It was an overcast day in Provincetown, 20 years ago. There was a stiff breeze, but the seas didn’t look too rough as I climbed aboard the boat for a romantic whale-watching expedition with my date. An hour later, one of us was retching over the railing while the other, decidedly green, was barely managing to hold down breakfast by sucking on slices of lemon and sour pickles provided by the crew. Nausea. Derived from the Greek for ship, naus, it literally translates as seasickness but means sickness that creates the urge to vomit. So as summer descends on the Vineyard, full of car trips, fishing charters, ferries, and, yes, whale-watching, let’s talk about motion sickness.
So you’re planning an outing to Aquinnah with Arfy, the Affenpinscher, but you know he gets carsick. “Eeww,” the kids whine as you pass Beetlebung Corner. “He’s drooling all over us.” Your vision of a fun day quickly turns to the reality of cleaning puke from the back seat of the Volvo while the kids bicker.
What could you do differently? Well, first of all, don’t take an Affenpinscher to the beach on a hot summer day, but that’s another column. What makes Arfy turn Barfy? And what can you do about it?
Vomiting, the forceful ejection of stomach and intestinal contents through the mouth, is a complex action set off by a variety of stimuli, all of which trigger centers in the brain that tell the body to throw up. These barf control areas — the chemoreceptor trigger zone and the emetic center — receive direct and indirect input from the peripheral nervous system and the higher brain. Things that can provoke vomiting include inflammatory disease, hydrocephalus, cancer, endocrine disorders, parasites, fear, stress, excitement, pain, dietary indiscretion (the technical term for when Arfy eats something disgusting on the beach or raids the trash), kidney failure, chemotherapy, pancreatitis, head trauma, toxins, chemicals, poisons, and motion.
Kinetosis is the medical term for motion sickness. Human studies indicate that it is the result of conflicting input from the eyes and the balance apparatuses in the ears. (Duh.) Hence the seafarers’ advice to keep your eye on the horizon, which doesn’t move. Arfy doesn’t know how to do that. Arfy may have true motion sickness from the physical movement, or he may have emotional-induced nausea from excitement or anxiety. Or a bit of both.
The drugs most people know for motion sickness are dimenhydrinate (commonly known by the brand name Dramamine) and Meclizine (brand names Bonine and Antivert.) These are actually antihistamines whose exact modes of anti-emetic action are not known, but which appear to work on the balance centers. (Meclizine can also be useful for other balance disorders, like geriatric vestibular syndrome.) Check with your veterinarian before using them, especially if Arfy has any chronic medical problems such as seizures or glaucoma, or is on other medications.
“We tried Dramamine, Doc,” you say. “And Bonine… and he’s still puking his way to the park. What now?” The only FDA-approved medication to treat vomiting in dogs is maropitant, brand name Cerenia. According to Pfizer Animal Health, the company that makes Cerenia, dog owners report as many as one in every six dogs gets motion sickness. That’s a lot of paper towels. They tested Cerenia on a bunch of dogs, all of whom had a history of carsickness, by administering Cerenia appropriately, then driving them around for an hour, or until they threw up, whichever occurred first.
More than half the dogs receiving a placebo vomited while only seven percent of those treated with Cerenia lost their lunch. Sounds good to me. And it only has to be given once a day — perfect for that long road trip to Grandma’s. Arfy needs to be four months old to take Cerenia, which is available through veterinarians. It should be given on an empty stomach and not for more than five consecutive days. It’s a good idea not to feed Arfy before traveling anyway. That way, if all our interventions fail, at least he won’t have a stomach full of food to deposit on your upholstery.
“But we really don’t want to give Arfy drugs,” my crunchy-granola clients say. Or maybe Arfy’s problem is primarily emotional. Okay, we can try desensitization. This means very slowly getting Arfy accustomed to the car so he doesn’t get frightened or overly excited. It’s simple but requires time and dedication. Pop Arf in the stationary car for two minutes in the driveway. Then take him out. Good dog! Do this every day until he seems totally calm about it. Then slowly increase the time until he can sit for five minutes in the car without any nausea or emotional upset. Now put him in the car, turn the engine on, then off. Do this every day. Good dog! Gradually increase the time you leave the car running. Then try backing out of the driveway and coming right back. Do this every day. Now drive around the block. Every day. You get the idea. It is essential to wait until Arfy is completely relaxed with each phase until moving on to the next.
Put a cloth doused with lavender in the car as studies indicate the scent reduces anxiety and excitement in dogs. You could also try a commercially available product called DAP — Dog-Appeasing Pheromone — a concoction designed to mimic the smell of a nursing mother dog. We can’t smell it, but Arfy can, and it theoretically has the calming effect of a maternal presence. Finally, talk with your veterinarian about whether Arfy would benefit from prescription anti-anxiety drugs.
We never did see any whales on that trip out of Provincetown. The crew pointed out some vague splashing in the distance that they insisted fulfilled their money-back guarantee, and once we docked I was too happy to be back on solid ground to argue. For our next romantic date, however, I suggested a nice walk on the beach.