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Sedation & Alternatives for Pet Travel

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First on the Itinerary

Sedating pets for plane travel or road trips is a somewhat daunting issue. The health, age, and temperament of a pet should be the three deciding factors regarding the ability of an animal to have a good road trip or a pleasant flight. Well before any significant traveling, an owner should consult the pet's veterinarian to determine the animal's ability to travel successfully.

If a pet's health and age indicate a successful travel experience, the pet's temperament should be discussed with a focus on the reactive or behavioral aspects of personality, such as a pet's general anxiety level, fear of separation, and negative reactions to strange noises, people, places, and other pets. Also, susceptibility to motion sickness (nausea, vomiting, and elimination) should be considered.

Discussing these fundamentals will help the veterinarian and the owner decide whether or not sedation, or a calming alternative, is necessary.

An Ounce of Preparation Is Worth a Dose of Meds

Well before travel, owners should also start the process of acclimating their pets to travel. If a pet feels comfortable being in a cage or carrier, or is used to riding in a vehicle, the need for sedation is greatly reduced or even eliminated. Loads of information about preparing pets for road or air travel is available online or from veterinarians.

Mapping the Effects of Sedation

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, air transport of sedated pets can be fatal. Over-sedation by anxious owners is the most frequent cause of animal deaths during flight. Generally, sedation accounts for more than half of all in-flight animal deaths.

Even at recommended doses animals can be unpredictable during sedation. Altitude and pressurization can alter the effect of some sedatives, much as the cocktail a human enjoys on the ground can become a knockout potion when imbibed in the air. Balance and equilibrium are disturbed by sedation and compromised senses can lead to inappropriate or complete lack of response to accidental danger.

Except in unusual circumstances, veterinarians should not dispense sedatives for animals that are to be transported in cargo holds. Some airlines specifically stipulate this. An aware, physically uncompromised animal, even if somewhat anxious, is better able to withstand temperature and air pressure changes, rough handling, or other accidental or unfortunate circumstances of travel.

Increased altitude can create respiratory and cardiovascular problems for sedated dogs and cats. Brachycephalic (short-snouted) dogs and cats, such as Pug pups and purring Persians, are especially affected.

If an anxious animal is flying in the cabin of an airplane or riding along in a vehicle, some degree of sedation, or a soothing alternative, may be necessary for the comfort and safety of the animal and its companion, other passengers, or, if on the road, the vehicle driver.

Alternate Routes

While sedation may be necessary in some cases, less dangerous alternatives exist and should be considered. These items are generally available either from veterinarians or pet supply stores.

  • Homeopathic and Over-the-Counter (OTC) Remedies - A web search with the key phrase "calming dogs and cats for travel, products" should turn up a vast list of OTC and homeopathic treatments - sprays, chews, liquids, appliances, etc. - along with availability information. - Herbs such as catnip, valerian, chamomile, hops, or ginger, can help ease anxiety in cats. Some dogs respond well to aromatherapy.

  • Anti-nausea Remedies Though a pet may feel nauseous, drool, vomit, or involuntarily empty the bladder or bowels while traveling doesn't necessarily mean it must be sedated. Prescribed drugs are available to lessen the effects of motion sickness. Homeopathic and OTC remedies are also available.

  • Pheromones - Female dogs release a pheromone that calms their pups; the substance has a calming effect on older dogs as well. This pheromone has been copied synthetically and is available as a spray or embedded in collars. - A spray that delivers a synthetic copy of feline facial pheromone, used by cats to mark their territories as safe and secure, can be used to induce calmness.

  • Appliances - Anxiety wraps are little jackets that place acupressure on key points of a dog's anatomy that mimic the calming effects of hugging a distressed infant. - German engineers have developed a wireless sonic tranquilizer for dogs. A small unit emits subliminal sound waves, inaudible to humans, which can induce relaxation in dogs.

  • Anti-depressants Prescribed by veterinarians, these drugs may be helpful for reducing anxiety through extensive traveling stints or long vacations. They must be started weeks in advance of travel to obtain the optimum effect.

When shopping for remedies, owners should use as much care as they would for human family members. Consulting a veterinarian before administering any homeopathic or OTC remedy could be vital as harmful ingredients may be present. Some may contain substances that conflict with medications a pet is currently using.

Trial Run Before Hitting the Trail

Planning ahead is essential. No matter what an owner and the veterinarian decide is best for the pet - sedation, calming agents, appliances - it is best to give the proposed solution a trial run well before traveling to ensure the remedy has the desired effect.

Traveling pets do not automatically require sedation. Sedation should be considered an option. Many products are available that can reduce travel-induced anxiety in pets without the possibly harmful effects of sedation. Working together, pets, their companions, and their veterinarians can make travel an experience of happy trails, wagging tails, and cool cats.


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