One of the Most Deadly Pet Mistakes You Can Make

pet travel safety day

Story at-a-glance -

  • It’s National Pet Travel Safety Day, and a good time to remind pet parents how important it is to restrain cats and dogs during car rides
  • A loose pet in the car can be a distraction to the driver, and he can also be seriously injured (or worse) or lost in the event of an accident
  • The safest way to secure your pet in your vehicle is in a crate that is properly restrained with tie-down straps
  • Pet car restraint product manufacturers are free to make safety claims that may or may not be true, so your best bet is to invest in a safety harness, crate or carrier certified by the Center for Pet Safety
  • There are several additional steps you can take to insure car trips with your pet are safe and comfortable

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Today is National Pet Travel Safety Day, which is celebrated on January 2nd each year. It’s a good time to give some careful thought to how safe your dog or cat is when she travels in the car with you. And since it’s a new year, it’s also a good time to resolve to do everything you can to keep her safer.

When you invite your dog on a car ride, she’s naturally quite excited and happy to be included. That’s why it’s tempting to keep those good feelings rolling by allowing her to ride without restraints in the front seat, or in your lap, or with her head out the window. But while it tends to dampen the mood a bit to put her in a crate or a harness, for her safety, it’s the right thing to do.

The last thing any of us wants to contemplate is a car crash — especially when a furry family member is along for the ride. It’s so upsetting, in fact, that many of us actively avoid thinking about it. But hoping or assuming it won’t happen to you can lead to devastating consequences for your pet, so today’s a good day to plan for the unthinkable.

An Unrestrained Pet in Your Car Is a Recipe for Disaster

Ask any first responder and you’ll learn how often a loose pet in a vehicle either contributes to an accident, is injured or killed in one, or runs away after a crash, never to be found.

It’s very easy to be distracted by a cat or dog moving freely about your car, and smaller pets often wind up in the driver side floorboard where they can interfere with the operation of the gas or brake pedal. Other hazards involving unrestrained pets, according to Colleen Paige of National Pet Travel Safety Day:

“… [W]ith any unsecured pet, at just 10 M.P.H. if you must stop quickly due to an animal or hazard in the road, or swerve to avoid someone who crosses the line into your lane … your dog faces the risk of flying into the dashboard, windshield or the back of your seat and at the very least, suffering emotional distress, cuts and bruises and broken bones from blunt force trauma.

If you allow them to ride in your lap, or worse, allowing them to rest in your lap, on the edge of the driver's window, they can be crushed between you and the steering wheel in a sudden stop or accident, as well as being ejected from the vehicle into oncoming traffic.”1

No matter how excited or stressed your pet is about car travel, it’s incredibly important to use a restraint system to keep you, your furry best friend and other drivers safe.

Beware of Manufacturer Claims Regarding Pet Safety Restraint Products

Just as you wouldn’t think of driving or riding in a car, or allowing children to ride in your car without a seat belt, neither should your pet. And the safest method of securing an animal in your vehicle is in a crate that is properly restrained with tie-down straps.

Many crate and carrier manufacturers claim their products are crash-tested and safe for use in a vehicle, but there are no established test protocols or standards for such claims. Fortunately, the Center for Pet Safety (CPS) and Subaru of America have teamed up to conduct studies of pet restraint systems.2

The researchers test various pet restraint products, including pet booster seats, using the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard crash conditions for child safety seats. A variety of (simulated) dog breeds in different shapes and sizes are used in the tests.

Many problems have been uncovered, especially with products designed for use with dog collars and harnesses. The collars may choke a dog in the event of an accident, and the harnesses often fail, "resulting in catastrophic failure that could cause serious injury to both the pet and vehicle passengers."

CPS-Certified Travel Crates, Harnesses and Carriers

The Center for Pet Safety does not recommend the use of any pet travel seats or booster seats currently on the market to protect your four-legged family member in the event of a vehicle accident.

Fortunately, the Center does recommend several harnesses (one with a CPS-certified 5-star crash test rating), crates and carriers, all of which either have strength-rated anchor straps or work in conjunction with a vehicle’s existing LATCH connection systems (used for children's car seats).

While it’s possible to secure almost any crate in your vehicle using elastic or rubber bungee cords, these types of tie downs aren’t secure enough in an accident, putting your pet at risk of injury. As for size, the crate or carrier should fit your pet snugly, with enough room for him to be comfortable, but not so roomy that he can be tossed around inside it in a crash.

And one more thing: The crate should be secured in the back seat or cargo area of your vehicle —notthe front passenger seat. The following products have been crash test certified by the Center for Pet Safety:3

Safety Harnesses

  • Sleepypod Clickit Sport  (Sm, Med, Lg, XL)
  • Sleepypod Clickit Terrain  Sm, Med, Lg, XL)
  • ZuGoPet The Rocketeer Pack

Pet Travel Carriers

  • Sleepypod Carriers
  • Gunner Kennel G1 Small with Strength Rated Anchor Straps

Travel Crates

  • Gunner Kennel G1 Small with Strength Rated Anchor Straps
  • Gunner Kennel G1 Intermediate with Strength Rated Anchor Straps

10 Additional Pro Tips to Make Car Travel With Your Pet Safe and Enjoyable

Before attempting a car trip of any significant duration, get your pet familiar and comfortable with her carrier (or safety harness) well in advance, and if she’s not used to being in the car, take several short trips to acclimate her to a moving vehicle.

Make sure your dog or cat is wearing a collar with a current ID tag, and if he’s microchipped, insure the information is current in the microchip company’s database.

Bring along a travel kit for your pet that includes appropriate paperwork, food (see tips Nos. 8 and 9 for more info), treats, fresh bottled water, bowls, a harness and leash, a brush, a few toys, bedding and any supplements or medications your dog or cat requires.

Also remember to bring along an emergency first-aid kit for your pet.

Have cleanup supplies ready for pet potty or carsickness accidents.

If you’re traveling with a cat, it’s important to note that most kitties 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 you’ll want to have a litter scoop and some plastic bags for used litter handy.

If your furry companion is a cat or a dog who’s an escape artist, be sure to never open the carrier (or release the safety harness) while there are car doors or windows or even a sunroof open. It’s a precaution you should follow religiously at all times when traveling with your pet.

If you plan to feed your pet fresh or raw homemade food during the trip, you’ll 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 to 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.

It’s a good idea to feed your pet a light meal a few hours before departure to help prevent motion sickness. If you’re traveling some distance and will be staying at a hotel in the evening, feed a second meal once she’s settled in your room for the night. In the morning, feed her breakfast a couple hours before you get back on the road.

Never leave your pet unattended in a car that’s not running. It can become very hot or very cold in a matter of minutes.