Car sickness affects a high percentage — perhaps as many as half — of all household cats in the U.S. In some cases, the disorder and its manifestations may be caused by a fleeting disturbance of a cat’s vestibular system — the complex array of nerves and other components, centered in an animal’s inner ear and lower brain, that governs his sense of balance and coordinates the movement of his head and eyes.
Fear is the main culprit
Usually, however, the unpleasant signs of car sickness are brought on by fear. The pet finds himself in the strange, dark, confined environment within a moving vehicle. He soon becomes upset, if not terrified, of these unfamiliar surroundings. And he responds by, among other things, becoming nauseated and possibly losing control of his bodily functions — vomiting, urinating or even defecating in his carrier.
Other signs of car sickness include excessive drooling, persistent crying and whimpering and caterwauling (loud, tormented hypervocalization). The problem can begin at home when the owner, preparing for a car trip, simply places the cat into the carrier. Because the cat may associate the carrier with a trip to the veterinarian, you might observe some clear body language. The cat’s pupils may dilate, the hair on his tail might stand up, and he might start hissing and scratching at the owner.
These signs are the result of pure fear. The cat has learned from experience that he’s being moved around without knowing why. He has no control over the situation, plus he has nowhere to run and hide. And when he gets to the vet’s office, he’s poked and prodded and possibly given injections. So, to him, just the sight of the cat carrier makes him think, ‘Uh-oh — I know what’s coming next!’
Finally, you get the cat into the carrier, put it into the car and drive away. And when you reach your destination — whether or not it’s the veterinary clinic — you open the carrier and there’s vomit and diarrhea inside. And the cat may be lying there, immobile or tense with fear.
Behaviorial training can help
To prevent car sickness — or at least reduce the chances of its occurrence — an owner should commit to a carefully orchestrated series of behavioral training measures. Ideally, this training program should begin when the cat is no older than eight or 10 weeks of age. First, the cat should become acquainted with his carrier inside the home; he should learn that being confined within the carrier poses no threat — that, indeed, it can be a pleasant experience.
You should place the carrier, with the door open, on the floor of a familiar room. Put some favorite treats in there, and the cat will soon start wandering in and out. If you put a blanket inside, he may even start using the carrier as a cozy resting place. When the cat eventually seems to be comfortable, start closing the door periodically and then opening it again after a few minutes. As long as you keep giving the cat treats, he’ll soon get used to the idea that he may be confined inside for short periods of time.
The next step is to get the cat, enclosed in his carrier, accustomed to being inside the car. Place the carrier gently onto the back seat, secure it with a seatbelt or strap, get behind the steering wheel, and just sit there for a few minutes without the motor running. Again, make sure that the cat has plenty of treats inside the carrier and one of his favorite toys — a catnip-filled mouse, for example — to occupy his attention.
After a week or so of this routine, the cat is likely to be comfortable with being in his carrier and inside the car — and it’s time to turn on the engine and start taking him for short rides once a day, maybe just around the block, and returning home. Soon, the cat will probably get used to traveling in the back seat of your moving car, even if the ride is a bit bumpy or if the journey ends at the clinic.
Medications that help
However, some cats will never be relieved of their motion sickness without some form of treatment. In some cases, for example, a veterinarian may prescribe an antihistamine such as Dramamine or Benadryl to help prevent nausea. There is also an anti-anxiety drug called Buspar, which may relieve nausea as well as anxiety. This drug also requires a prescription from a veterinarian. In all cases, medication should never be used without the approval of your vet.
However, if nothing you try seems to help — and the stress of the car ride causes you to avoid regular trips to the veterinarian —you should look for a veterinary practice that makes house calls. — Catnip staff
I don’t trick the cat…EVER. I tell her, “Dixie, we’re going to Doctor C, It’s okay…” and some reassuring words about what is going to happen. She doesn’t understand the words, but she does understand “Dr. C” and that I am TALKING to HER. I use a carrier with a window. I raise the carrier so that she can see out the window. I tell her, “Okay, Dixie, here we go.” and later “this trip will be short/long/tiresome/whatever. It’s okay, we’ll come back today.” or whatever. Again, she doesn’t know what I’m saying, but nevertheless it’s important to be telling her something truthful and relevant, because cats can detect care and kindness in your voice…assuming your cat has experienced you as caring and kind. I talk to her every once in a while, “here come’s a big curve/are you okay with this hill?/did you see the dogs there? etc” No treats or toys in the carrier but definitely a blanket or fleece she likes. At the vet, when I’m telling her what will happen and then “okay, good girl, we’re going home now” At home there is a very special food treat and a lot of praise and extra stroking. Also, take an extra blanket just in case the first one does get soiled.
It definitely depends on the cat. I do talk to Princess Catarina every time I see her. If I can I will sit with her or at least stroke her fur. Is she spoiled? No! I am. She does not like the carrier even though It is large with windows except for the back. When in the carrier she will protest a bit but quiets when we are moving. She is very interested in what is outside. I did buy her a “Space Case”, my name. She likes to hide in there and has even brought her toys in there. I do not want to use that one for vet visits, though Maybe I should. I have it because we are moving and it has a tunnel she likes to play in when attached.
I cover the carrier so that the movement of places we pass don’t get her sick. I also talk soothingly to her during the ride to the vet. Placing a finger inside brings her comfort and some good scratches.