Okay, I lied. There isn’t one simple step. Click-bait? Sure, but I did it to make a point right away. There is no one simple, universal, quick fix for dealing with your pet’s vehicular travel anxiety.
You may get lucky. One of my suggestions might work on the first try. Your pet may only need a little adjustment to reassure him or her.
But set yourself up to expect to have to do some trial-and-error, some behavioral detective work, and that your pet may never entirely adjust to vehicle travel.
If you set realistic expectations, and are willing to do the leg-work, then you very likely will get results you and your pet can live with.
Part 1: Quick Fixes?
Any solution will come from figuring out the cause of your pet’s anxiety. This can be complex. So sometimes it’s easier to try easily accessible methods first and then delve into analyzing your pets psyche more if those things don’t work.
Sometimes the stress a pet is feeling is from over-stimulation while riding in a vehicle. Doing things like making sure you aren’t playing loud music or talk-radio, or having loud conversations yourself, can be helpful. If road noise is overwhelming your pet, there are some music/sound sources specifically designed to calm your pet, that could help mask road noise, but they are basically the same as for humans — white noise, rain sounds, ocean waves, soft music, etc.
Additionally, you may want to block the view outside for your pets, particularly from the side windows where things whiz by quickly, or trucks and bridges pass by your pet’s peripheral vision. Something as easy as putting a towel over the sides of the crate or carrier can work wonders.
And speaking of crates or carriers, placing your pet in a tighter space that they are familiar with or actually like can also help. Putting your cat or dog in a carrier simply to take it into the car won’t work, since it will only associate the crate or carrier with the unpleasant experience.
You have to go through the entire process of familiarizing the pet with the container, and even getting them to feel it is their safe place or lair. Doing so is an entire article in itself, so for now, I’ll just post these links on the subject.
The bonus of the carrier / crate is that it also provides additional safety for the pet while traveling, in case of an accident or emergency procedure.
Also, make sure your pet’s problem isn’t an unsettled stomach. Try traveling with your pet having both a full stomach and empty stomach to see if you have any better results. There are simple medications your vet can provide for motion sickness as well, which I’ll discuss later.
Some people have also had success with Thundershirts (or similar products). These are tight fitting vests that you place on the dog or cat. One of the theories behind this product is that firm touch, like a hug, releases endorphins, which are a soothing hormone. Additional benefits are that they not only can help with travel stress, but can also help with separation anxiety, and for fear of loud noises like thunder (hence its name) and fireworks.
But Thundershirts may or may not work, and while not horrendously expensive, they cost enough that you want to know they will work if you buy it. For this reason, I would only purchase a Thundershirt from a source that will accept returns should you try it a time or two and it doesn’t help. This is trial-and-error we are trying here after all. They are available on Amazon in various sizes, but I suggest you are sure the vendor accepts returns.
Thundershirts and similar products can be found on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2DSev0U
You can also try giving your pet a “job” to do. A dog’s job may be following your commands, like staying in a downstate. Allowing them free reign in a vehicle will often actually cause them more stress than directed behavior like having to stay in a space.
Or a job may be something else you make up, like providing your dog or cat an enrichment toy, like a stuffed KONG, where they have to figure out how to get the snack out over an extended period of time and requiring concentrated effort which can’t then be used to worry about the ride.
Part 2: Desensitization
Desensitization is another way people have tried to solve vehicular travel anxiety. You work to try to get the pet used to the experience, and for it to end in good results. If your pet’s only experience with a vehicle is to go to the vet or take a long, cramped and stressful trip, then it only associates the vehicle with unpleasant things.
There are variations on the technique, but essentially you desensitize your animal by starting with small steps, then extending them. Start with just grabbing the keys then putting them down. Later, just go to the car but don’t get in. Then move on to just sitting in the car, or entering a carrier if that is how they’ll travel. Each step can be rewarded with a treat. Then move on to very short drives (even backing out your driveway then back in), followed by a pleasant experience. For a dog, maybe a game of chase the ball. Cats might like a good scratch, or do it before dinner and give them the meal in the car, etc. (Training cats almost always involves food rewards.)
Don’t do too much right away. But when they start realizing it’s no big deal, you can start extending the activities, always ending with something pleasant. Eventually, you’ll be able to do things like drive the dog a few blocks for a nice walk, before then continuing to your further destination. You may never entirely put them at ease, but you will turn the ride into something that they don’t immediately associate with something bad.
If your planned trip is in an RV, you might consider sitting in the RV with the pet for short amounts of time, progressing to staying the night in the RV in your driveway and leaving the pet alone in the RV for short amounts of time. This will help them become more comfortable with the environment before adding the additional stress of driving as well.
An example with dogs:
Part 3: Behaviorist
Pet trainers can help you with training tasks like desensitization, but if your pet is a more complicated case, you might want to hire a behaviorist rather than a trainer. A behaviorist will be better at identifying the true source of the anxiety and can create a plan to address that. It may be changing an environmental item, or it may be planning a training routine (which a trainer can help you implement if needed). Or even help decide with the help of a vet, if medication is the best option.
If you can’t find a behaviorist in your area, try a search on the iaabc.org website.
Part 4: Medication
Some dogs just have a genetic susceptibility to anxiety. This can make training it “out of them” very difficult, so medication may be required to assist the training efforts. Vets can help you with this. While some vets know quite a bit about animal behavior, their real training is in physiology, so I wouldn’t start with a vet, as they may choose to medicate for something that can be fixed behaviorally, since things like medications are the tools a vet is most familiar with. But once non-medical methods are exhausted, anti-anxiety medicines, motion sickness medication, and/or sedatives can make your pet’s travel experience much better if applied correctly.
There are no simple magical solutions
Sorry, there was no one-size-fits-all answer to calming your pets in vehicles. And your success is hard to predict. It may turn out to be easy to figure out, or it may be hard. It may completely solve it, or it may just improve it a bit. But putting in the time and work, or even hiring an expert, to figure out the source of your pet’s anxiety is worth it. After all, you plan on traveling a lot in your life, and you don’t want it to be an exhausting experience each time that will take away some of the joy the traveling lifestyle can bring to you or your pet.