Why do Pets Suddenly Become Afraid of Cars?

 |  Feb 13th 2009  |   0 Contributions


What would make my Chihuahua all of a sudden
become fearful when riding in my truck? She used
to love to travel and she went everywhere with me.
She rides, tethered in her car seat, and is able to
see out the window. When I make her get in she
starts to shiver and pant and she never did this
before. We have not been in any accidents.

Laurie
Portland, Oregon

I suspect that your dog had an unpleasant experience in your truck.

In my experience, pets are prone to negative associations with specific locations. Dogs that fall down a flight of stairs may be very reluctant to ascend or descend that same set of stairs. Dogs that are ambushed and attacked by another dog on a certain street corner may develop anxiety when approaching that same street corner. Dogs that undergo a stressful experience in a car or truck may show anxiety when placed in the vehicle in which the incident occurred.

Usually, but not always, location-based anxiety does not transfer to other, similar locations. A dog who falls down the front stairs in a residence may not be afraid of the back stairs. The dog ambushed and attacked on a particular street corner is not likely to experience anxiety on other street corners. And animals that exhibit fear of a vehicle may not show the same symptoms when placed in a different vehicle.

What sort of unpleasant experience did your dog suffer in your truck? That is anyone's guess. Based on what you wrote, we can rule out an accident. But there are plenty of other possibilities. Perhaps another animal frightened her while she was in the truck. A loud siren or large, scary vehicle or train may have passed when she was in her car seat. Maybe you used the truck to drive her to the vet's for a nail trim. Maybe she experienced a frightening hallucination while out for a ride. Maybe she had a nightmare involving the truck when she was sleeping in her bed at home.

You can work on this problem in a number of ways. Habituation, or repeated exposure to the truck in peaceful circumstances, may help with the issue. Be aware, however, that anxiety can be self-fulfilling if each time she enters the truck she has another unpleasant, anxiety-producing episode. These experiences can feed back into her fear of the vehicle. Habituation is most likely to be effective if you repeatedly and briefly place her in the vehicle for a few minutes each day. Ideally she will not show signs of anxiety during these times. Be careful to adopt a cool and reassuring manner when placing your dog in the vehicle.

Going for rides in a different vehicle may help to confirm that the fear is specific only to your truck. In that case, your dog's anxiety could serve as a good excuse to buy the new truck that you've been wanting!

Finally, you could consider products that relieve anxiety in dogs. I would start with dog appeasing pheromone. This product is not guaranteed to work (in fact, nothing is guaranteed to work), but I prefer it to medications. And, speaking of medications, there are several anti-anxiety medications that could be used temporarily as a last resort. Talk to your vet about this, but try some of the other tactics first.

Coming Saturday and Sunday: cat question and answer!

Photo: Odin Floppy Stuart looks pretty comfortable in the truck.

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