It’s officially summer, which means that many pet owners are traveling with their pets. Unfortunately, pets don’t always share the same enthusiasm for travel as their human companions! Therefore, summer is often associated with an increase in phone calls and veterinary visits for medications to help make travel easier on pets and their owners.Here are six medications that you’re likely to hear about this summer, all used to help with various aspects of pet travel.
NOTE: In general, these medications are only recommended for pets traveling by car. Air travel poses unique risks that may be worsened by medication, so meds are not typically recommended for pets traveling by air. Ultimately, however, these decisions are the discretion of the veterinarian.
Trazodone is a newer drug; it has been studied since 2008 for use as an anti-anxiety medication in a variety of contexts.(1) Many studies have focused on the use of trazodone to keep pets calm during hospitalization or confinement. As you can probably imagine, any drug that helps pets remain calm during confinement can also offer benefits to dogs that will be taken on road trips!
Trazodone is a serotonin receptor antagonist and reuptake inhibitor (SARI) and it is regarded as a relatively safe medication. Side effects may include excessive sedation, other behavioral changes, and (rarely) gastrointestinal upset.(1) Additionally, trazodone (and other drugs used to treat anxiety) can be associated with a phenomenon known as paradoxical excitation. This means that a dog receiving this medication may become more excitable, instead of less excitable. For this reason, it is always best for owners to perform a “trial run” with any new anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) medication before the day of travel, so that medications can be adjusted if needed.
Gabapentin has traditionally been used to manage seizures and neuropathic pain, but it has also been found to reduce anxiety in pets.(2) Although it is associated with sedation, it also appears to result in a marked reduction in anxiety for many dogs (especially during the early days of treatment). Its mechanism of action is complex and not fully understood.
In many cases, gabapentin is combined with trazodone when trazodone alone is insufficient to alleviate anxiety. Gabapentin may also be used as a sole agent for anxiety, although this is relatively uncommon (in my experience).
Alprazolam is an anxiolytic medication that is used for a variety of indications in dogs, including travel-related anxiety. Alprazolam acts by enhancing the effects of GABA, a neurotransmitter that alleviates feelings of stress and anxiety.(3)
Side effects of alprazolam include sedation, muscle relaxation, paradoxical excitation, and other behavioral effects.(3) The effective dose of alprazolam varies significantly between patients, so some degree of trial-and-error may be required. Veterinarians typically begin treatment at the low end of the dosing range, then gradually increase dosing as needed to achieve a beneficial effect.
Acepromazine is a phenothiazine tranquilizer that is used to provide temporary sedation in animals.(4) It is an older drug that has long been used to sedate pets for travel and other purposes.
In recent years, however, acepromazine has been understood to be a less-than-ideal option for travel sedation. Acepromazine has a dissociative effect; animals might still sense fear but be incapable of physically demonstrating or responding to that fear.(5) In fact, studies suggest that while acepromazine may make pets appear calm during transport, it does little to reduce the pet’s actual stress level.(5) So, while acepromazine may help calm an active, excited pet, it is not the best option for a dog that is truly stressed and anxious about travel.
Cerenia® (maropitant citrate)
While anxiety is an important concern in traveling with pets, motion sickness can be just as problematic. Cerenia® is a medication that is FDA approved for the prevention of motion sickness in pets. This motion sickness can not only lead to nausea and vomiting, but may also play a role in travel-related anxiety for some dogs.(6)
Cerenia® works by blocking the action of substance P, a chemical found within the emetic center that plays a role in vomiting.(6) This medication should be given 2 hours before travel, on an empty stomach with a very small treat (such as peanut butter). Unlike many other drugs used to treat motion sickness, maropitant is non-sedating.
Dramamine® is an over-the-counter medication that may prevent motion sickness in some dogs. This medication works by blocking the H1-histaminergic center of the vomiting center. Dramamine® is typically administered approximately 30 minutes before travel. Side effects include sedation, dry mouth, and possible gastrointestinal signs.(6)
In my experience, Dramamine® is less effective than Cerenia®, but can be worthwhile for clients to try if they are heading out on a trip and do not have time to stop by the veterinary clinic for prescription meds. Keep in mind, however, that even over-the-counter medication cannot be recommended without a VCPR (veterinarian-client-patient-relationship). Speak with your supervising veterinarian before recommending any over-the-counter treatments for pets.
Having a general familiarity with these six medications will help you better serve your clients and patients during externships and as a practicing veterinary technician!
- Foss, T. 2017. Trazodone in Veterinary Medicine. Today’s Veterinary Nurse. 2(3).
- Cummings, K. Pre-Hospital Sedation Options for Aggressive and Anxious Dogs.
- Crowell-Davis, S. 2011. Benzodiazepines: pros and cons. Presented at Central Veterinary Conference, San Diego.
- Hart, B. 2009. Psychotropic drugs: why, where, when and how. Presented at Central Veterinary Conference, Washington DC.
- Lloyd, J. Minimising Stress for Patients in the Veterinary Hospital: Why It Is Important and What Can Be Done about It. Veterinary Science. 4(2):22.
- Newfield, A. 2016. Prevention Motion Sickness in Dogs. Today’s Veterinary Nurse. 1(3).