to the size of the pet and the car, are available for dogs and cats.
A safety restraint is always more effective if the pet has been desensitized to the carrier before the trip. I like to give specific options for car harnesses and carriers. From an ease of use, sturdiness and safety perspective, I think the Sleepypod line is fantastic. The Clickit travel harness for dogs and the Mobile Pet Bed for small dogs and cats secure easily using the car’s seat belt.
I recommend that larger dogs be placed inside a sturdy crate in the cargo area when an SUV is used. Stress to clients that dogs and cats should not roam freely in a car.
A side note: I have found the Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed to work well in the clinic as it allows small dogs and cats to stay in a comfortable, familiar place during an exam, reducing fear, anxiety and stress at the next visit.
We can address other pet senses during car travel. Recent studies have shown that dogs and cats are very sensitive not only to sound, but to the type of music they hear. The car ride to a dog’s annual wellness exam or a cross-country road trip is not the best time to test a new heavy-metal CD. Instead, consider classical or reggae music, both of which stimulate positive and relaxed reactions in dogs and cats, or the downloadable “Through a Dog’s Ear” and “Through a Cat’s Ear.” Some animal hospitals have assembled Spotify playlists that can be downloaded and played in the car or home to foster a calm environment.
Additionally, pheromone therapy is an important part of natural anxiety reduction during car travel. Pheromones are chemical signals produced by the dog or cat. The efficacy of this therapy is dependent on consistent use and appropriate timing. Canine-specific Adaptil, for example, is a synthetic replication of the pheromone released by a bitch after whelping to calm her puppies. The product can be placed inside carriers, on bedding, bandanas or ThunderShirts, and in the car at least an hour before the ride.
Some patients who have stressful travel responses but cannot avoid frequent car rides respond better to Adaptil Comfort Zone collars, which are effective for 30 days. For cats, Feliway should be used in a similar fashion, and I encourage owners to keep Feliway wipes in carrier side pockets for future uses.
While natural remedies and behavior modification and training successfully calm many dogs and cats, veterinary intervention sometimes is necessary. For patients that suffer motion sickness, a few options are available. Dramamine is shown to lessen clinical signs when used off-label, but I prefer to prescribe Cerenia, a neurokinin receptor blocker, at the labeled dose to prevent motion sickness. These patients should not be fed up to two hours before the trip, and instead of offering high-reward treats, pet owners should consider alternatives such as the ThunderShirt or an Adaptil collar.
Unfortunately, natural strategies aren’t effective for every dog or cat, especially those with a history of fear or anxiety associated with car or airplane travel. It’s important to discuss this with clients struggling with reactive behaviors or who feel frustrated with a lack of success in reducing stress.
In these patients, I strongly recommend pharmaceutical intervention before travel. For dogs, the most commonly used anti-anxiety solution is trazodone. It can be prescribed at a dose of 2 to 5 mg/kg and should be administered at least two hours before travel. In patients with a history of stressful events, I also recommend a loading dose the night before.
In cats, I most commonly prescribe gabapentin. At 50 to 100 mg/kg per cat, this is an incredibly successful strategy, and like trazodone, it can be administered 12 hours prior as a loading dose. Remember to warn clients that cats might exhibit sedation for six to eight hours, especially at the higher dosage.
For clients that struggle with administering pills, these medications can be compounded into liquids and soft chews.
Make sure to review with clients the simple steps needed to desensitize their dog or cat to car rides. Great tips like these can be used in email reminders or social media posts. Remember to stress that these steps require preparation and practice and that it is unreasonable to expect car ride desensitization to happen in one day.
Fearless columnist Dr. Natalie Marks is co-owner of Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago. She is Fear Free certified.