January 2, 2014

Besides the usual cautionary tale about leaving pets unattended in over-heated parked cars, there’s an additional animal safety (and in some opinions, animal cruelty) concern, about allowing pets to travel inside (and sometimes hanging outside) of vehicles without being properly restrained.

Dogs and Car Windows

The issue of dogs hanging out of car windows is common. Even if the body is safely inside the vehicle, a dog who leans out of car windows (or ride uncrated in a pickup truck) is at a dramatically increased risk of eye, mouth and nose injuries from flying debris. It might be fun to see the big grin, wind-swept faces and imagine your companion’s delight as he zooms along with nothing but fresh air to separate him from the tarmac rushing by below. But it’s simply unintelligent to allow dogs to ride this way.

In addition, dogs who ride with their entire upper body outside of the vehicle (for example with the front limbs out over the external part of a car door) can also actually fall out of a moving vehicle, with horrific consequences. 

dog in car

I know this, because I saw it happen several years ago. I was walking on the sidewalk up a hill at the side of a street with my dog for an evening play in the park. A driver who was also headed up to the park with her own dog leaning out of the window of her car, took the bend in the road, and as she did, the forces of physics caused her large Labrador to literally fly out of the window. He was wearing his leash, which I recommend in the car (more on that in a moment) but the handle of the leash got hooked around the seatbelt buckle. The result? An 80lbs dog, literally dangling by his neck, from the window of a moving car. The driver slammed on her brakes, and I ran up the street with my dog to assist. I had to lift her dog on the outside of the vehicle, to create some slack in the leash, and allow the driver to untangle the other end of it from the seatbelt. Then were able to carefully lift him down, open the door and get him back inside the car.

Even without the complication of a tangled leash inside the moving vehicle, the risk of dogs falling out of car windows is horrific and turns my stomach every time I see it. Dogs depend on us for their safety, and being thrown from a moving car, even if it’s by accident, can cause death, injury, or a crash for other vehicles trying to avoid a loose pet running in the street. Most people don’t understand the physical forces involved in taking corners, let alone the consequences if one has to swerve to avoid something else in the road.

Free in the Car

dog in seatbeltThere’s quite a bit of contradictory data concerning the adequacy of canine car restraints and seatbelts, and some recent studies have shown these specialized canine seatbelt devices to be ineffective, and improperly tested for safety (learn more here: http://centerforpetsafety.org). The danger, however, of a dog not being restrained either with a seatbelt, crate or metal space divider, can put not only the dog but also the human passengers, at risk. If a dog isn’t properly restrained within a vehicle, he could fly through the windshield on impact or be thrown as a projectile within the vehicle, and cause severe harm or even death, to other passengers in the car if the force of a crash throws him at them. It’s simply not possible to either react quickly enough or have sufficient strength to prevent a dog from being thrown within a vehicle during impact or a sever swerve.

Many people allow their dogs to ride unrestrained in their vehicles because they believe that the ride would be less enjoyable, and that their dog would become upset or stressed by being restrained. There’s no doubt that many dogs appear to love the thrill of leaning out of car windows with the wind whipping at their jowls, but the risks really do outweigh the fun of the ride.

Besides the dangers of being projected within or through the windshield of a moving car, unrestrained dogs who move about freely inside a vehicle can also pose a massive distractive threat to drivers, especially the ones who sits on the motorist’s lap, obstructing the view, impeding the use of the steering wheel and otherwise affecting concentration. Small dogs can also make their way into vehicle foot wells, and impede a driver’s ability to operate the pedals. The dangers not only affect those traveling in the vehicle containing the loose dog, but also other motorists and pedestrians if the driver loses control of their vehicle.

Unrestrained Cats

cat in carrierThe same concerns apply to cats riding in a car unrestrained.  Cats like to get up on the top of the seats, your shoulders, your head!  The safest option for cats is for them to travel in a pet carrier.  It is important to get your cat adjusted to riding in the carrier ahead of time so they aren't traumatized by being placed in it.   Have the carrier out in your home all the time, place food or treats in the carrier to promote positive association, and occasionally put your cat into the carrier with the cage or flap shut and keep them in there for incrementally longer periods of time.

Pickup Problems

The problem with pickup trucks is equally bad; while flatbeds aren’t ideally suited to dogs at all, a very strong, rigid crate that’s extremely well secured to the vehicle’s frame to prevent it from sliding around within the truck’s bed, is really the only way to make a pickup truck journey canine-safe. The preferable way to travel, of course, would be in the cab, provided the dog was unable to climb in the motorist’s lap or under the pedals. While a hard, durable crate is definitely preferable for use in pickup trucks, a soft sided crate can help immensely in securing an animal and preventing it from roaming around within a vehicle, distracting the driver, or being thrown in a crash.

Pet Transportation Legislation

Some authorities are battling about whether it should be made illegal to allow dogs to ride in vehicles unrestrained. In many states, the use of a cell phone for conversations or texting is banned, but it’s legal to drive almost everywhere, with the distraction of a loose dog in the car. However, a legislative bill in the state of New Jersey now prohibits people from allowing their dogs to travel without a restraint of some kind. New Jersey law prohibits the inhumane transportation of animals, although the exact the definition of ‘inhumane’ is unclear. However the 2012 New Jersey law makes it an animal cruelty offence to fail to use a pet harness in a motor vehicle. Fines range from $250 to $1000 and up to 6 months in jail.

At the very least, even if dogs remain unrestrained in moving vehicles, the windows should remain closed at least far enough to prevent the animal’s whole head (and especially his chest and front feet) from being outside the vehicle. If there’s no choice but to allow a dog to ride in the back of a flatbed truck, the safest way to travel is in a very well secured, sturdy crate. Smaller dogs can be crated in the back foot well, or on a seat, provided the crate is properly wedged in so it can’t move about during the journey. If crates are used for restraining dogs in the backs of wagons and SUV’s that have sufficient space, care should be taken to ensure the crate does not sit within a vehicle’s crumple zone.

Lucy's Pet Travel Rules

My rules are: Windows up (or only down far enough that no more than a nose can poke out), leashes on, and dogs in the back and cats in the crate. I personally always have my dogs wear leashes in the car, because I think if there were to be an accident, I’d like myself or rescue crews to be able to safely remove them from the vehicle. Wearing the leashes offers a slightly reduced risk of their running away on a busy road and becoming lost and helps improved their chances of being taken to a safe area.

I’m all about Enjoying the Journey but in the case of pets in cars, I really feel that it’s better save that fun, wind-in-your-hair feeling or pet-on-lap cuddle time for after you arrive at the destination and just focus on getting there in one piece.

Lucy Postins, Honest Kitchen Founder & CEO