As a vet student, there are many reasons that you might have questions about traveling with pets.
- traveling this summer (for fun or externships) with your own pets
- on the receiving end of questions from your friend, parent, or Great Aunt Edna
- working in a clinic this summer and providing advice to clients
- thinking ahead to your first job and wanting to be prepared
Regardless of your motivations, there are many reasons to learn about pet travel! Minimizing travel stress for both pets and their owners can result in a more favorable experience for everyone involved.
Practice Traveling at Home
Travel is typically even more stressful for our pets than it is for us! Many pets spend much of their time at home, so the concept of being loaded into a car or into a carrier is a disruption to their normal routine.
If your pet will be traveling in a carrier, practice using it at home. Don’t leave the carrier tucked away in a closet until the day of your trip. Instead, place it in a central area of your home and gradually acclimate your pet to the carrier.
Feed your pet in the carrier, or periodically deposit your pet’s favorite treats in the carrier as you walk by. This will encourage your pet to enter the carrier and develop positive associations, which may alleviate some of the stress that accompanies travel.
If possible, take the time to train your pet to enter the carrier on command. Although this idea might sound far-fetched, even cats can be trained to do so and it can significantly reduce the stress associated with heading out on a trip… for both you and the cat!
If your pet becomes anxious on car rides, acclimate him or her to car travel. You can do this by gradually increasing the amount of time your pet spends in the car.
This process may take several days, but the idea is to follow a step-wise approach to gradually desensitize your pet to car rides:
- Start out by loading your pet in the car. Don’t even start the car, just give your pet a treat in the car and then go back inside. Hopefully, your pet can tolerate this with minimal stress. If so, you’re ready to move on. If not, keep repeating this step until your pet can get in and out of the car calmly.
- Next, load your pet into the car and start the car. Reward your pet with a treat for remaining calm, then turn the car off and go back inside. Repeat until your pet can reliably tolerate the car starting without becoming anxious.
- Add another step. This time, load your pet into the car, start the car, and then back the car down the driveway or out of your parking spot. Immediately return to your parking spot, turn the car off, and reward your pet. Repeat as needed.
I think you get the idea.
Over the next several days, practice getting into the car repeatedly, adding another layer of “difficulty” as your pet becomes accustomed to each step. Drive around the block, then around the neighborhood, and then across town. Use treats and positive reinforcement to make car rides a positive experience, with the goal of always stopping before your pet becomes anxious or overwhelmed. With time, you can gradually increase the pet’s travel tolerance in order to decrease anxiety with long trips.
Consider Supplements or Medication
There are a number of medications and supplements that can be used to reduce travel anxiety in pets.
Over the counter pheromones such as Feliway® and Adaptil® are designed to reduce anxiety in pets and may be effective for mild cases of travel anxiety. These can typically be purchased online or at pet supply stores. Nutraceuticals such as Zylkene®, Anxitane®, and others may also be effective for mild cases of travel anxiety, although these products are typically only available through veterinarians.
Pets with more significant anxiety may benefit from the use of prescription medication. Commonly used medications for travel include alprazolam, gabapentin, and trazodone. It is important for owners to do a trial run of these medications before the day of travel, however, as some pets experience unpredictable effects with these medications and may actually become more anxious instead of less anxious.
Medication is typically not recommended for pets traveling by air, especially those traveling in the airplane’s cargo hold. Sedatives and anxiolytics can affect a pet’s equilibrium, leading to balance difficulties during transport and an increased risk of injury. Additionally, sedated pets are at a higher risk of cardiovascular and respiratory complications during air travel.(1)
Update Preventive Care
When you travel, your pets may be exposed to different illnesses and parasites than they typically encounter at home.
Ensure that all recommended vaccines are up to date, taking into account the fact that disease risks vary by geographic location. For example, if you normally live in an area that is not Lyme-endemic but you are taking your dog on a camping trip in New England, you will probably want to ensure that your dog has a Lyme vaccine (and the necessary 3-week booster) before your trip!
Also, think about flea and heartworm prevention before travel. If you don’t normally give flea prevention to your indoor cat but will be taking the cat with you to a family member’s house, hotel, or vacation rental, flea prevention will ensure that your cat does not bring home any unwanted hitchhikers!
Obtain Health Certificates and Other Documentation
Health certificates are required for any pet that will be traveling across state lines. (Trust me, you will become very familiar with filling out health certificates as a practicing veterinarian!)
While health certificates are rarely checked for pets traveling within the U.S. by car, it is still best to be prepared by having this documentation. Pets traveling by air, or traveling internationally, definitely need health certificates and also may need additional documentation.
When traveling with pets, prepare for the unexpected!
Bring your pet’s medical records, in case you unexpectedly need to board your pet or seek veterinary care. Bring an extra leash and collar, in case of loss or damage. Stock up on your pet’s chronic medications before travel, in order to avoid running out if your return home is delayed.
Although it’s impossible to plan for everything, following these steps can help minimize travel stress for both pets and their owners!
1. AVMA. Traveling with Your Pet FAQ.