Pet Sick While Traveling? Understanding Risks, Causes, and Prevention

The last thing that any pet parents want to see is their travel companion feeling unwell away from home. Few situations can put a damper on an otherwise incredible trip like a pet sick while travelling. But what can we do about it?

In this article, we will delve into the risks of travelling with dogs and cats, more specifically, the possibility of illness while travelling, the most common causes, and what you can do for your pet.

Equipping yourself with the information needed to treat or prevent illness can ensure safe and enjoyable travel for you and your furry companion on this and future adventures.  

dog lying in a dining shelter with it's head down | Pet Sick While Traveling? Understanding Risks, Causes, and Prevention
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Indiana looking a little concerned due to his nervousness about campfire smoke

Can Travelling Make a Dog (or Cat) Sick?

There are a few reasons why travelling may contribute to your dog or cat feeling ill. But the first step in preventing this illness or offering some much-needed relief is recognizing why it’s happening.

The most common cause of illness while you’re out and about with your pet is motion sickness or high levels of stress and anxiety.

Like humans, many pets will experience motion sickness on the road. Of course, even if your goal is to enjoy a relaxing camping trip, you do have to travel to the campground first.

Once you arrive at your destination, the risk of illness isn’t over. Many pets will experience nausea, vomiting, changes in bathroom habits, or a reluctance to eat, resulting from increased stress and anxiety from being in a new environment.

Let’s break down these two common situations and what can be done to address them.

How Can I Help My Dog (or Cat) with Travel Sickness?

If you have ever experienced motion sickness firsthand, you understand how uncomfortable and miserable it can be. While we don’t want our pets to experience illness, this can leave many pet parents wondering if the only option available is to leave their pets at home.

But we have good news – ways to manage and even prevent cat and dog travel sickness exist.

Improving your pet’s travel experience starts with understanding the causes of motion sickness and recognizing the signs of illness in your travel buddy.

The most common cause of motion sickness in dogs and cats is a disconnect between the movement they see around them and the signals regarding movement that their inner ear experiences. When these conflicting messages are sent to the brain, its confused reaction makes your pet feel ill.

But this isn’t the only possible explanation.

Dog or cat motion sickness may also indicate a deeper medical problem. Your pet may be suffering from a middle or inner ear infection or vestibular disease. For this reason, having a conversation with your veterinarian is always recommended if your pet has shown signs of being sick.

Signs of cat and dog car sickness that you should watch out for include:

  • Excessive drooling
  • Whining or loud vocalization (meowing or howling)
  • Pacing and restlessness OR extreme lethargy and inactivity
  • Licking or smacking their licks
  • Excessive panting
  • Vomiting
  • Trembling
  • “Accidents” in the vehicle

Motion sickness doesn’t mean that your dog or cat can’t travel. But it does mean that you must address the problem and provide your pet with much-needed relief.

The first thing to consider is how often your pet has travelled. If this was their first time on a longer road trip, they might not be ready for a journey that extensive. Instead, start with short trips and adventures, slowly working up the distance as they (and their bodies) become comfortable.

This is known as desensitization or counterconditioning.

During these shorter trips, offer your pet a lot of rewards and praise. Rewards can come in the form of high-value treats, attention from their favourite person, or playtime in the vehicle with a toy they love.

Focusing on building up to a longer trip in this way will build a positive association with the vehicle. Your pet will be excited to go for a car ride rather than becoming stressed when they get into the vehicle (which can increase their chance of feeling ill).

Ensure you are securing your pet during road trips with a kennel or seatbelt throughout your travels.

Finally, if you are taking every precaution and your pet still struggles with vehicle travel, contact your veterinarian. There are medications and travel sickness tablets for dogs and cats that could significantly improve their experience.

Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety in Your Pet

Some of the more common questions we receive here on The Kas Pack include:

  • Why do cats pant in the car?
  • Is my dog pacing because they are bored, or is it a sign of something deeper?
  • Why does my pet get sick whenever we go on an adventure?
  • Does travel make my pet too stressed for it to be enjoyable?

The truth is that stress and anxiety can impact every area of your pet’s life, including your travel and adventure plans.

While there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, understanding the cause of your pet’s stress and the treatment options available will help you better manage your pet’s well-being. This starts with recognizing there is a problem.

The most common signs of stress and anxiety in pets include:

  • Intensified vocalization, including barking, whining, howling, or meowing
  • Prolonged yawning (more intense than when tired)
  • Excessive panting
  • Drooling and licking more than normal
  • Rapid blinking
  • Dilated pupils
  • Eyes wide, showing more white than usual
  • Ears pinned back
  • Tail tucked between the hind legs
  • Excessive shedding outside of the standard shedding season
  • Attempts to escape or hide
  • Eating or drinking less
  • Becoming less tolerant of people (even their people)

High stress and anxiety can present physically with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other unpleasant side effects.

There are many reasons that your travel plans may have your pet feeling stressed. If this is their first trip, or if they don’t travel often (like once a year), they may not be comfortable with the whole process. After all, it involves new sounds, scents, and environments.

If you have a reactive dog, this can be amplified by their fear or over-excitement when presented with a trigger.

Feeling stress and anxiety to this level is incredibly unpleasant for your pet. Don’t ignore these signs. Instead, you should take this as a sign to step back, assess the situation, and find a way to make your travel plans more enjoyable for your pet.

Make an appointment with your veterinarian. This will allow them to rule out any potential medical explanations for your pet’s behavior. They can also prescribe medications, if warranted, to help calm your pet in these situations.

You can help to create a more comforting environment in locations like the car, tent, or trailer by incorporating comforting items for your pet, like a favourite blanket, toys with their scent, and a secure place to hide if they are feeling overwhelmed (like a kennel).

Additionally, if your pet is new to travel or doesn’t travel often, focus on desensitization and counterconditioning as mentioned above.

dog standing on a trail by a steep drop off | Pet Sick While Traveling? Understanding Risks, Causes, and Prevention
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A screenshot from our Lake Superior PP review video showing the potential risks the landscape of the Nokomis trail presents, an example of why you need to be prepared for anything!

When is it Best to Leave Your Pet at Home?

Let’s address the elephant in the room… While we would all love to include our pets in our travel plans (after all, that’s why you’re on our website), not every pet is well-suited for travel.

If you have taken steps to try to make your pet comfortable, but they are still suffering from illness each time you travel, the best option may be to find a local pet sitter or pet resort where they can relax at home.

This doesn’t mean you love your pet any less or don’t want to include them in your plans. It means you love them enough to put their happiness above your own interests.

Tips for Handling Injuries, Sickness, and Emergencies While Travelling

You can take all the preventative steps in the world and still deal with an injury or illness while travelling. Accidents happen, and they aren’t always avoidable.

In these situations, the best thing you can do is to take every step possible to prevent problems while still arming yourself with the information and gear necessary to respond accordingly. 

Here are a few tips to help you get started:

Know Your Pet

The most important thing to focus on as pet parents is to know our pets, their personalities, and their little quirks. Any advice you see on a website like this will be largely generic. Why? Simple… We don’t know your pets!

Each pet will react differently in various situations, and knowing what your pet is likely going to do will help you prepare.

Some examples of this at work in terms of injuries and illness include:

  • Will your pet try to eat anything and everything they discover around the campsite, even things that could make them sick?
  • Does your pet typically suffer from motion sickness or anxiety in the vehicle?
  • Do you have a reactive pet who may be “set off” if faced with a specific trigger? If so, what triggers should you watch out for?
  • What are signs your pet is in pain or not feeling well (yes, they can vary from pet to pet)?
  • Does your pet usually stop eating for the first day or so when you travel, or is a reluctance to eat a sign of trouble?

Every one of those questions (and many more) can help you ensure that you are prepared and don’t overlook something important.

Pack a Pet First Aid Kit

Any time you travel with a pet, you should ensure that you have a pet first aid kit on hand.

This isn’t referring to your standard first aid kit, although some of the supplies they include can be helpful. Instead, I am referring to a first aid specifically created with a pet’s needs in mind.

There are additional items that you may need to address a pet-related emergency. Failing to prepare for that could leave you in a bad situation.

If you haven’t already created a pet first aid kit for your travels, we have you covered!

Do a Pre-Trip Vet Visit

Before heading out on any outdoor adventures, you should start the season with a visit to your veterinarian.

This is your opportunity to make sure that there are no causes for concern you may have overlooked, like existing injuries or illnesses that could be made worse by travel. It’s also an excellent opportunity to discuss preventing problems during your travels.

Double-check that your pet’s vaccinations are current, and talk to your veterinarian about the flea and tick prevention options available (including commercial products, natural prevention, or a combination).

Ask about medications you should carry in your pet’s first aid kit, such as pain medication or medications to address a dangerous allergic reaction.

Familiarize Yourself with the Potential Risks

When selecting the ideal trail or campsite for travels with your pet, take a moment to consider the potential risks that each location may present.

These risks may also change throughout the year, so don’t forget to consider when you are planning to take this trip.

For example, toxic plants have growing seasons meaning they may be a risk in one season and completely non-existent in the area the next. Familiarizing yourself with the poisonous plants in the area at the time of your travel will allow you to identify them and keep your pet safely away from the risk while camping and hiking.

This also applies to predators like bears and the safety precautions necessary when camping in bear territory or the risk of exposure to things like blue-green algae.

The more information you have going into your outdoor travels, the better prepared you can be to keep yourself and your pet safe.

Final thoughts: Caring for a Pet Sick While Travelling

While there is no guaranteed way to keep your pet from getting sick or injured while travelling, there are many steps you can take to make your adventures safer and more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Always introduce travel slowly to a new pet, including road trips and being in the car, sleeping in a tent or trailer, hiking longer or more challenging trails, and more. It may take more time to work up to your dream trip, but investing the time and energy now will set you up for success in the long run.

When planning your trips, take note of any potential risks and prepare yourself to prevent or address the problem if it should arise. This includes packing a fully stocked pet first aid kit.

Be committed to your annual veterinary check-ups. Take this time to discuss any concerns, ensure your pet is physically up to your travels, and prepare for the adventures ahead.

Most importantly, always keep your pet’s needs and comfort level in mind. If your pet is going to be miserable the entire time, the best choice may be to find someone to keep them comfortable and well cared for at home while you’re out exploring the great outdoors.

What steps do you take to prevent or prepare for the possibility of your pet getting sick while travelling?

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