The Safe Way to Travel With Your Dog in the Car
Most pooches love car rides, but you may need to tweak your routine to keep your furry friend safe on the road
You take all sorts of precautions to protect yourself and everyone else in the car, but what about your dog? With simple changes to your routine, you and your canine companion will be ready to enjoy a safe, stress-free time on the road.
Before you start the car
Make sure your dog is wearing a collar with tags that carry your cell phone number. It’s also smart to get him microchipped.
“Having a collar on your dog is very helpful, but a microchip is by far the most important safety measure in case your dog gets lost,” says Ernie Ward, DVM “I’ve seen too many cases of dogs bolting out of the car.”
Also, check if your dog is up to date on his shots before taking him on a trip, and keep a copy of the rabies certificate in the car. “When you cross state lines, you are supposed to have proof of rabies [vaccination],” says Ward.
Get your dog used to the car
If you’ve never taken your dog in the car, start with a short distance. If your pooch is uncomfortable, “you have some work to do,” advises Ward. “There are many training techniques you can employ to help your dog get comfortable. Your family vet can handle that or refer you to someone who could.”
It’s common for dogs to get nervous or afraid, adds Ward. If that doesn’t go away with training, your vet might recommend natural anxiety treatments or even prescription medication.
“Valerian and lavender oil and Rescue Remedy are some of the things I’ve seen work very well in those cases in lieu of or in addition to prescription medication,” says Ward.
Like people, your dog may also experience carsickness. “There are several medications that can ease their upset tummy,” says Ward. Talk to your vet.
Respect his senses
“A dog’s hearing is much more sensitive than ours,” Ward says. Instead of blasting your favorite pop, rock or hip-hop tunes, he suggests soft music or classical music. “Anything around 60 beats per minute, which is close to the human heart beat, will work.”
Also: no smoking, and no air fresheners or any other strong smells. Go easy on the perfume too, Ward advises. “The dog’s nose is also way more sensitive than ours.”
Keep the temperature comfy
Ward, who videotaped himself locked in a car during a hot day to show how dangerous it can be (the video went viral), also believes it’s important to control the temperature inside the car so your dog doesn’t get uncomfortable or sick.
“Cranking up the AC or the heat is not OK, and watch out for direct sunlight,” says the veterinarian, who recommends keeping a sunshield in the car.
Never leave Rusty alone
Don’t ever leave your dog unattended in the car. But if you really, really need to do it, says Ward, make your trip as short as possible, and don’t even consider it if the temperature is above 75 degrees F.
“Don’t leave your keys in the car. Some people do it because they want to leave the AC on,” says Ward. Believe it or not, your dog may lock the doors and even unintentionally make the car move.
Keep his head inside the ride
Dogs can’t resist sticking their heads out the window — so it’s up to you to make it impossible. Letting them do it is “just a bad idea in general,” says Ward. “Flying objects can hit you dog’s face, bugs can get into his eyes and ears and your dog’s eyes can dry out from wind exposure.” And no matter how much you trust your dog, he may jump out of the car, he adds.
Make your lap a dog-free zone
Cuddly dogs on the lap are cute, but not in a moving vehicle. All dogs should be restrained, says Ward. “You wouldn’t allow your 3-year-old to ride on your lap. It’s just not safe. You slam on the brakes, and that dog is a missile going head first into the windshield,” adds Ward.
Lindsey Wolko agrees. She witnessed the dangers of a dog riding unrestrained in a car while watching the crash tests she organized at the Center for Pet Safety (CPS), a nonprofit she founded in 2011.
Wolko, who cautions that both humans and animals can be seriously harmed in the car when a dog is unrestrained, has been advocating for safer dog travel gear since 2004, when her dog Maggie got hurt.
“I slammed on the brakes to avoid a car accident, and all I could hear was screaming,” she remembers. The harness Maggie was wearing hurt her.
That took Wolko into a pursuit of higher pet safety standards. Today CPS studies pet products and establishes criteria to verify if the protection claimed by manufacturers is real.
Crate or harness?
It’s a difficult question to answer because of the lack of crash test data. In 2013 CPS published a study of the effectiveness of 11 pet harnesses. The research revealed “serious flaws in many of the popular pet restraints now on the market, with many resulting in catastrophic failure,” states the press release.
The study helped develop the first harness safety standard and test protocol in the U.S., which Wolko hopes will become widely used by the pet industry.
CPS has crash-tested only one crate. The crate, with a 55-pound dog dummy in it, hit the car seatback hard enough to break it. The collision would have been deadly to a real dog and could have severely injured, if not killed, people on the front seat.
Wilko is hopeful CPS will find the funding to run a full test on crates in 2015. “There’s limited information about the crashworthiness of these products for now,” says Wolko, who adds dog owners “should remain cautious and know the risks” if they continue using them.
If you do choose to use a crate, put it in the back seat or cargo area of your vehicle and secure it with a seat belt or harness. It should not shift around. The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also suggests using a pet barrier to keep pets and pet carriers from flying into the front seat in the event of a sudden stop or crash.