Vehicle Safety for Pets

By Holly Landes, DVM

As summer and prime time for travel approaches, it is important to consider our four-legged family members in the travel plans. Some important things to consider when traveling with pets are safety restraints, temperature control and minimizing anxiety.

Many pets hop in the car with their owner and go down the highway with their heads out the window and tongues flapping in the wind, however, this is not necessarily the safest option for travel. Numerous restraint options for pets are available and, although the thought of putting your dog in a seat belt or booster seat may sound ridiculous initially, the reasoning is sound. Most people don’t consider putting children in the car without a seat belt or a car seat and the reasons are obvious, however, the potential consequences of not restraining pets in the vehicle are the same. For those who consider their dog or cat valued family members, it is worth consideration. Pets that are loose in the vehicle are more likely to cause distractions, jump or fall out of the vehicle, be ejected, or act as a projectile in the event of an accident.

Although an animal may seem happier if he can roam the car, sit on our lap or stick his head out the window, this is more dangerous for the animal and the other passengers in the car. 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 2400 pounds of force. Different types of restraint include a pet harness/safety belt, hard or soft sided pet travel crate, a pet car seat or a vehicle pet barrier. These restraint systems can also be used for cats. Similar to a young child, the front airbag system in a vehicle can be deadly to a dog during a crash if sitting in the front seat, even if restrained. Therefore, pets should always be restrained in the back seat if airbags are installed.

In addition, pets that are allowed to roam freely in the bed of a pick-up truck are extremely unsafe.  It is common for people to think this is acceptable because so many people do it, however, this is a significantly risky practice.  Dogs in the beds of trucks can easily be thrown out of the vehicle if the vehicle suddenly stops, swerves or is involved in an accident.  If the dog survives the fall, it is very possible he could be struck by another vehicle or cause injury to another driver who attempts to swerve and avoid the dog. Likewise, dogs will jump out to pursue something more interesting that is outside the vehicle. Invariably, when the dogs arrive for treatment at the vet clinic, the owner is shocked because the dog “had never jumped out before”.  It only takes one time for a dog to become seriously injured. Allowing a dog to roam free in a truck bed is similar to trusting a two year old child to do the same.  Putting the dog in a crate that is secured to the bed of the truck or using a truck bed harness and tether, will avoid putting the dog and others on the road in danger. Likewise, an unrestrained dog in the car with a wide open window is just as risky. Dogs often fall or jump out of car windows. To avoid this, use a pet restraint as discussed above and only crack the window enough that their nose will fit through, not their whole head.

Secondly, temperature is a major factor to consider when traveling with your pet. Residing in the southeastern United States means HOT temperatures. Temperature control within the vehicle is very important. Keep in mind that dogs and cats have fur coats and they don’t have the ability to sweat to cool themselves.  If they are traveling in the far back of the vehicle or in the sun, they may be subjected to much warmer temperatures than that of the driver that is seated in front of the air conditioning vent. Also, if air conditioning is not available in the car, some breeds may not be able to tolerate the higher temperatures for long. Breeds that may be more at risk are those with heavy coats such as the arctic breeds (Huskies, Malamutes) and those with short noses such as bulldogs and boxers. Additionally, never leave pets unattended in a vehicle. Even if the air conditioning is left on, it is possible that the air conditioning will fail or the car will stall, which can be fatal if the pet is left for more than a few minutes in warm temperatures.

Finally, the comfort of our pets is important and, although most dogs travel well, there are those who find the vehicle quite distressing. Dogs that show anxiety or nausea in the car will need a little extra care. You can prepare your dog for travel by taking short “fun rides” in the car prior to any long trips. Giving treats and praise and going to fun places like the dog park or to visit friends will make the experience more positive. Those with anxiety may improve with natural remedies such as the wear of a Thundershirt (a tight t-shirt that helps them feel more secure), Rescue Remedy (a Bach Flower remedy that helps to calm them) or a DAP Collar (a collar that releases pheromones that give them a sense of well being). Those with more severe anxiety may benefit from anti-anxiety medications such as alprazolam (Xanax) or trazodone that can be administered on travel days. Those that suffer from nausea may benefit from a medication called Cerenia that is proven to reduce car sickness in dogs. See your veterinarian at the Fort Gordon Veterinary Treatment Facility to determine which option is best for your pet!

In closing, our animals are great travel companions and a few small considerations such as car restraints, temperature control and anxiety management will help make the trip safer and more enjoyable for both the animals and humans.

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