Car sickness, a problem marked chiefly by an animal’s inability to ride in an automobile for any length of time without becoming physically ill, psychologically disoriented, or both, 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 often the root cause
Usually, however, the unpleasant signs of car sickness are brought on by fear. The cat finds himself in a 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, puts the cat into the carrier. (Sometimes, just the very sight of the carrier can be scary in itself.) Because the cat may associate the carrier with a trip to the veterinarian, you might see 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. It’s also likely he will quickly leave the area and hide. 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, and once in the carrier, he has nowhere to run and hide. And when he gets to the veterinarian’s office, he’s poked and prodded and 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 it’s the veterinary clinic or not — you open the carrier and there’s vomit and diarrhea inside. And the cat may be lying there, immobile or shaking with fear.
Some help in prevention
To prevent car sickness — or at least reduce the chances of its occurrence — a cat’s owner should commit to a carefully orchestrated series of behavioral training measures.
This training program should begin when the cat is no older than eight or 10 weeks of age, ideally. 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 hopefully, the cat will soon start wandering in and out. If you put a blanket inside, he may even start using the carrier as a pleasant 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 treat ball, 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 veterinary clinic.
Medication for motion sickness
However, some cats will never be relieved of their motion sickness without some form of treatment. In some cases, a veterinarian may prescribe an antihistamine such as Dramamine or Benadryl to relieve nausea. There is also an anti-anxiety drug called Buspar, which may relieve nausea as well as anxiety in cats. This drug requires a prescription from a veterinarian. In all cases, always remember that no medication should be used without the approval of a veterinarian.
However, if nothing you try seems to help — and the stress of the car ride causes you to avoid regular trips to the vet — you should seek out a veterinary practice that makes house calls. This could make the experience less stressful for both of you. — Catnip staff