Harley in the car with a dog harness

Keep your pets safe with these car travel tips

Riding ruff

Story by Bailey Gilliam

Using a crash-tested dog harness, like the one modeled in the above photo by Harley Gilliam, is of paramount importance when traveling with a pet. Just as seat belts are vital for human safety, these specialized harnesses are designed to protect our canine companions in the event of an accident or sudden stop.

The rules are constantly changing for parents as they try to navigate buckling their child into the car in this day and age. The age requirements, size requirements and types of car seats – are booster seats even still a thing? Everyone is always on the lookout for the latest information on car safety. But what about our four-legged children? 

You don’t think of it happening to you, but no one should risk their pet flying through the windshield in a crash. Luckily pet car safety has come a long way. Whether you’re going on a long road trip or just running a few errands, it’s important to make sure your pet is strapped in safely just like any family member. Pets also act as giant torpedoes if unrestrained in a crash. An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at 50 mph will exert roughly 500 pounds of force, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert approximately 2,400 pounds of force. If that’s not enough to sway you, consider that having pets in the car can lead to distracted driving, which is a leading cause of motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,522 deaths in 2021 were a result of distracted driving. Almost 30 percent of pet owners admit that their pets in the car cause a distraction, os it’s clear that strapping up your dog is an essential part of car safety. Plus, we love our fur babies. That should be reason enough.

In search of safety 

There are many products to restrain your dog in the car, but not all are created equally. Some are more restrictive than others and some are more protective in the event of a crash. Consider safety first when choosing a restraint for your dog or cat. You might be surprised to learn that some of the pet restraints sold to ensure your dog’s safety don’t actually do what they are intended to do and many are not adequately tested. Many pet-restraint products do not perform well in crash tests, but these products are unregulated because pet products are not considered consumer products. That means that promises on the packaging and in ads are not to be trusted. The nonprofit Center for Pet Safety was founded to properly test car restraints for dogs. Very few pet restraints passed the center’s independent crash-certification test, and some styles (including zip lines) can be dangerous. 

There’s a lot to remember when it comes to pet safety. Keep reading to learn the basics. Here are the best rules for traveling in the car with your pets. 

Purebred dog breed sennenhund rides in the car. Transportation of large animals. Bernese Mountain dog is waiting for the owner to return. Window of car on in the foreground

1. Never put your pet in the front seat.

Like children, pets should never be in the front seat, even with a crate or restraint. The airbag can kill or hurt your pet. Pets also can be more distracting if they are in the front seat. You also shouldn’t put your pet in the cargo area. The back seat is the safest place for your pup because crumple zones, which are often likened to crushing a soda can, absorb the impact in the front and back seats.

2. Choose either a harness, carrier or crate.

A crash-tested dog harness is the best way to keep dogs safe. CPS encourages pet parents to use a harness. It recommends the Sleepypod Clickit Sport or the Sleepypod Clickit Terrain. For cats and dogs that aren’t as well-behaved, carriers are the recommended restraint. These are typically covered enclosures that can be strapped in using a seat belt or the vehicle’s LATCH/ISOFIX anchors. Ensure you get one that offers crash protection, not just crash prevention. CPS recommends the Away Pet Carrier, Diggs Passenger Carrier, Paravel Cabana Carrier, Sleepypod Carrier or Gunner Kennel G1 Small with strength-rated anchor straps. When shopping, be sure to check the weight and size guidelines of the restraint to ensure it’ll fit your pet securely and comfortably. And let your pet get used to the harness or carrier before taking a trip.

3. Never connect anything to your pet’s collar. 

Experts recommend never connecting the internal tether of a carrier or seatbelt to your pet’s collar since it can result in neck fracture or airway damage when brakes are applied suddenly. 

4. Never let your dog sit in the bed of a truck. 

This should be a no-brainer because it can lead to severe injuries or even death. You also should never let your dog ride with their head sticking out of an open window since that can lead to serious eye injuries due to road debris. This one can be difficult, (we know how dogs love doing this), but it’s not safe at all. They can get hit or fall out of the car. You wouldn’t do it or let a child do it, so maybe keep the windows up when your pets are riding with you.

Carriage of a dog in a car. Car cover for animals. Dog in the car. Labrador travels.

5. Don’t feed your pet while driving. 

Pets have been known to choke while eating on the move. You should feed your pet at least three hours before a trip. This will prevent stomach issues. 

6. Start with short trips.

Speaking of stomach issues, some pets get motion sickness, so it’s best to slowly build up to longer trips. If you’re doing a long journey, schedule plenty of stops. Let your dog stretch their legs, go to the bathroom and burn off some energy. Even cats benefit from breaks. They are more likely to drink water while stopped, and you don’t want them to get dehydrated.

7. Always have the air-conditioner on.

Cars can get very hot for pets; keep the car well-ventilated. Additionally, never leave your pet alone in a car, at any time, for any reason. Especially in the summer, heat stroke can be deadly and can happen in minutes. This scenario results in many pet deaths every year. You should leave your dog at home while running errands in the summer because temperatures inside cars can quickly rise to life-threatening levels, even if you crack the windows open or park in the shade.

Cockapoo with wind in face
Driving with your dog’s head out of the window may seem like a fun and innocent activity, but it poses several risks that make it a practice to avoid. Flying debris, insects or even an unexpected bump in the road can pose serious threats to your dog’s safety.

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