If you have a pet, you know how difficult it is to leave your favorite companion at home. Fortunately, there are many reasons to bring your furry friend along on a road trip, whether you’re embarking on a week-long camping adventure or heading to the beach during the warmer months. But did you know there are several safety precautions to consider whenever you travel with your dog? These include using appropriate restraints in the car, packing up-to-date vaccination records and ensuring you have essentials like food, water bowls and waste bags on hand.
If you’re planning on taking your dog along for a car ride but don’t know where to start, we spoke to veterinarians and pet safety experts about the best ways to keep your dog safe. We also rounded up expert-recommended and crash-tested crates, carriers and safety harnesses.
What kind of car restraint is best for your dog?
Much like humans wearing seat belts in case of a crash, dogs should be properly strapped into a crash-tested restraint, whether that’s an enclosed pet carrier or a travel safety harness. This not only reduces the chance of serious injury to your dog during an accident but can also keep them from escaping inside the car and distracting the driver. “Dogs often don’t realize the dangers of interfering with a driver, so many may try to climb on the driver or get in their lap — especially if they are anxious,” says Dr. Wendy Mandese, a veterinarian and clinical associate professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.
There are four main types of car restraints for pets: carriers, crates, travel harnesses and car seats or boosters. Below, we list the differences between each type and how to use them properly. Though these all have their unique pros and cons, our experts agree that they should be independently crash-tested by the CPS to make sure it’s safe outside of brand claims.
Pet carriers and crates
Carriers are covered enclosures that can be strapped in using a seat belt or ISOFIX/LATCH anchors, which are connected to the vehicle’s seat and designed for installing children’s car seats without using a seat belt. “There are two types of carriers: those that only prevent distraction and those that offer crash protection,” says Wolko. You can prevent this by keeping carriers connected to the seat and closed while the car is moving.
Crates, on the other hand, are typically larger and heavier than carriers. “Crash protection crates have anchor straps that are used to secure the kennel to the vehicle via the available connections in the cargo area,” says Wolko.
“Carriers and crates are the preferred options for safe travel because they confine the pet,” says Dr. Christina Carlo, a veterinarian and the medical director at VCA Avondale Veterinary Hospital. Hard-sided crates and carriers specifically are the safest option for your pet because they provide the most protection against impact, according to Dr. Dana Varble, chief veterinary officer at the North American Veterinary Community.
While carriers usually go in the back seat, crates typically go in the cargo area of an SUV. “They’re typically larger in size and heavier, [and] therefore they should not be secured on the rear seat of the vehicle,” said Wolko.
Like all other pet travel products, carriers and crates should be independently crash-tested by the CPS to ensure safety outside of brand claims.
Travel harnesses connect to the vehicle’s seat belt system, which can safely keep your pet secured in your car. “Harnesses with seat belt clips are a great choice as they allow some freedom for your pet to sit up or lay down and experience the fun of a car ride without the risk of being loose,” says Varble. Make sure the harness properly fits your dog — it shouldn’t feel loose and it should fit snugly on their body and chest — and has a handle that can securely attach to a seat belt strap, says Carlo. And just like crates and carriers, these harnesses need to be CPS crash-tested to ensure they meet safety standards.
Car seats or booster seats
Car seats serve as open-air suspended seats or booster seats, and some can be anchored by the seat belt. Others may look like a catcher’s mitt.
Because car seats are typically open, they can serve as a good way to let your dog look out of the window and reduce car sickness, which is common in puppies, according to Mandese. You should always pair a car seat with a safety harness to ensure your dog is secure and prevent them from flying out of their seat in case of a crash.
However, there are a few safety concerns surrounding car seats, and neither our experts nor CPS recommend them to pet owners. Many use the vehicle’s seat belt system to stay secure, but you should only use this system to secure your dog’s travel harness, according to Wolko.
If you do use a booster seat, it should be in conjunction with a travel harness, which reduces the risk of injury in case of a crash since it anchors them down. “Boosters are not safe in an accident because they are open and the only strap controlling the pet is usually small and connected to a collar around the neck unless the pet is wearing a harness,” says Carlo. You should also only secure the seat using the car’s ISOFIX/LATCH anchors. “This will allow the seat belt system to be used independently to secure the harness the pet will need to wear,” Wolko says.
Some car seats may require you to connect them directly to the seat, but these connections are usually very weak and will not prevent injury, according to Wolko. Other pet travel seats connect to the console between the driver and passenger seats, which is both unsteady and unsafe, she says. You should also opt for a rear-facing car seat and avoid forward-facing options since your pet can fly out during a crash, according to Dr. Kristen Nelson, a veterinarian and author of “Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life.”
How to safely travel with your dog
Though car restraints may vary in type and effectiveness, one thing remains consistent among all of our experts: You should never place pets and carriers, harnesses, car seats or any other restraint in the front seat of your car because the airbags can seriously hurt your pet. You should securely place restraints and enclosures in the rear seat or the cargo area of the vehicle, according to Nelson.
Never let your dog ride in the back of an open truck because it can lead to severe injuries, and you should avoid letting your dog ride with their head sticking out of an open window since that can lead to eye injuries from road debris, according to Mandese.
When it comes to keeping your dog secure, tightening seat belts is key. “The most common mistake is leaving the seat belts loose to make the pet more comfortable,” says Nelson. “Unfortunately, the extra room lets them fly during a crash.” However, you should never connect the internal tether of the carrier or the seat belt to your pet’s collar since it can result in neck fractures or airway damage if you were to brake suddenly, says Mandese.
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