The Safest Way to Travel with Your Pet

Best car ranking lists aside, there’s no one perfect car for everyone.  The right car for you depends on your needs, wants and budget. The same is true when it comes to finding the right car for traveling with your pets. Just like there’s no one car that is perfect for all humans, there is not one vehicle that is perfect for all pets. After all, just like humans, our animals come in all different shapes, ages and sizes. Transportation needs change as we age and will for your pets as well.

dog ramp
A ramp makes getting into any car easy on dogs and owners. (U.S. News)

Joseph Kinnarney, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), says first and foremost, pet owners must prioritize safety in the car for both pets and people. He notes that in an accident, "Your seat belt would hold you and not be an issue, but it could be quickly for your pet. You need those safety precautions when the unexpected happens,” he says.

Getting Inside

Lindsey Wolko, the founder and CEO of the Center for Pet Safety (CPS), says, before anything else, owners need to consider a low entrance point for dogs to jump into the car, especially older dogs. That means researching a vehicle’s ground clearance.

Jamie Page Deaton, managing editor for U.S. News & World Report’s Best Car Rankings, and an owner of two large, older dogs, notes that a ramp is helpful for pets as well as owners. “Using a ramp decreases the chances of your dog hurting itself jumping in and out of a car,” she says. “A ramp also means you won’t hurt yourself lifting a heavy or struggling dog into the car.”

Where Pets Should Ride

Once your pet is inside your vehicle, how and where they ride is also important. Wolko says they should always ride in back seat. Pets in the front seat can be a distraction to the driver. Another reason for placing a dog in the back seat, Wolko says, is airbags and hard dash surfaces can cause severe or fatal injuries to pets. She adds that two-seat vehicles are not appropriate for pets.

Kinnarney says if you do have a large dog inside an SUV it needs to ride in the back cargo area behind some sort of protective screen. He says to consider a dog’s comfort while riding in the cargo area, which goes beyond providing a soft surface to lie down on. Air circulation is also important. He says that’s especially crucial for dogs traveling in a crate. Don’t pack items around the crate so air cannot flow freely.

Securing Your Pet in the Car

Good pet restraints use the vehicle’s built-in lower anchor and tethers for children (LATCH) systems. These are found only in the second and third rows of vehicles. “It’s important for all pets to be restrained,” says Wolko.

Kinnarney transports his standard poodle in a harness that connects to the vehicle’s seat belt while his much smaller schnauzer travels in a carrier that is seat-belted into the car. Seat belts should never be the sole restraint for pets, he adds. Use them in conjunction with a harness made for pets.

CPS, which receives no funding from the pet care industry, selected the Gunner Kennels G1 Intermediate with 8-foot tie down straps as the 2015 Top Performing Crate. It also named the PetEgo Forma Frame Jet Set Carrier with ISOFIX-Latch Connection and the Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed with PPRS Handilock as the 2015 Top Performing Carriers.

CPS selected Sleepypod’s Clickit Utility Harness as the top performing harness brand. The center says it was the only harness tested that keeps a dog from launching off of the seat. It also offers substantial protection to all passengers, including the dog, in the event of an accident. Currently, products are only tested for dogs up to 90 pounds. CPS has no recommendations for harnesses above that.

Pet owners need to realize there are no test protocols for pet products beyond what CPS does. A company that does evaluations for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration administers the tests, Wolko says. Manufacturers, she adds, can make claims products are safe with no need for independent verification. “The pet industry is highly unregulated. That’s why we exist - to protect pet owners,” she says.

Crate dimensions are important and are influenced as much by an animal’s size as weight. CPS says pets should fit snugly in their crates with about an additional six inches of space beyond their length. That gives them room to be comfortable and not be injured in a sudden stop. Secure crates with strength-rated cargo area anchor straps, not elastic or rubber bungee cords.

Kinnarney, from the AVMA, says those straps are also important when transporting a dog in a pickup truck. Dogs should ride in a crate attached to the pickup bed in some manner. Otherwise, he observes, the crate becomes a projectile after a sudden stop and provides no protection for the dog.

Keeping Things Clean and Comfortable

Something else to consider is how well your dog travels. Kinnarney says if your dog is prone to car sickness, a harness has to offer it flexibility. Otherwise, there is a risk of the dog choking on its vomit. “Make sure you can let them pass it and not inhale it,” he says.

And, if your dog does get car sick, make sure your interior can handle it. As Page Deaton says, “You love your dog, but you also love your car. Dogs can destroy an otherwise clean car. Rugged cargo mats, floor mats and seat covers go a long way in protecting your car from your dog.”

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