Dr. Mahaney’s Top Pet Travel Safety Tips

Do you travel with your pet? Many owners do with varying degrees of ease or difficulty.

Traveling with pets can be a stressful experience for both owner and pet.  Yet, with proper precautions both human and animal travelers can have a safer and less-stressful experience.

Air, car, boat, and other forms of transportation are the means by which you may take your pet on a day trip or overnight stay.  Each mode of transportation has its own constraints, so it’s crucial to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances.  Here are my top tips for traveling safe with pets:

Proper Restraint

While traveling, promote safe transport for the driver and passengers by using a restraining device.  Without appropriate restraint, your pet can wander free in the car and distract the driver.  Even a minor fender bender can cause a life-threatening injury if a pet is thrust forward or flies out of the window.

The best options for restraint include a seatbelt harness or a rigid carrier.  Medium to large dogs are usually suitable candidates for a seatbelt harness to provide confinement to the boundaries of the car seat.  Smaller dogs and cats should travel in a soft or rigid carrier, which should be seat belted, strapped, or hooked down to prevent movement upon abruptly stopping.

During airline travel, smaller pets should be placed into an airline-approved carrier that can fit under the seat.  Medium, large, and giant-sized dogs will likely need to be transported in cargo and will need to fit in an airline-approved rigid crate.  When planning for plane-based pet travel, make sure to contact the airline well in advance to ensure that you can fulfill airline’s requirements.

Keep the Climate Consistently Cool

Traveling in warmer temperatures creates potentially dangerous circumstances for our pets.  Unlike humans, dogs and cats lack the ability to efficiently expel heat through their skin.  The respiratory tract (lungs, trachea, and nasal passages) is the primary means for dogs and cats to evacuate heat, which is why Fido and Fluffy can show an increased respiratory rate or pant in warmer weather.

A Stanford University Medical Center study published in Pediatrics reports that a “car’s interior can heat up by an average of 40 degrees F within an hour, regardless of ambient temperature.  Eighty percent of the temperature rise occurred within the first half-hour.”  As your car’s interior temperature increases, so will dog or cat’s body temperature.

Dangerously high temperature (hyperthermia) quickly occurs after only a short time and can lead to collapse, abnormal blood clotting, multi-organ system failure, seizures, and death.

Unforeseeable circumstances can keep you occupied for longer than initially anticipated, so never leave your pet unattended in a non-climate controlled car, even on relatively cool day.   Additionally, provide continuous circulating ventilation with air conditioning during your trip.

Recognize Clinical Signs of Travel Stress

Whether it’s obvious or subtle, any type of travel puts stress on your pet.  Obvious signs of travel related stress include:

  • vocalizing
  • pacing and restlessness
  • panting
  • salivating (ptyalism)
  • inappropriate urination or defecation
  • vomit (emesis)
  • diarrhea
  • food and water refusal

Subtle signs of travel-associated stress are:

  • withdrawal from interaction with other pets and people (hiding)
  • body position changes (crouching, dropped tail, etc)

Pets reacting negatively to travel may suffer health consequences as a result of the release of stress hormones.  Illness can emerge or preexisting conditions can worsen as a result of travel.

Consider Sedating Your Pet

Veterinary prescribed sedatives (Acepromazine, Alprazolam,etc) and over-the-counter medications (Diphenhydramine Hydrochloride= Benadryl Allergy) and natural products (Rescue Remedy Pet, Spirit Essences, etc.) can help take off the stressful edge associated with travel.  Consult with your veterinarian about the appropriate use of such products for your pet.  Before your trip, do a trial run with the chosen product to gauge your pet’s response.

A tired pet is generally more prone to sleeping during travel, so provide vigorous exercise sessions within 24-48 hours of your departure.  Make sure it’s an exercise that he is already used to, like going for a longer walk, partaking in a vigorous hike, or participating in energetic ball-playing sessions.  For cats, break out the feather toy, laser pointer, or whatever is the choice means of providing feline activity enhancement and get kitty up and moving.

Take Breaks When Possible

When possible, take frequent stops to reduce your pet’s stress levels and create the opportunity for him to hydrate, urinate, and defecate.  Before exiting the car or letting him out of the carrier, attach a leash to your dog or cat’s collar or harness.  Your chosen break site is an unfamiliar place to your pet and holds potential for a variety of unknown dangers.

Offer or Withhold Food and Water?

If your companion canine or feline is prone to motion sickness, withhold food and large volumes of water before departure.  Skipping a meal is less harmful on a pet’s body than the esophageal and oral irritation caused by vomiting acidic stomach contents and the potential for aspiration (inhalation of food or liquids).

Additionally, less food and water in the stomach will lead to reduced need to defecate and urinate during travel. Such is especially important during airline or other means of transport where you can’t just pull over to the side of the road and take a pit stop.

As these pet safe travel tips have year-round applications, use them during winter, spring, summer, and fall.  Also, consider that having your dog or cat stay home or with a trusted caretaker may be safer than subjecting them to travel-associated illnesses.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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