If dog (or another fur baby) is your copilot, you want to make sure they’re as safe and comfortable as you are while you’re driving. A dog that isn’t safe or comfortable during even a brief car ride can pose a danger to you and others on the road.
The main danger: distraction. Just as texting while driving can take your eyes off the road, paying attention to Fido’s antics, distress, or sheer adorableness can cause crashes. In a survey by AAA and Kurgo Pet Products, 29% of respondents said they were distracted by their dog while driving and 65% had engaged in at least one distracting activity with their dog while driving. Hint: Wait until you get to the dog park to play with Fido and give him his treats.
While there’s no separate data on the number of accidents caused by pet distraction, distracted driving caused 3,477 car vehicle deaths and 391,000 vehicle injuries in the United States in 2015, according to the latest figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
When it comes to driving with dogs, here’s part of the problem: Not all dogs like to travel by car, and a stressed-out dog can act unpredictably. Being in a confined space moving at 55 mph is not a good thing. Some might also get physically ill, defecating or vomiting along the way. Bye bye new car smell.
Don’t worry, though, family road trips can still include all your fur babies — as long as you follow these tips.
Restrain Your Pets
Seatbelts save human lives during vehicle crashes. Restraining dogs, whether it’s by using a dog car safety harness or by securing them in a pet carrier, saves lives, too. Not sure which harness to buy? Check out the results of the crashworthiness of various dog car harnesses conducted by The Center for Pet Safety.
Choose the Right Seat
Once secured, dogs should ride in either the back seat or a vehicle’s storage row, recommends DMV.org, which offers other safety tips on driving with pets. Multiple studies — including this one from the journal Traffic Injury Prevention — have shown that front passenger airbags can cause serious injury to children and small adults. By extension, your pets are vulnerable too.
As a result of frontal airbag injuries, in 2001 the NHTSA required manufacturers to install advanced airbag technology in all passenger vehicles by the 2007 model year. Through the use of weight sensors, these airbags deploy with less force or may not deploy at all if they sense a small driver, a small front-seat passenger, or a child safety seat. Still, the CDC also continues to recommend that children under 13 (and by extension, pets) sit in the back seat to prevent injury from airbags.
Another place pets shouldn’t sit? Your lap. It ups the distraction factor and may interfere with your line of vision on the road. The previously-mentioned AAA survey found that 17% of respondents reported driving with their dog on their lap. Nine states have laws that require pets to be secured while driving or prohibit pets from sitting on your lap, reports Veterinarian’s Money Digest.
If you drive a truck, keep your pet secured in the cab. Dogs riding in an open truck bed can be thrown from the vehicle — not to mention that there’s a greater chance that they’ll jump out. Even with proper restraint, open truck beds pose a danger to animals. Flying road debris can hit them, causing serious injury.
And whatever seat they’re in, don’t let your dog stick their head out the window. The rushing air can cause deafness and serious ear infections in dogs, according to this article from Reader’s Digest Canada. You wouldn’t let real children do this, so don’t let your dog either. To allow your dog to catch a breeze, roll down the window to the child preset level.
Enlist Professional Help
For practical help with easing dog stress during travel or with managing dog car sickness, schedule a visit with your veterinarian. They’ll look over your dog’s general health and prescribe appropriate medication or supplements if necessary. Spaying and neutering your pet also helps to reduce the chance they will spray or urine-mark territory — in this case your new car, according to the Humane Society.
If getting to the vet poses a problem in the first place — e.g., the crate won’t fit in your car or Fido simply refuses to get into the car or crate — see if you can find a vet that makes house calls.
Tips for When You’re Not in the Car
Pet car safety doesn’t end when you get to your destination. Once you park, make sure you have a firm handle on your dog before opening the door so they don’t run off into unfamiliar territory. Get your dog microchipped to add another level of protection in case they do run off accidentally.
Finally, be careful about leaving your dog, or any pet, in a locked vehicle. Each year hundreds of pets die from heat exhaustion in parked vehicles. The temperature inside your car can soar to dangerous levels in minutes, according to this sobering chart by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Twenty-six states have so called “hot car” laws, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Some states even allow for law enforcement to break into your vehicle if a pet is in danger.