The 5 Things You Should Never Do With a Pet in the Car

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
  • A recent study confirms what almost all of already know — pets riding in cars should be restrained
  • The study showed that free-roaming pets in vehicles increase driver distractions, unsafe driving behavior, and stress for both drivers and pets
  • It’s important to know the five things you should never do with a pet in the car
  • For everyone’s safety, including your pet’s, it’s important to secure him or her with a preferably crash tested harness, travel crate, or travel carrier
  • Other important tips for safe travel include ensuring your dog or cat is wearing an up-to-date ID tag, and bringing along a pet emergency first aid kit

Recent research conducted by Volvo and The Harris Poll confirms what most of us already know — allowing your pet to ride and roam around in your car unrestrained is not a good or safe plan.1 The study showed that “free-range” pets in vehicles leads to an increase in unsafe driving maneuvers, driver distraction, and stress on both the animal and the driver.

A previous report by the same researchers suggested that 32% of pet parents have left a dog at home because they felt their car wasn’t safe enough, and 77% of Americans believe people don’t take vehicular dog safety seriously enough.2 Clearly, pet owners know better than they do, when it comes to traveling with furry companions.

Why Allowing Your Pet to Ride Unrestrained in Your Car is So Risky

The just-released study followed 15 drivers with dogs in their vehicles for more than 30 road hours. The researchers set out to compare how driving with an unrestrained pet vs. a pet in a seat belt, harness or carrier affected driver behavior. A few highlights:

  • Unsafe driving behaviors — including pets climbing on drivers’ laps or hanging their head out the window — more than doubled when pets were allowed to roam freely, with 649 instances vs. 274 with restrained pets
  • Driver distraction caused by dogs jumping from seat to seat or otherwise pulling drivers’ eyes off the road also more than doubled at 3 hours and 39 minutes with unrestrained pets vs. 1 hour and 39 minutes with restrained pets
  • Heart rates increased for both drivers and unrestrained pets, with dogs averaging 7 beats per minute faster and drivers, 28 to 34 beats per minute faster

Beyond these significant issues, free-roaming pets in cars can receive devastating injuries in the event of an accident or can run away from the chaotic, frightening scene of the accident, never to be seen again.

5 Never-Dos When Traveling With Pets

Veterinarian Dr. Elisa Mazzaferro, an expert in emergency and critical care of animals, offers the following tips for driving with pets:3

  • Never drive with your pet in the front seat — In the event of a collision, your dog or cat can be thrown into the windshield, even if restrained. Deployment of the passenger side airbag can also be dangerous to a small pet.
  • Never drive with your pet on your lap — It is not only a serious distraction to driving, but your pet can get caught under the steering wheel and cause an accident or be thrown forward in a collision.
  • Never drive with your pet unrestrained — Not only can your pet be a distraction, but an abrupt stop can cause him to fall and be injured. In the event of an accident, your frightened dog or cat may jump from your vehicle and run into moving traffic, be hit by other vehicles, or become lost.
  • Never allow your pet to lean out your car window — Debris can fly into your pet’s eyes and cause abrasions or punctures that could result in blindness.
  • Never leave your pet unattended in a vehicle — Depending on the breed, level of anxiety, and the time of year, some people may be tempted to leave their pet in the car while running a short errand. Even during cooler months, never leave your dog unattended in your vehicle, no matter how short a period of time, to avoid extreme temperatures and hyperthermia/ heat stroke.

Pet Restraints: Harnesses, Travel Carriers, and Travel Crates

Putting your pet into a crate, carrier or secure harness is for their safety as well as yours. As discussed above, an unrestrained dog or cat can be a distraction while you’re driving, and more than a few have crawled under the driver’s feet, causing an accident, and an unrestrained animal can become a projectile, which is life-threatening for both your pet and other passengers.

You’ll want to choose a crate or carrier that fits your dog or cat snugly, with enough room to be comfortable but not excess room (which poses a risk in the event of an accident). The crate or carrier should then be secured into the back seat or cargo area of the vehicle — not the front passenger seat.

While you can fasten almost any crate or carrier in your vehicle using elastic or rubber bungee cords, this method may not be secure enough in an accident, putting your pet at risk of injury. In addition, many pet restraint manufacturers claim their products are crash-tested and safe for use in a vehicle, but there are no established test protocols or standards required to make such claims.

Fortunately, the Center for Pet Safety (CPS) and Subaru have collaborated to perform crash tests on a wide range of harnesses, carriers and crates on the market. CPS actually provides a list of crash test certified pet restraint systems (up to date as of November 2018). The links below take you the test pages, including videos, for each product:4

Safety Harnesses Travel Carriers Travel Crates
Sleepypod Clickit Sport (Sm, Med, Lg, XL) Gen7Commuter Carrier Gunner Kennel G1 Small with Strength Rated Anchor Straps
Sleepypod Clickit Terrain (Sm, Med, Lg, XL) Gunner Kennel G1 Small with Strength Rated Anchor Straps Gunner Kennel G1 Medium with Strength Rated Anchor Straps
ZuGoPet The Rocketeer Pack Sleepypod Carriers Gunner Kennel G1 Intermediate with Strength Rated Anchor Straps

The CPS and Subaru also crash-tested pet travel seats. These are portable booster seats for small dogs that are placed on the passenger seat or console to elevate small dogs so they can see out the windows. None of the four tested seats safely restrained the (stuffed) dogs in the crash tests,5 so while they may be fun for dogs, they shouldn’t be considered effective safety restraints.

10 More Important Tips for Safe Road Trips With Your Pet

  1. Make sure your dog or cat is wearing a collar with a current ID tag. If your pet is microchipped, make sure the information is current in the microchip company’s database.
  2. Put together a travel kit for your pet. Include appropriate paperwork, food, fresh bottled water, bowls, treats, a harness and leash, and any supplements or medications your pet is taking.
  3. A first aid kit for emergencies is also a good idea. You can include a comb or brush, some toys, and, bedding. It’s also an excellent idea to include some recent pictures of your pet from various angles that would show any unique markings or any unique characteristics about her in the event (heaven forbid) she gets separated from you while traveling.
  4. If you plan to feed fresh or raw homemade food during the trip, obviously you need to pack an ice chest or some way to keep the food frozen. If you opt to switch to canned food for your journey, it’s important you make the dietary transition a week or so before you plan to leave, so you don’t encounter any unexpected bouts of diarrhea during your trip.
  5. Have clean up supplies on hand. Sometimes, there are potty accidents or vomit episodes that need cleaning up.
  6. Most cats won’t use a litterbox in a moving vehicle. If you make stops along the way, you can try to entice him to use the box at rest areas. It’s important to have a litterbox available when you make stops, but it also means that you’ll need a litter scoop and some plastic bags for used litter if your cat does decide to take advantage of the litterbox.
  7. Never open your cat’s carrier while there are any car doors or windows, even a sunroof, open. It’s a precaution you should follow religiously at all times when traveling with your cat.
  8. If you’re traveling with a dog, make sure his leash is attached to his harness or collar before allowing him off his travel harness or out of his travel crate.
  9. Don’t try to feed your pet while the car is moving. It’s best to offer a light meal a few hours before departure. If you’re traveling some distance and will be staying at a hotel in the evening, feed a second meal once your dog or cat has settled down in your room for the night. In the morning, feed some breakfast a couple hours before you get back on the road.
  10. Never leave your pet unattended in your car for any reason.

Leave a Reply