I love to take summer vacations with my husband and our dogs, Rio and Peach. It’s a thrill to pack the car and drive to an idyllic campground here in Colorado or head west to explore the off-leash dog beaches of Southern California or north to Wisconsin to splash around in refreshing lakes – checking out dog parks and pet-friendly hotels along the way.
I’ve found a little preparation goes a long way toward making our road trips as fun and stress-free as possible. In fact, planning is the key to summer travel with pets, according to Natalie Marks, DVM, CVJ, medical director of Fear Free certified Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago.
“Many of us like to have the entire family be part of vacation plans,” she says. “We just need to take some special precautions to make sure we’re planning appropriately for the needs of our furry family members on the trip.”
Start at the Veterinarian
Dr. Marks suggests scheduling an appointment with your Fear Free veterinarian to discuss your travel plans. Make sure you have copies of your pet’s vaccination records or titer results. You may need them if you will be boarding pets or having them groomed during the trip. Keep in mind that some vaccinations, such as the one for canine influenza, require an initial injection and a booster several weeks later, so factor that into your schedule.
If your dog or cat seems stressed in the car, ask your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medications – and try them out before your trip. If you’re considering using an over-the-counter supplement for anxiety or motion sickness, mention that, too.
Dr. Marks advises stocking up on medications, such as insulin doses for pets with diabetes. If your dog or cat has a chronic illness, bring medical records as well as shot records.
If your pet isn’t already microchipped, it’s time to do so. Once your veterinarian injects the microchip, list phone numbers and email addresses with the registration company.
“There’s a common misconception that somehow the microchip has a GPS or will instantly find them,” she says. “The only way that those microchips can be traced back to you, as the pet parent, is if they are registered – and registered currently. So make sure that happens.”
Your pet should also wear an ID tag with your cell phone number as well as an email address in case you enter an area without cell reception.
Prepping at Home
If you’ll be traveling with a cat, help them get used to their carrier before your vacation.
“If I can stress one thing to cat parents around the country, it’s to leave the cat carrier out every single day of the year. Make it part of your furniture, keep the carrier door open, feed your cat in that carrier, use treats in that carrier,” Dr. Marks says. “Make it a comfortable, safe zone for your cat. That will ease a lot of anxiety for car travel of any kind.”
Cats and dogs can also benefit from calming pheromones, chemical compounds that dogs and cats release for other members of their species that have positive associations, such as when dogs are nursing from their mothers. There are pheromone sprays, diffusers, wipes, and collars specifically designed for dogs (Adaptil) and cats (Feliway). An Adaptil collar helped greatly reduce anxiety in the car for Dr. Marks’ terrier mix, Samantha, who accompanies the family on vacations.
“It’s a very relaxing, naturally stress-free way to feel,” she says. “This is a great thing for travel.”
On the Road
When you’re ready to go, keep these travel tips from Dr. Marks in mind:
- Secure your pet in a carrier on the floor behind the middle of the passenger seat, where there is the least amount of motion.
- Crack a window to reduce motion sickness, but don’t roll it all the way down – pebbles or other objects could fly into their eyes.
- Play soothing music – interestingly, in one study the number-one preference of dogs and cats was reggae, followed by classical music. Some practices, such as Blum Animal Hospital, offer playlists that clients can download from Spotify. Or check out iCalmDog and iCalmCat, portable speakers that play calming music designed for pets.
- Take frequent rest stops and let your pet get out of the carrier for a walk, a sip of water and a treat, and some attention from you. To prevent accidental escapes, keep vehicle doors and windows closed when letting your cat out of her carrier for a stretch. Play with her in the vehicle with her favorite wand toy. Place a treat or small special meal in the carrier to encourage her to return. Practice this process at home prior to the trip so your cat knows the drill. Make sure your dog’s leash is attached and you have it firmly in hand before opening the vehicle door.
- Pack collapsible water and food bowls and keep a cooler with water handy (this is also useful for certain medications). Don’t forget an extra dog leash and a litter box. A first aid kit is a good idea, too.
- Know signs of anxiety, such as a crouched position, tucked tail, raised hackles, pinned ears, or a wide-eyed look. “Dogs will pant and might have a very wide, swollen tongue when they’re anxious or hot, and cats tend to freeze and get very, very quiet,” Dr. Marks says.
- Keep your veterinarian’s phone number on speed dial in case issues crop up.
Finally, never leave a dog or cat alone in a car.
“Never, ever. Ever. Ever. I don’t know how many more times I can say it … ever. Ever. Ever. Please don’t,” Dr. Marks says. “If you need to have a stop, make sure that it’s an outdoor café, or pack a lunch and sit at a rest area with your pet. Do something where you can include them in the plans.”
And, of course: have fun!
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.