Taking Fido or Fluffy Along? Don't Leave Home Without This

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet car safety

Story at-a-glance -

  • More and more pet parents these days are bringing their four-legged family members on road trips
  • Pet safety restraint use hasn’t kept pace with the numbers of pets now traveling the highways and byways
  • For everyone’s safety, especially 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

About 80 million households in the U.S. include pets, and a significant percentage of those families bring their dogs or cats along on road trips. Unfortunately, the act of securing pets in cars hasn't kept pace with the number of animals traveling — a situation that desperately needs to change.

My heart skips a beat every time I see a dog's head out the window of a moving vehicle, and I'm tempted to do a citizen's arrest on the rare occasion I see a dog riding loose in the back of a pickup truck. I immediately conjure up horrific images in my head of what could happen if the driver has to hit the brakes suddenly.

As of this writing, only eight states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island) have enacted laws requiring animals to be restrained while traveling in a vehicle.

My recommendation? Don't wait for more laws to be written. Instead, make a personal commitment to ensure your pet is safe on the road. After all, how would you feel if something tragic happened to your precious furry family member while riding in your vehicle — something you could have prevented? Avoid disaster for your pet and heartbreak for you: restrain your dog or cat!

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. 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. Speaking of accidents, 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:1

Safety Harnesses Travel Carriers Travel Crates

Sleepypod Clickit Sport
(Sm, Med, Lg, XL)

Gunner Kennel G1 Small with Strength Rated Anchor Straps

Gunner Kennel G1 Small with Strength Rated Anchor Straps


Sleepypod Clickit Terrain
Sm, Med, Lg, XL)

Sleepypod Carriers

Gunner Kennel G1 Medium with Strength Rated Anchor Straps


The Rocketeer Pack

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,2 so while they may be fun for dogs, they shouldn't be considered effective safety restraints.

A Word About Traveling With Cats

Traveling is very stressful for most cats. In fact, absent a very compelling reason to bring kitty along on your road trip, I don't recommend it. Unless your cat happens to like car rides (and there are a few, very few, who do), my suggestion is leave him in his own environment, which is at home.

Leaving your kitty at home with a caring and responsible pet sitter is the best thing you can do. The next best option would be to leave him with a competent friend or family member, and, of course, there's always a boarding facility that focuses on cats as your last option. Of course, if you're moving from one location to another, your pet must move with you. In that case, you'll need to prepare ahead of time for the challenges of traveling with a feline.

It's always safest to keep your cat in a well-ventilated carrier when he's in your vehicle. It may seem like cruel and unusual punishment, but not when you consider safety first, along with the fact that most cats just don't travel well.

They wind up cowering on the floorboards of moving vehicles. Or they find a way to get stuck up inside one of the seats. Or they move frantically from the front seat to the back seat, back and forth, back and forth. That's why a secured travel carrier is the safest, smartest way to bring kitty along with you.

If your cat has never been in a carrier or really dislikes being in one, I recommend reading "10 Steps to Conquer Your Cat's Crate Hate."

10 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.