Top 10 Tips for Traveling With Your Dog by Car

Whether you’re road tripping for the weekend or journeying cross country with your dog, these top 10 tips for traveling with your dog will help you prep for four-wheeled adventures with your four-legged friend.

We cover essential dog travel gear to make the journey fun and safe for both of you, and follow-up with the biggest barriers to a carefree road trip with your dog. If you can get past these, the rest is smooth going.

10 Tips for Road Trips With Your Dog

1. Double-check your dog’s identification.

You’re heading to unfamiliar territory for your dog. If he gets lost, he won’t be able to make his way back to you with ease.

More is better when it comes to dog identification. He should be microchipped and wear identification tags. A personalized dog collar with your cell phone number makes it easy for people to contact you when they find your dog.

2. Gear up.

Make sure you have the essentials for the road and the duration of your trip. Here’s what you need:

  • Collar and leash
  • Water and food bowls
  • Medication, if necessary
  • Dog waste bags, preferably eco-friendly

3. Load up on the water.

You and your dog need lots of water on the road. Bring large jugs of water for the trip. A travel dog water bowl lets your dog drink without too much sloshing.

4. Pack your dog’s food.

Traveling isn’t a good time to experiment with new food for your dog. Pack your dog’s usual food and dog treats in airtight containers or ziplock bags, and bring enough for the length of the trip—unless you’re sure you can pick up the same brand where you’re headed.

5. Hook up the dog harness.

Cars don’t come with dog seat belts included, and a quality dog car harness is the next best thing.

Are dog car harnesses safe? These travel essentials help keep dog and driver safe in three ways:

  • Preventing distracted driving. Harnesses keep your dog from wandering around the interior of the car and climbing into the front seat.
  • Preventing your dog from becoming a projectile during an accident. This is a danger to him and any people in the car.
  • Preventing your dog from escaping after an accident. In the shock and aftermath of a crash, a loose dog will escape through any open doors or broken windows, and you won’t likely have the presence of mind to keep track of him.

6. Cover your car seats.

Backseat protector or hammock seat protector can protect your car seats from doggy damage. Scratches from unclipped nails. Drool. Dropped snacks. And, the most dreaded of all—vomit. Car seat protectors are designed tough enough to withstand your dog’s worst, and clean up beautifully with a toss in the wash.

Are dog car hammocks safe? Hammock car seat protectors are designed primarily to protect your car seats, not for dog safety. They are, however, often made of materials that offer a more slip-resistant footing than leather seats, and many models prevent your dog from trying to climb into the front seat—which is a driving hazard.

7. Pack a car cleaning kit.

Even if you follow the above tip, dog messes happen and you need supplies on hand for easy cleanup. A helpful kit contains: old towels, dog-safe cleaners, paper towels, garbage bags, and disinfectant wipes.

8. Bring along your dog’s comfort items.

If your dog is an anxious traveler, familiar items can help. Pack his favorite toys, blanket, and his dog bed so he can sleep comfortably wherever you stay. So dogs enjoy the cozy confines of dog crates—bring that along too if your dog is denning.

9. Keep it cool.

Keep the car temperature comfortable for your dog throughout the journey. This prevents overheating and can help with dog car sickness and car anxiety. Cracking the window so he gets fresh air is also helpful.

10. Stop at rest stops.

Just like you, your dog requires regular breaks to relieve himself and stretch his legs. Err on the side of more stops than less, since you can’t tell for sure when he has to go.

Now that you’re prepped for your road trip, let’s tackle some of the most significant barriers to an enjoyable car ride with your dog.

Can Dogs Get Car Sick?

Yes. Dog’s can (and do) get car sick. And it’s not pleasant. You’re on the road for a few miles or a few hours, and your dog loses his lunch in the backseat.

Car (or motion) sickness is more common in puppies younger than one year of age because the inner ear—the part of your dog’s anatomy that sustains his balance—is not yet fully developed. This is also why kids are more prone to car sickness than adults.

Because of this inner ear connection, many young dogs outgrow car sickness once they’re fully grown. Some dogs, however, don’t outgrow the feeling of motion sickness in cars. In some instances, this is a chronic inner ear problem, but more often it’s because your dog associates car rides and nausea or discomfort. In effect, car sickness transforms into car anxiety. (More on dog travel anxiety later.)

Signs of motion sickness in dogs:

  • Whining
  • Excessive drooling
  • Pacing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy

Part of coping with dog car sickness is riding it out until he’s fully grown, while doing as much as possible to ease your dog’s discomfort.

Here are some strategies that can help ease motion sickness:

  • Don’t feed your dog right before the ride.
  • Keep the car cool.
  • Crack a window so your dog has fresh air.
  • Anti-nausea medications. Get recommendations from your veterinarian for the best medication, dosage, and frequency for your dog. This might not be a safe solution for very young or small dogs.

Why Do Dogs Pant In the Car?

Dogs usually pant in the car because they are cooling themselves down. Cars are notorious hot spots, especially in warm, sunny weather. Never leave your dog in a car alone because he is at risk of developing severe (even deadly) heat-related illnesses. Always cool your car down with the air conditioning on hot days before loading up your dog.

Your dog may also pant in the car because he’s excited to head to the dog park, anxious about the car ride, in pain from an illness, or reacting to a medication.

If your dog pants excessively during car rides, and it’s combined with other symptoms such as pacing and whining, it is likely car anxiety. If the excessive panting continues beyond the car trip, a visit to your veterinarian is in order.

How to Cure Dog Car Anxiety

Does your usually exuberant, playful, and loving dog suddenly whine and pull against his leash when you walk him to the car? He’s probably suffering from car anxiety.

Other symptoms of car anxiety in dogs include:

  • Yawning
  • Listlessness
  • Whining
  • Excessive drooling
  • Pacing
  • Vomiting
  • Licking lips

With early interventions or patient counterconditioning, you can make car rides less stressful (or terror-inducing) for your dog. Here are the key steps to take:

1. Prevent the onset of car anxiety

Knowing what causes car anxiety before bringing your puppy home lets you head it off at the pass. One of the most helpful things you can do is make sure you don’t head to the veterinarian every time you get in the car in his first months at home. Once your puppy has his vaccinations, take him in the car to explore your favorite hiking trail or the nearest dog park. The key is to create a strong association between the car and fun activities—so he’ll be raring to go when you open the car door.

Don’t force your puppy into the car if he’s showing severe anxiety or panic. Take time to help him settle down, give him a dog treat, and only bring him to the car when he’s calm.

If your puppy appears to have motions sickness, follow the relief strategies above to prevent terrible car experiences he won’t forget anytime soon.

Finally, dogs pick up on the moods and stress level of their human pack members. If you are laid back about car rides, your dog will feel more at ease.

2. Keep your dog comfortable

Pay attention to the comfort of your four-legged passenger. Maintain a comfortable temperature and give him dog toys to play with, especially on longer trips when he might get bored. Dogs also enjoy a familiar blanket or t-shirt that smells like their owner when riding in a car.

3. Countercondition dogs with car anxiety

If you adopt an adult dog with car anxiety, you can disrupt his negative associations about cars with counterconditioning. The key is accepting that the process is slow going and requires abundant patience. It’ll likely take weeks and rushing things will undermine any headway you make. Another key? Treats, and lots of ‘em.

Here’s how to help your dog develop positive associations with the car:

  • Choose your designated dog treats. Use your dog’s top favorite treats for use during the counterconditioning process exclusively.
  • Spend time with your dog near the car everyday. Don’t make any moves to enter the car at first. Focus on keeping your dog relaxed and calm. Pet him. Scratch him behind the ears. You can play with him, but keep it low-key. When your dog is calm, lead him slightly closer to the car and stop. Play with him, praise him, and pet him some more, and give him his favorite treat. Repeat this process for several days or weeks, if needed, until you are very close to the door he will enter.
  • Open the car door. Repeat the play, pet, treat process until he takes it in stride.
  • Guide your dog into the car. You may have to go into the backseat of the car with the door open and offer him a treat. Put his favorite toys or blanket on the seat. Offer treats and praise with all forward progress—putting his front paws on the seat, sniffing around the door or climbing inside.
  • Get ready to drive. As your dog is ready—and step by slow step—put on his harness, leave him in the back seat alone, get into the driver’s seat, and turn on the car. Offer treats and praise whenever he is calm.
  • Hit the road. Start with a trip down the street, and slowly extend the trips. Whenever you reach your destination, give your dog abundant praise and his favorite treats.

Now that you know what you need for car travels with your best friend, and how to manage bumps in the road, you and your dog can set off on your adventures excited to reach your destination—and comfortable and safe every mile of the journey.

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