From a puppy’s first nerve-wracking (and often puke-filled) experience to all those trips to the dreaded vet, dogs and cars don’t always mix well. Your pup can’t come out and tell you whether or not he’s enjoying the road trips you love so much, but his body language might be screaming a message you need to hear.
When you’re at the park or on a walk, your dog’s panting is a sure sign he’s having the time of his life. That tongue bouncing out of his mouth and that big, bright smile make him look like the happiest dog in the world. But contrary to popular belief, panting has many meanings. The corners of your dog’s mouth might be turned up into a semblance of a smile, but that doesn’t mean he’s panting because he’s happy. In fact, there are several situations where panting should be a sign of concern. When you’re in the car and your pup is panting up a storm, it’s time to pay attention.
How to Recognize Normal Panting Versus Labored Breathing
All dogs pant.
It doesn’t matter if you have a big dog that loves to run for miles or a lazy little Pug that prefers downtime to time spent exercising. The main purpose of panting has to do with regulating body temperature. The heavy breathing allows water and heat from the lunges, tongue, and mouth to evaporate. That hot internal air is exchanged for cooler external air, and the dog’s body cools itself down. Dogs don’t sweat like humans do, so panting is their main means of keeping cool. It’s completely normal behavior for dogs, but there is a difference between panting and labored breathing.
When your dog is panting, his tongue probably hangs out of his mouth, and his breathing is fast and heavy. If he’s making a raspy or wheezy sound, however, he’s most likely having difficulty breathing. You should also gauge if your dog’s panting seems excessive compared to normal. If he’s lying on his side panting and doesn’t want to get up or can’t catch his breath, he might be having a medical emergency.
Reasons Dogs Pant in the Car
Most panting happens either during or right after exercise, but that doesn’t explain why your dog pants in the car. Here we’ll break down three of the most likely explanations.
He’s Nervous or Excited
Panting will regulate a dog’s body temperature no matter what, but cooling down isn’t always their intention. It’s also something dogs do when they’re feeling nervous, afraid, stressed, or overly excited. When your dog pants in the car, it could be the car itself that’s making him nervous, or it could be the destination.
Cars are big, they make strange sounds, sometimes they smell weird, and there’s a lot of confusing images whizzing by the windows. It all seems normal to us humans, but for some dogs, riding in the car takes courage. It’s even worse when car rides always end in unpleasant experiences. If your dog never rides in the car except for when you take him to the vet (or another place he hates), he’ll start putting two and two together and realize cars equal scary situations.
He’s in Pain or Uncomfortable
Panting because of fear is all about your dog’s emotional state, but panting can also be a symptom of physical injury, illness, or plain old discomfort. If you look up almost any common canine ailment (like inflammatory bowel disease, intestinal parasites, and even bloat), you’ll see panting as one of the noticeable symptoms. In fact, panting is often one of the first symptoms dogs show when they’re not feeling well.
In the car, panting could be a sign your dog is getting motion sick. If you don’t want to scrub doggy vomit out of your car’s upholstery, it’s a good idea to slow down or pull over. Motion sickness mostly affects puppies, but sometimes dogs never grow out of it. You can help your dog’s tummy deal with the motion of a moving vehicle by gradually introducing him to the sensation one short car ride at a time. And if you don’t think it’s motion sickness, maybe your car’s backseat is too small for your big dog, and his panting is his way of telling you it’s time for an upgrade.
If your dog has never been nervous during car rides before, and you’ve never had the pleasure of cleaning up a regurgitated mess from your backseat, the simple answer to why your dog pants in the car could be that he’s hot. Don’t forget that whether he’s sleek and short-haired or fluffy and long-haired, your dog is always wearing a fur coat.
Dogs have a higher average body temperature than humans, and they get overheated easily. Your pup’s panting could be his way of asking you to turn up the AC or roll down the windows. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are deadly, and they can happen quickly—even when you’re in the car too.
As long as your dog isn’t having trouble breathing and isn’t throwing up in the back seat, his panting isn’t an emergency situation. Take every turn slowly, apply the brakes gently, and be conscious of your nervous passenger in the back seat. A lot of dogs can overcome their fear of riding in the car and even get over their motion sickness with practice and experience. Try taking your pup on short rides around the block or to a nearby park. Make sure it’s a positive experience, and don’t go on long trips until he’s feeling more confident and comfortable.