Tips and Tricks for Keeping Dogs and Cats Calm While Road Tripping

dog in car
A stock image of a dog leaning out of a car window. Veterinary behaviorists recommend gradually retraining a pet to be comfortable in a carrier for long car trips. iStock

For a lot of pet owners, the holidays are a time for long road trips to see family. More often than not, they'll want to bring their pet along with them.

But how do you keep that pet calm? If they have issues behaving on long trips, how can you fix that?

In a recent interview, Dr. Lore Haug, a veterinary behaviorist in the Houston area, told Newsweek that it may already be too late to acclimate them for this holiday season. However, owners can start to prep man's best friend for 2022's journeys now.

"There's not much we can do to help people when it's that late of notice," she said. "We want to try to prepare things in advance. So if the animal needs to relearn to be comfortable in a carrier for their safety or if the animal needs to be tested on some type of supplement or medication for motion sickness or anxiety in the car, we have plenty of time to go through that process before the owner's actually going to travel."

Haug says that that process can take anywhere between a few days to a few months.

Experts advise that cats should be kept in a carrier during travel. Large dogs are safest when confined to a crate or strapped to a harness in the second row. For small dogs, there are a number of harness, crate, and car seat-like options.

Owners should slowly introduce or reintroduce pets to a carrier. For those who have carriers or crates that can be taken apart, Haug says that slowly putting the bottom piece of it out around the house is a good start. Positive reinforcement, like placing treats in it, as you slowly rebuild the carrier is her best practice recommendation.

Similarly, Dr. Wailani Sung, director of behavior and welfare programs at the San Francisco SPCA, said that owners should make the carrier as comfortable as possible to entice the animal to climb inside and settle in without a fuss. Putting a bed or towel in the carrier, and possibly spraying that bedding with pheromone sprays designed to relax dogs or cats, can also help before a long trip.

With that preparation, your pet should be able to stay calm during the trip.

If problems occur mid-trip, Sung recommends pulling over for a short time to try to give your pet a break at a rest stop or park. If the problem persists or gets worse, and your pet is scratching the carrier and vocalizing their distress, it might be time to find a vet.

"I think in that moment, in an emergency, you need to find your closest veterinary clinic because I think your animal may need some anti-anxiety medication to help them," she said.

In her experience treating shelter dogs, Sung says that each animal's experience will be different, which is why owners need to spend time on preparation beforehand. A neglected dog or a dog with anxiety, for example, may not necessarily equate a car ride with a traumatic experience.

"Having a generalized anxiety disorder doesn't necessarily mean that you will be anxious in a car," she argued. "Some dogs have no behavioral issues and then they go into the car and have situational anxiety...and that may be the only time I see the dog anxious."

For people that want to walk through the process with their pets, Haug recommends finding a professional through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants or similar organizations.