Everything You Need to Know Before Taking Your Dog on a Road Trip

Your good boi bouncing off the walls in your car? We can help.

Quarantine, ugh. You need an escape, and so does your dog. Since plane travel is extra perilous these days, you decide on the next best thing: A road trip! But then you remember that your pup freaks out in the car. And that they need a safety harness. They need food and water, too. Oh, and a place to stay that allows pets. Crap, they also have to use the bathroom.

These are all things to consider before taking your favorite animal on a road trip, but none of this should stop you from bringing them along. You may just need some guidance, so let me (and mostly the experts I spoke with) be your guide.

Where do I start? What should I pack? I just want to have a good time with my pup!

I want you to have a good time, too, and that starts by making sure that your dog (or cat) is as safe as they can be. This means investing in a car harness or carrier, but Andrea Tu, medical director at Behavior Vets of New York, warns that “not all of them are created equal.” She says the Center for Pet Safety performs crash tests on harnesses or carriers, so anything certified by them is a good choice. She specifically names Sleepypod as a reputable company for your car and pet safety needs.

Furthermore — and I emphasize this — always keep your pet in the cabin with you, not in the bed of your pickup truck or strapped to the outside of your car. As Tu says, “Make sure you’re providing your dog with the same comfort you would expect to provide a baby on a car ride.”

Safety first, I get it. What else do I need?

Food and water, obviously. “Collapsable dog bowls are great,” says Andrew Muse, who lives a nomadic lifestyle with his dog, Kicker. “Wilderdog makes some that we love.”

When you should feed your pet during a road trip, however, depends on their individual needs. As Tu explains, pets that are prone to car sickness may benefit from eating three hours prior to being in the car, then again once you reach your destination. “If you give a dog that’s prone to car sickness a treat in the car, they’re going to vomit it right out,” she explains. “Once that vomit response is triggered, they’re going to keep vomiting, and then they’re going to feel nauseous. Then, they’re going to associate that nausea and feeling of discomfort with the car. That’s when dogs could develop fear and anxiety related to cars.”

As far as water goes, Tu says you can be slightly more lenient, providing your animal with small amounts throughout the drive. Just keep them from gulping it down if they have a history of car sickness. However — and this is important — if your pet is diabetic or has kidney problems, you never want to limit their water intake, so make sure to check with your veterinarian about this first.

What about bathroom breaks?

Let them go before they get in the car. Otherwise, Tu says, “Maybe take a break every few hours — whenever you need to take a break.” You may also want to train them to pee on command first.

Unlike dogs, however, indoor cats may be less inclined to get out of the car and use the bathroom along the way. Therefore, Tu says, “The recommendation is usually to get a really large dog crate — one big enough for their litter box.” That way, they can handle their business inside their carrier, and you can avert the struggle of training them to wear a harness.

Anything else to consider before I head out?

Make sure your entire trip — restaurants, hotels and sights — is planned around you having your pet there. “Plan your routes around areas that are dog-friendly, and make sure you won’t have to leave your pup in your vehicle in extreme temperatures,” Muse says. While you may think national parks are a good place to bring your animal, Muse says otherwise — they tend to limit where pets can be (often to paved areas only) as a means of protecting the landscape and other wildlife, so keep that in mind.

Similarly, Tu suggests keeping track of your nearest emergency clinics, just in case. She also says certain routes may be more conducive to your pet enjoying the drive. “Dogs that don’t do well with car rides have a harder time with stop-and-go traffic,” she explains. “Once they’re on a highway and going fast, they usually do better.” Depending on your pet, you may want to plan accordingly.

Speaking of dogs that have a hard time with car rides, my dog has a hard time with car rides. What can I do?

Good news: There are many, many options. Working with a trainer to help your animal form a more positive relationship with the car is a good first step. “It’s important to use a trainer that doesn’t use punishment and utilizes positive, reward-based methods only,” Tu says. “The last thing you want to do is add pain and punishment to something that the dog already associates with fear.”

Giving your animal something to do in the car may also help. Treat-filled puzzle toys are good for dogs that can handle food in the car. Tu specifically suggests a brand called Nina Ottosson. “Kicker has a ball and a couple other toys on his dog bed to keep him entertained,” Muse adds. “But to be honest, he mostly just sleeps.”

You can also try calming dog treats. Muse says, “Zesty Paws makes some great calming supplements to help dogs that get anxious in the car, around fireworks, in storms. We love their Mobility Bites as well after long hikes or big adventures.”

For especially anxious pets, Tu says, “There are a lot of ‘pheromone’ products out there. Pheromones are essentially aerosolized hormones.” Feliway is a pheromone product for cats, which mimics calming hormones that they naturally release in their environment. Adaptil is a pheromone product for dogs, which mimics appeasing hormones normally released by lactating pups. These two brands, Tu says, are the only ones that have scientific backing, so if you want a pheromone product, try one of these.

Adaptil comes as a collar, which you can simply attach to your dog for the duration of the road trip. Alternatively, both Adaptil and Feliway come as sprays, which can be sprayed in your car or on a towel that you then place in your car. To humans, these pheromones smell like nothing, so no need to worry about stinking up your car. That said, you may want to give your vehicle a few minutes of decent ventilation after spraying these products.

Another consideration is whether your animal is being triggered by watching the landscape fly by through the window. “One thing we often recommend is making sure that the carrier they’re in is on the ground level,” Tu says. “The safest place for a pet carrier is on the floor behind the passenger seat.” You can also drape a towel or thin fabric over their carrier to stop them from freaking out at the sight of other cars and the outside world. Just make sure they have enough ventilation.

For dogs that are too big for carriers — and certainly too big to fit behind your passenger seat — you could try a product like the Thundercap. “This unfortunately looks like you have a diaper on your dog’s face,” Tu says. But it theoretically decreases any unpleasant visual stimuli. “The caveat, of course, is that you want to train your dog to wear this prior to using it.” Thundershirts can also be helpful, but only if your animal is generally chill with wearing clothes.

I tried all of that, and my dog is still tweaking! Help!

It may be time to consider medication. “One thing that I’d absolutely recommend is people speak with their veterinarians about an anti-nausea medication,” Tu says. “There are also a lot of short-acting medications that you can give for car-related anxiety.”

Some animals may even require a sedative combined with an anti-anxiety medication, depending on how serious their car troubles are. Having that combination is important, because as Tu explains, “One of the medications that some old school vets — shall we say — will often use is called Acepromazine. Acepromazine only paralyzes patients. It doesn’t have any anti-anxiety effects, which ultimately makes the problem worse. It’s almost like if you have someone who’s scared of roller coasters and you tell them, ‘I’m still going to put you on a roller coaster, but I’m going to give you something so that you can’t scream. But you’re still going to feel the whole thing.’ While it looks like the dog is doing better to you, they’ve just had an even more traumatic experience with the car.”

If your veterinarian recommends Acepromazine, Tu suggests asking for something with anti-anxiety properties, “Or you might want to speak to a different vet.”

Sounds good! Anything else?

“Always make sure you have enough poop bags,” Muse says.

Ah, poop bags. Right.

Have a nice trip!