The real reason your dog pants in the car could be due to multiple factors. They could be showing emotion (happiness, excitement, stress, fear), cooling themselves down (especially on a hot day or in a warm car) or as a result of medical factors (if they are potentially hard of hearing or sight and the car is a new experience for them).
It can be quite a guessing-game to run through some of the potential factors that are causing your dog to pant in your car, but in most cases, there’s no reason to worry. We’ll outline some further points that you can look out for when your dog is panting in the car to help you figure out the cause.
Why do dogs pant?
The physiology of dogs is just as complex as a human’s, and there are still many aspects of their makeup that scientists don’t fully understand. For example, how were wolves domesticated into our closest animal companions? Can they actually feel complex emotions like guilt or shame? Scientists can only guess at certain aspects of behaviour but we may never know all the answers.
However, panting is one canine feature that has been well documented and won’t come as a surprise to anyone. Everyone learns in school that when a dog pants, it’s like they’re sweating and that’s how they cool down. The technical term for this is called open-mouthed respiration and although it’s not unique to dogs, you might be surprised at some of the other animals that engage in this behaviour. For example, birds and lizards have also been observed panting as part of an effort to cool down!
Depending on their build and their current activity rate, dogs will take on average, anywhere between 10 – 30 breaths per minute (compared to an average of 12 – 25 for humans) so it will be immediately noticeable if this rate has suddenly increased. When we breathe out, we expel carbon dioxide and water vapour, and we inhale oxygen. This goes directly into our bloodstream which in turn results in normal functioning.
When a dog is panting, they are also reducing their body temperature – but how does this work? A dog’s skin is broadly similar to our own, with the major exception that it is covered in fur to keep in heat. As humans, we have sweat glands all over our skin which help us to release moisture and cool down in hot temperatures.
By panting, a dog can cool down their internal temperature by the exchange of hot air from their air lungs with cooler air from the outside and by letting excess moisture evaporate from their mouths and tongues. It’s a pretty great system!
As mentioned above, in the majority of situations, a dog will pant for one of the following reasons:
1. To cool down
A dog will pant to cool down when they are too hot, however, not all dogs are able to pant equally (think French bulldogs or pugs) which means they need extra support when the weather is warm.
2. Emotional reactions like stress or happiness
Dogs are capable of multiple feelings and emotions, and without the ability to speak, they express this in a number of different ways. One of these is panting. It’s not always immediately obvious if a dog is panting from happiness or fear, but you can generally tell from contextual clues.
3. Body language
Think about all the different ways a dog expresses themselves through their body language: tail wagging, moving their ears, blinking, opening their mouths, crouching, etc. Some dogs adapt panting as part of their body language because they associate it with a happy action.
4. To show something is wrong
It’s always sad to think about a dog being in pain, but sometimes they will pant as a natural reaction to some discomfort, illness or other serious matter. We’ll look panting behaviours to watch out for later in this article
Why do dogs pant in the car?
If you’re bringing your dog on their first car ride ever, they would understandably be pretty confused and may react in a number of different ways. They were outside on solid ground but now they are indoors – kind of – and they’re moving, and there’s lots of things to look out outside the window – but they can only smell things inside the car – and there’s lots of things moving quickly outside – how confusing!
It’s a completely natural reaction for them to pant, look around, bark or even whine if this is a new experience for them because they can’t understand more complex concepts. Hopefully your pet will have a positive experience for their first car ride and will make them eager for more in the future.
But perhaps your dog has been in the car hundreds of times before but they still pant like crazy? Well consider how your dog learns – through repetition and reinforcement. If you take your dog in the car because you’re driving to a park or somewhere for a walk, then they will associate the car experience as being intrinsically tied to a Very Good Experience that’s about to happen. They won’t be able to control their excitement and will probably start panting and displaying other signs of pleasure.
It’s safe to assume that your dog is happy if they aren’t exhibiting other signs of fear, anxiety, unhappiness or distress. But what are some of the types of panting that might be something to watch out for?
Types of panting to look out for
When dogs are stressed, they may start panting as a coping mechanism and natural instinct. If your dog is unnerved by car rides, for whatever reason, they may display a number of behaviours that indicate they are not feeling confident.
Apart from the panting, watch for their ears going down, lack of eye contact, involuntary shaking, the position of their tail moving down or trying to hide behind something: these are all indications that they are not in the best place and you might need to take action to reassure them.
It’s likely that if your dog is exhibiting these behaviours in a car, they are unhappy being in the environment and it’s recommended that you either comfort the dog or remove them from the stressful situation.
Some other reasons for panting that you should be aware of are heatstroke, accidental poisoning, injury, pain, chronic illnesses or a reaction to medication. All of these are serious conditions which must be treated immediately or your dog’s health may be placed at risk. When trying to identify the cause of your dog’s excessive panting, look at the most obvious explanations.
Is it a particularly warm day? (Remember dogs can get heatstroke in a car in as quickly as 15 minutes) Have they been in an area where they could potentially have ingested something poisonous? Has this started suddenly or have they been acting strangely for some time? These questions will help you decide what to do next, but remember to always consult your vet in an emergency situation.
Keeping your dog safe in the car
Aside from keeping a careful note of your dog’s behaviours and reactions, what are some of the other ways that you can ensure their safety while on the road?
In the past, it was thought that dogs didn’t need any sort of harness when travelling, and that it was fine for them to have their heads out of the window while driving, but common experience has taught us this is not the case and there are actually a number of best practices that you can follow to ensure your pet comes to no harm in the car.
You can fit a specialised dog harness seat belt or a zipline harness to keep them safe, or put them safely in a crate or carry box. If possible, you can install a dog guard in the trunk of your car or you could even install a hammock for the back seat.
Make sure that on long rides, your dog has the opportunity to get out to go to the toilet, plenty of access to water and food and above all, make sure your car is well ventilated and cool so that you and your dog can ride safely and securely!