Carsickness in cats (and dogs), and what to do about it

I have clients who found a kitten at the husband’s family farm over the summer, and brought him home.  They already have two, ten year old cats.  B’Orange is a huge female who can handle Pepper, the errant kitten, just fine.  But Bud is constantly tormented by Pepper.  Poor Bud suffers from a multitude of health problems, including a mouth full of no teeth, and he just lays on his side making pathetic noises while Pepper tips him over and chews on him.

So I offered to take Pepper home with me for the day to give the two seniors a break.  I have two parrots and a Border Collie and a house full of fish, but thought to myself, “Hey, if I am going to do Kitten Kindergarten, then I oughta get a cat!”

So I loaded Pepper up in the car and made the treck to St. Charles Animal Control, where I am friends with the shelter director.  Together, we combed the kennels, hauling out cat after cat, until I chose my new little “Cat-ten”, who I named Murmer, because she walks around the house all day long making that little sound to herself and anyone else who is listening.  I have not had kittens since 1987, and she fills my house all day long with hysterical laughter at her antics.  I’ll write more about her later.

Fortunately, Pepper does not get car sick on his way back and forth to my house, but I get calls from clients who do have this problem.  Just a few days ago, I had to take my 33 year old Eclectus, Clare, to the vet, and there was a person next to me who had a cat who was sick and also suffered car sickness on the way into the vet.

When my Scottish Deerhound, Gulliver, was a puppy, he rode in the back seat with a bag of grass seed and snacked, unbeknownst to me, all the way to the park, where he threw up.  I did not do a great job cleaning it up, and did not drive my car for a few days afterward.  When I got back out to take it out, there was a veritable garden of green lawn growing on my back seat!

Car sickness occurs in animals for much the same reason as in human beings – there is a disconnect between the portion of the brain that measures motion and the portion that processes control over movement.  My boarding school room mate from Greece gets terribly car sick when she passengers, but is fine if she is driving.

In cats, the usual trip in a car occurs once or twice a year and culminates in a (usual) unpleasant trip to the vet, either for shots or because they are sick.  Dogs get a different association – to the park or a doggie play place, a much more pleasant outcome.  Helping cats create a new association with the car can be very helpful.

Start with their carrier.  Place it in the house in a location where they can associate it with something benign, even pleasant.  Put their favorite bedding and a treat or two in the carrier, and leave it in a place where the cat will not be disturbed or started while exploring the set up.  Once she is comfortable going in and out, shut the door briefly while feeding some high value canned food, some deli-chicken, or very high quality treats.  Open the door, and end the exercise.

Move to transporting her to a brief trip to the car, not running, then build it to running, then back down the driveway, then a short trip around the block.  Always end on a positive note – a wonderful food treat and a catnip-laden toy, building a wonderful association with anything having to do with the carrier and its connection with car travel.

Dogs can benefit from ginger root (as can humans) and some over the counter drugs like dramamine (given for sea sickness) or even Benadryl, but cats have more sensitive systems and do not benefit from such.  Sometimes the car sickness is also a bi-product of anxiety (the word “caterwauling” takes on a whole new meaning when you hear them) so a discussion with your veterinarian about pharmacological intervention prior to a car trip might be helpful. Also having the pet face forward and keeping carriers below window level can help with nausea.

At any rate, training your cat to learn to be comfortable in the car is always advantageous.  Please don’t wait until they are seniors or are sick before subjecting them to this activity.  And please make sure that your pet is properly identified if for whatever horrible reason there is an accident and the animal gets out of the car.  All of my pets’ ID tags (and my parrots’ carriers) are identified with my cel phone number on one side and my veterinarian’s twenty-four hour emergency number on the other.

My parrot’s carriers (and I should do this with my kitten, too, hmmm … note to self) have their pictures on a little ID card and their contact info on them.  If your veterinarian does not take their own after-hour emergencies, make sure that you know of the nearest clinic that does, and keep that information in your wallet, your glove compartment, and on your refrigerator where you can direct a friend to for help.

So, for those of you that are risking travel this holiday season, stay safe, and may your pets be safe, as well!

Dorene Olson
TARA Training and Behavior, LLC

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