Road Trip! Safe Car Travel for Your Pets

We’ve all seen them - those happy hounds riding along South Florida’s roadways, tongues lolling, ears flapping wildly in the breeze. You’ve probably laughed, or pointed, or reached for your camera. I’ve done that too. But since last week, I’m doing it considerably less often.
Last week, one of my patients was enjoying such a ride when something outside the window caught his eye. He took a flying leap out the window, regardless of the fact that the car was still travelling at 25 miles per hour. Thankfully, his injuries were not life-threatening. That being said, he scared the living daylights out of his family, and the bill for his care came at a very bad time.
We all love seeing the look of unbridled joy displayed by a dog riding shotgun. But when you combine unpredictable animals with moving vehicles and (let’s face it) Miami drivers, you get a recipe for potential disaster that puts both human and animal lives at risk. Here are few things to think about before hitting the road with your pet.
Lack of impulse control
While we love projecting human attributes onto our pets, the fact remains that they are animals. Many dogs descend from lines that were bred to independently hunt prey. These dogs have a natural prey drive that can be very difficult to control once it is triggered. From the window of a moving car, just about anything can look like a running prey animal. If you happen to pass an actual animal, be it a small dog, free-roaming cat, or squirrel, all bets are off. I like to think my intelligent, high drive dachshund would have enough sense not to jump out of my car to chase a child’s soccer ball. Truth be told, I wouldn’t bet my life on it, and I certainly wouldn’t bet his.
No one ever plans to have an accident, yet they happen often. Additionally, they are most likely to happen close to home and at low speeds. If you’re in a situation that requires you to slam on your brakes, the dog that is hanging out the window is going to fall. Every veterinary professional has horror stories of dogs who were run over by the cars in which they were riding, crushed by the other car involved in a wreck, or who died of strangulation when collars or leashes became caught. Others still bolt from the scene of an accident never to be seen alive again. Sorry to be graphic, but these deaths are senseless and can easily be prevented.
Bear in mind that a loose pet can even cause or exacerbate an accident. Small dogs and cats who climb onto drivers, or crawl under brake pedals have caused many a serious crash. And even in a low-speed wreck, a loose pet can easily become a dangerous projectile. Animals are not likely to survive these situations, and frankly, neither are you. Always secure pets who are travelling in your car. I’ll get to how to do that shortly.
Several years ago, one of my clients was driving to Central Florida with her show dog riding in her lap. Another driver ran a stop sign, and the airbag deployed in the ensuing crash. The impact of the airbag shattered Max’s shoulder. Extensive surgery was needed to save his leg, and while he survived, his gait was never the same. His promising show career was over. While his story is a sad one, the silver lining is that he is incredibly lucky to have survived.
The National Highway Safety Transportation Agency has long contended that airbags are dangerous for children aged 12 and under. If a 12-year-old kid is at risk of dying from the impact of an airbag, our pets don’t stand a chance.
So what’s a pet owner to do?
For starters, retrain yourself and your family to place pets in the back seat. Always. Also, the bed of a pickup truck does not count as a back seat. While it is not uncommon to see large dogs riding in this manner, it is actually illegal to do this. As of 2011, travelling with a loose pet in an open truck bed is against the law, and punishable with a fine.
While it is not illegal for a secured pet to travel in a truck bed, the experience can be frightening for him. It is also important to remember that he will be exposed to South Florida’s extreme summer weather.
Every driver in the household should be on board with the new plan of keeping pets out of the front seat. No riding in laps, no goofy heads hanging out the windows. While the NHTSA does not issue guidelines on specific pet restraint products, the Center for Pet Safety, sponsored by Subaru, performed an extensive study on the crashworthiness of some of the most commonly used travel harnesses and carriers. It’s a long read, but it’s comprehensive. We’ve always been fans of the Sleepypod, and not surprisingly, it did not disappoint!
If your pet is not happy with the new travel accommodations, a catnip toy or stuffed Kong should help keep the objections to a minimum. It only takes little bit of due diligence and follow through to help create a safer holiday road trip for everyone!

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