With all the work we’re doing on our Best Cars for Families, we didn’t forget our four-legged family members. After all, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports that there are 70 million pet dogs in the U.S. and 74.1 million pet cats. To put that in perspective, according to the 2010 census, there are 74.2 million children in the United States. Clearly, we like owning pets, and AVMA reports that over half of all pet owners consider their pets to be family.

how to use a dog ramp for a car
A dog ramp can help prevent injuries when getting in and out of big vehicles. (Jamie Page Deaton for U.S. News)

While most of us wouldn’t dream of buying a car our human family members couldn’t safely get in or out of, or letting them ride in the car without being buckled in, our pets don’t get the same consideration. Here’s what you need to know to make sure your furry family members are just as protected and comfortable in your family car as everyone else.

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Get In

It’s easy to give a small child or older adult a hand up into a car. Getting a pet in can be more difficult, especially if that pet is heavy and unhappy about the prospect of going to the vet. If you have a pet that’s tough for you to lift and routinely drive it places, look for a car with low ground clearance. That will make it easy for your dog to get in and out without hurting themselves. 

Dog owners who can’t make a vehicle with low ground clearance work, or who don’t travel as frequently with their dogs can make getting in and out of a high vehicle easier by providing a ramp for their dogs.  Not only does a ramp save your back from having to lift your dog, but it also lowers the risk that your dog will injure itself jumping in and out of the car.

Buckle Up

Dogs and cats just aren’t designed to roam freely about a moving car. Not only is a roaming pet a distraction for the driver, but it’s also a huge safety risk. Let’s say you let your (slightly chubby) 10-pound cat roam around the car on the way to the vet. In a collision at 30 miles an hour, that cat becomes a projectile that will exert 300 pounds of force on whatever it hits. Bigger pets present a bigger risk. An unrestrained 80-pound dog will exert 2,400 pounds of force in a 30 mph crash.

cat carrier
A secured carrier is the safest place for your cat in the car. (Liz Opsitnik for U.S. News)

The safest place for your pet to ride is in a secured carrier in the vehicle’s cargo area. If your car only has a trunk, you can secure a pet carrier in your car’s rear seat. If your pet is too big for a rear-seat carrier, invest in a specially-made seat belt for them. You’ll not only lower your risk of having an accident, but also protect your pet and everyone else in the car should the unthinkable happen.

Keep them Comfortable

Once your best friend is safely in the car and restrained, make sure they’re comfortable. Remember: pets aren’t people. Going for a car ride isn’t something they do every day. They can easily get stressed by a simple ride to the park. Help them by providing water and making sure they don’t get overheated. A travel water dish or dog-friendly water bottle can help keep Spot comfortable whenever you hit the road. If your pet is riding in the cargo area, keep an eye on the temperature. Most wagons and SUVs don’t have climate vents back there, so you may need to run the AC or heat a little higher than normal to make sure your pet is comfortable.

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Protect Your Car

You need to protect your pet, but protecting your car is a good idea too. Muddy paws and sharp claws can wreak havoc on a car’s interior. Seat covers, rugged floor mats and cargo area mats are good tools for keeping your ride pristine even when your pet isn’t.

Looking for a new ride for your family, human or otherwise? Check out the Best Cars for Families. When you’re ready to buy, use the U.S. News Best Price Program for guaranteed savings on your new vehicle. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook