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Dog Sedatives for Travel Anxiety: Should I use them?

Although some dogs love to travel, others can get highly stressed and can experience travel anxiety. If your dog seems to get highly agitated and distressed when traveling, whether it’s in a car, train or on a flight, you may be considering the use of a dog sedative for travel.

However, experts advise staying away the use of dog sedatives for travel, so it’s very important that you consider all of your options first. There are many dangers of sedating and tranquillising dogs, so it isn’t something that should be taken lightly. 

In this article, we will outline which sedatives are available, the dangers of using a dog sedative for travel and the alternative remedies for travel anxiety in dogs. We will also share some travel tips for a stress-free trip. 

Related post: Flying with an Anxious Dog? [15 Top Tips!] 

The underlying problem: Travel anxiety in dogs

Anxiety—that feeling of nervousness, unease, or apprehension that we’re all familiar with. Sometimes anxiety is perfectly normal, but it becomes a problem when it is severe or frequent enough to have an adverse effect on the dog’s or owner’s quality of life.

Depending on your dog’s temperament and travel experience, your dog may experience some anxiety when traveling. Of course, a dog who has traveled a lot is likely to be a lot calmer when traveling. However, dogs who have not had much experience traveling, in cars, on trains, on planes, are much more likely to find the experience stressful.

If your dog is anxious, you might notice some combination of the following symptoms:

  • Tense muscles
  • Trembling
  • Panting
  • Attempts to escape the situation, which may lead to destructive behavior
  • Urination, defecation, release of the anal glands
  • Crouching or cowering close to the ground or trying to hide in a “safe” location
  • Wide open eyes, sometimes with the whites showing
  • Pulled back ears

If your dog does get anxious when traveling, don’t worry, there are many fixes, which we will discuss in this article. 

Why do dogs get stressed when traveling?

There could be a number of reasons that your dog gets stressed or anxious when traveling.

It could simply be that your dog hasn’t travelled enough in his or her life and finds the experience quite scary. Dogs who aren’t often exposed to long car rides, busy trains and train stations, or even airports, are more likely to find it stressful. This is particularly true if they were not exposed to it during the vital socialisation period of their lives, between 3-17 weeks.

A puppy’s experiences during this period of learning and development has a huge impact on their behaviour in adulthood. It’s important to expose puppies to many different environments and experiences during this time to ensure they grow into a well-adjusted and balanced adult.

Therefore, a dog who was not exposed to many different environments during this crucial time period, is more likely to be fearful of new environments and in turn find traveling quite an ordeal.  

Alternatively, your dog may have a past negative association to traveling. I could be that maybe he has associated a trip in the car, to something scary like a visit to the vet, or an accident. 

Related post: Flying with an Anxious Dog? [15 Top Tips!]

What to do about travel anxiety in dogs?

Behavioural modification and gradual exposure to travel is the best way to deal with travel anxiety in dogs. It does take time, but it is worth it in the long run.

Rather than sedating a dog for travel, which has many dangers we will outline below, it’s important to try train your dog to stay calm in different environments. Both you and your dog will be far happier for it.  

These protocols involve teaching a dog how to stay calm when they are exposed to certain triggers, such as a busy train, airport, or a long duration in a car. 

The best way to deal with travel anxiety in dogs is the use of positive reinforcement and gradually increasing your dogs exposure to these triggers. The word ‘gradual’ is key. You want to take baby steps to teach your dog that traveling isn’t so scary after all.

For example, if your dog struggles with rides in the car, you should start by simply introducing him to the car for a short period of time, even without actually leaving the driveway or the pavement. Get your dog to spend time in the car, and give him lots of treats so that he slowly starts to associate it with positive things. Once he seems more comfortable in the car, you can start taking him for short trips around the block. Over time you should be able to increase the duration of your journeys. 

The following are all things you can do to create a positive association to traveling:

  • Treats. Lots of treats!
  • Calming music
  • Fresh air
  • Using your dog’s favourite toy or blanket
  • Make the destination fun! If your dog is scared of car rides, take him on a short ride to his favourite place. 

Although there are dog sedatives for travel available, both over the counter and through the vet, they aren’t recommended unless your dog’s travel anxiety is severe.

How to tell if a dog sedative for travel is required?

As mentioned above, the best way to deal with travel anxiety in dogs, is through positive reinforcement and increased exposure. This does take some time as you want to build up a positive association to either the car, train, or even airport. 

However, if you have already tried various training methods but your dog is still showing signs of stress when traveling, you may want to consider your alternative options. 

The following are all signs of stress and anxiety in dogs:

  • Tense muscles
  • Trembling
  • Panting
  • Attempts to escape the situation, which may lead to destructive behavior
  • Urination, defecation, release of the anal glands
  • Crouching or cowering close to the ground or trying to hide in a “safe” location
  • Wide open eyes, sometimes with the whites showing
  • Pulled back ears

If your dog is showing these signs and seems to be severely distressed when traveling, take him to the vet. Talk your vet through the symptoms and they will be able to advise you on what is best for your dog. 

What dog sedatives for travel are available?

There are a range of dog sedatives for travel available, each suitable for differing levels of anxiety in dogs:

  • Natural remedies (mild anxiety)
    • herbal stress relievers (lavender and chamomile)
  • Over the counter dog sedative for travel (for mild anxiety):
    • nutritional supplements (e.g. L-theanine, melatonin, or s-adenosyl-methionine)
    • synthetic pheromone preparations (e.g. dog appeasing pheromone or DAP)
    • body wraps that provide reassuring pressure
  • Prescription anti-anxiety medications (only for severe anxiety):
    • alprazolam
    • amitriptyline
    • buspirone
    • clomipramine
    • dexmedetomidine
    • diazepam
    • fluoxetine
    • lorazepam
    • paroxetine
    • sertraline
    • trazodone

Before giving your dog anything, it’s always best to seek advice from your veterinarian. Your dog’s veterinarian can determine which sedative is best for your dog based on the problem that needs to be addressed and your dog’s overall health.

Whichever medication is prescribed, ensure you closely follow the dosing instructions that are provided and never give more sedative than is recommended. You should also always talk to your veterinarian about any questions or concerns that you might have.

Why you should NOT use a dog sedative for travel

Sedation essentially puts the brain to sleep. Previously, both pet owners and pet health professionals both thought that the best way to treat anxious dogs was to simply “knock them out”. If they’re asleep for the journey they won’t know the difference right? However, it’s not as simple as that. 

Over the years, medical research has taught us that using a dog sedative for travel is not a good idea, because there are many potential dangers to dogs.

Firstly, a dog sedative for travel can actually cause your dog to panic more. When a dog is sedated, their ability to think and process is stunted. The wooziness can confuse and worry a dog, causing them to panic. Additionally, a dog that has been sedated also won’t be able to stand up right and maintain balance. Not only will this add to the confusion and panic, it could increase the likelihood of injury. 

Furthermore, dog sedatives affect more than your pet’s brain and balance. Using a dog sedative for travel will reduce their heart rate, respiration, and body temperature. This can cause problems with breathing and maintaining your dog’s body temperature, particularly if your dog is a snub-nose breed. 

Lastly, although it is rare unless the dose of sedation was too high, dogs can even become dehydrated.

The intensity of the risks listed above are increased when flying. In fact, airlines generally won’t allow dogs to fly under sedation nowadays. This is because the increased altitude pressures can increase the likelihood of respiratory and even cardiovascular problems. 

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No loving pet parent wishes any of the above on their dog! That’s why the American Veterinary Medical Association strongly recommends against using tranquilizers and sedatives. 

What are the alternatives to using a dog sedative for travel?

Natural remedies

Many dogs respond well to various herbal stress-relievers. However, of course every animal will respond differently, depending on their size, weight, breed and temperament. What works for one dog may not work for yours.

In the same way that chamomile tea has been found to relax us humans, it’s also a good way to help calm dogs. In fact, there have been studies to show that it has a relaxing affect on many animals. Chamomile helps the brain relax without dangerous side effects that a dog sedative for travel can have.

Valerian is another herbal remedy often used by humans to treat insomnia, is also recommended for dogs. Rather than affecting the brain directly, Valerian helps to reduce tension and anxiety.

The scent of lavender oil has also been tested in dogs – studies have found that it has a relaxing affect. You don’t want your dog to ingest the oil, so you can just give your dog a little smell of it before travel. 

Over the counter options

Some nutritional supplements have been found to have a relaxing affect on dogs. These include L-theanine, melatonin, or s-adenosyl-methionine which can all be bought over the counter. 

Alternatively, you could consider using a pheromone collar or spray. The collar, which looks like a flea collar, produces the hormone pheromone that mama dogs produce to relax their puppies. The collar is a natural way to help keep your dog calm during travel. Another option is to spray your pet’s carrier with pheromones.

Body wraps have been proven to help dogs feel calmer in stressful situations. The hug-like effect of a wrap, such as a scarf, provides dogs with calming reassurance. Some pet owners simply use scarves to wrap around their beloved dogs. Alternatively, there are some products that have been specifically designed to reduce anxiety in dogs, such as the Thundershirt. 

It’s important to note that you should always seek advice from your vet before giving any remedy to your dog. Nowadays, many veterinarians will prescribe herbal or “alternative” options for pets. Additionally, it’s vital that you always follow dosage instructions. 

Related post: Flying with an Anxious Dog? [15 Top Tips!]

Tips for traveling with dogs

1. Spend time to train your dog to stay calm.

As mentioned above, the best way to deal with travel anxiety in dogs is to manage their behaviour. Take some time to gradually expose your dogs to traveling, providing plenty of positive reinforcement with the use of treats.

Not only will your dog benefit from the time you put into this, staying calm is a requirement if you are planning on taking your dog on a flight. In order for dogs to travel in the cabin with their owners, they must stay calm on the flight otherwise they risk being sent into the cargo area of the plane. 

2. Exhaust your dog before travel.

Try to exhaust your dog a little by increasing the level of activity before your trip. Take him out for an extra walk or spend some time playing a few extra games of fetch.

A sleepy dog will be less prone to getting stressed out when traveling. Exercise helps shed some layers of anxious energy.

3. Limit access to food and water before travel.

Limit your dog’s access to food. Therefore, it’ll be less likely that they will need to defecate or urinate when traveling. 

Additionally, some dogs may experience motion sickness if they eat just before traveling.

This is particularly important if you are taking your dog on a flight. Air Canada suggest feeding your dog four to six hours prior to departure, as a full stomach may cause discomfort during travel. 

4. Get your dog used to it’s travel carrier, if using one.

You want to ensure that the journey is as stress-free as possible for your dog.

If you are using a carrier, spend time to get your dog get used to it. You want your dog to be completely comfortable spending long periods of time in their carrier.

This will take some time, especially if your dog is not used to being confined in a travel carrier. When first introducing your dog to its carrier, never force them in and immediately close the door. This may lead to a negative association with it and they may start to fear the carrier. 

Instead, let your dog explore the carrier by itself, with the door open. You can lure your dog into their carrier with plenty of treats, and let him/her play and sleep in there as much as possible.

It’s also helpful to do some practise runs in the carrier. Take your dog to the cafe in the carrier, or out for some car rides. 

In addition, pop some of their favourite toys in their travel home, for extra comfort.

5. Familiarise yourself with the airport/train station that you are departing from and arriving to.

This of course only applies if you are traveling by train or plane.

Most airports will have a dedicated area for pets and service animals to rest. It is actually a legal requirement that all U.S. airports have pet-relief areas available for working animals and pets to rest. Take some photos of the airport maps, so you don’t have to wander around on the day trying to find a resting place.

6. Pack all the essentials. 

Get everything organised the night before your trip. This will make the whole journey much less stressful for you, which will in turn make your dog calmer. An anxious dog is more likely to feel calm if it’s owner is calm. 

If you are crossing borders or getting on a flight, you will need a number of documents. The documents required will vary depending on which airline you are flying with (if flying), and where you are traveling from and to. But generally, you may require any of the following:

  1. Microchip certificate
  2. Rabies vaccination certificate
  3. Animal health certificate 
  4. Import permit
  5. Additional vaccination certificates
  6. Rabies titer test results
  7. Parasite treatment certificate

This is just a guide on what is required, please check the requirements for your specific airline and destination country. 

Supplies are key to a happy, healthy trip. Here’s what we suggest bringing:

  • Your dog’s food
  • Favourite treats
  • Collapsible food and water bowls
  • An extra leash
  • Plastic bags and hand cleaners in case of accidents
  • A safe toy or bone for chewing on
  • Dog’s favourite blanket

When traveling with an anxious dog, we recommend bringing their favourite toy and blanket. Both of these will provide them with a sense of security. A blanket also comes in handy as you can use it to cover your dog’s carrier. 

travel anxiety in dogs

Bottom Line

So, if your dog gets particularly stressed or anxious when traveling, don’t worry there are many ways to manage this. As dog sedatives for travel can actually be quite dangerous in many ways discussed above, it is best to stay away from them unless your dog is severely stressed and travel is unavoidable.

As we have discussed, there are many alternative methods to managing travel anxiety in dogs. Firstly the best way to manage it, is to train your dog to stay calm in different situations, through gradual increased exposure and positive reinforcement. Additionally, there are many natural remedies and over the counter medications that could help calm an anxious dog. These include, chamomile, lavender oil, valerian and anti-anxiety wraps. 

If you feel you have tried everything you can to help your dog stay calm while traveling, then there are dog sedatives for travel available. In these cases, you will need to visit the vet to discuss your options. It’s vital to seek your vet’s advice when giving your dog any medication, and always follow dosages accurately. 

Happy and safe travels! 

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