Pet ownership and pet travel are on the rise. About 70% of U.S. households have a pet, according to a 2021-2022 survey by the American Pet Products Association. And about 78% of pet owners travel with their pets, according to whiskers101.com. Which raises the question: How do you travel safely with your pets—including even short trips to the hardware store across town?
The importance of restraint
When you settle into the driver’s seat, you most likely automatically fasten your seat belt—and your family pet would benefit from “buckling up,” too. The fact is, pets in a vehicle—we’re talking dogs and the occasional cat here—should be restrained for the same reasons people should, and maybe a few more.
Studies have consistently shown that people who wear seat belts fare much better in an accident—or even in an emergency maneuver such as a quick swerve or hard braking—compared with those who don’t. In a crash or unexpected maneuver or sudden stop, an unrestrained pet, like an unbelted person, could be propelled into the windshield and severely injured or even killed.
Restraining your pet is as much for your benefit as it is for theirs, because in a crash, an unrestrained pet can become an “unguided missile,” severely injuring passengers. And restraining doesn’t mean holding a dog tightly in your arms. A 60-pound dog traveling in a car going 35 mph can turn into a 2,100-pound projectile in an accident, according to the nonprofit pet-advocacy group Center for Pet safety.
Driver and front-passenger airbags, designed to protect human bodies, can injure or kill pets if they’re deployed when pets are in the front seats, says the American Kennel Club. And if it’s not adequately restrained, your pet also could be thrown from the car.
An unrestrained pet can also cause a collision by distracting a driver—especially if the pet sits in the driver’s lap while the car is moving. And even if a pet is unhurt in an accident, it could be harmed if it escapes through an open window or door and runs onto a road or highway.
The back seat is best
Let’s review the basics: For maximum safety, pets shouldn’t sit or lie in a vehicle’s front seats, especially not in the driver’s lap. They’re much safer in the back seat.
There are also more options for keeping pets safe in the back—and they should be restrained by more than a leash, which could strangle them in a collision. Larger pets should be placed on bench seats; smaller pets can be placed in captain’s style chairs.
That covers why and where pets should be restrained. But what’s the best way to do it?
Carriers and harnesses
Two main types of pet restraints are available. The first is a pet carrier, typically made of hard plastic or coated fabric; such carriers work well for small dogs and cats. Carriers should be secured to a vehicle’s second-row seat back. A second type of restraint is a harness, which is also anchored to the seat back.
Some companies also make mesh barriers that extend across the width of a car or SUV; they’re designed to keep your pet from jumping from the back seat or cargo area into the front seat. But they don’t sufficiently restrain pets; in a crash, a pet could get slammed against the barrier or the sides or back of a car and be injured or killed.
Which type—carrier or harness—is best for your pet depends on what your pet is comfortable with and how it usually behaves in the car. If your pet doesn’t like being in confined spaces, for example, a tethered harness, which allows some freedom of movement, is probably best. But if your pet constantly moves around and doesn’t like the tight fit of a harness, then a carrier is a better choice. Cats generally are better off in carriers, of course.
Buying a carrier or harness
But how do you know which pet carrier or harness to buy? Lots of products are available at pet stores and online. The problem is, unlike restraints for humans, there are no government standards or industry tests for pet restraints. Some carriers or harnesses might be advertised “crash-tested,” but that doesn’t mean they meet any established standard.
Pet lovers to the rescue! Since 2011, the Center for Pet Safety (CPS) has gathered data on safety harnesses and worked with an independent test laboratory to determine the effects of crashes on different sizes of restrained test-dummy dogs.
From these tests, CPS, working with crash-safety experts, established safety and quality standards and ratings guidelines to keep both humans and pets safe in the event of a crash. Check out the CPS website For more information on the harnesses and carriers that CPS recommends (“CPS Certified”). The CPS home page also provides links to various crash-test videos of harnesses and carriers.
As should be obvious from the preceding discussion, it’s a bad idea to put dogs in the bed of a pickup truck unless they’re inside a pet carrier that’s secured with strength-rated anchor straps. Otherwise, in even a minor accident, they could be thrown from the truck, or they might jump out if something distracts them.
Finally, don’t let dogs ride with their head out the window of a moving vehicle. They might enjoy it, but they could jump out the window or, in an accident, be thrown from the car. And if they’re hit by a stone, an insect, or some other object, their eyes could be injured. Plus, wind can damage a dog’s ears and nostrils, causing irritation, inflammation, and infection.
More pet travel tips
- Begin acclimatizing your pet a few weeks beforehand if it’s new to road trips so it becomes used to its new travel restraint or crate. Start with short trips, increasing duration over time.
- Exercise your dog before its gets into the car, which helps reduce anxiety and also relaxes them during the trip.
- Prevent car sickness. For long trips, avoid feeding dogs too close to the beginning of the trip.
- Take breaks. AAA recommends that drivers stop every 2 hours during a long trip; your pet will appreciate the break, too.
- Make sure your pet is leashed before opening the car door, especially if it’s not used to traveling. It could become disoriented and want to dart.
- Never leave a pet alone in a parked car, even with the windows slightly open. Although the outside temperature might be only 60 or 70 degrees, temperatures inside a closed car can reach more than 100 degrees in less than an hour. Also, animals left unattended in parked cars can be stolen.
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