Dog Loose in Car

I’ve done it, and I know better. You’ve done it, and you probably know better too. I’ve written against it and recommended products that will prevent it. But I bet the majority of pet owners still do it. In fact, I know they do.

What am I talking about? Letting dogs ride loose in the car, or even worse, letting a dog sit on your lap in the front seat, head happily out the window. Yes, dogs like — make that love! — doing this. And yes, it’s a lot easier to just let your dog hop in the back, or front, seat for a joyride than it is to secure him properly. But you know, I would never allow my precious granddaughter to ride without her car seat, and it has been a very long time since any of my pets have ridden in the car without being safely secured, either — for a lot of the same reasons.

Let’s change this, together.

The Old Ways Aren't Always Best

I know some of us are old enough to recall a time when seat belts were optional for everyone. Remember how a mother driving the classic station wagon of yesteryear would throw her arm out if she had to brake suddenly? She was protecting the child sitting next to her in the front seat from flying through the windshield. We know Mom was trying to help, but simple physics explains why one outthrust arm is no deterrent to even a very small child in motion.

Cars are much safer now, and drivers are so much more safety-conscious. We know about crumple zones and the value of air bags, and we understand why our little kids need to ride in the back seat, strapped into appropriate boosters or car seats. We won’t start our cars until our older children click their seat belts, and even adult passengers don’t get a pass on buckling up anymore. In many states, the law is click it or ticket, but good parents insist on a buckle-up even when it isn't mandated.

We all know that an accident can happen in a heartbeat, but regret lasts a lifetime.

And yet, even though we wouldn't think of letting our kids or our friends ride around unsecured, we're still letting our pets roam free in our cars — even though it’s so easy to keep them secured. Crates, originally developed for air travel, have long been used for safety in cars, and they’re still one of the best options for your pets. Position your pet's crate as close to the center of the car as possible, and secure the crate to keep it from becoming a pet-loaded projectile during an accident. This gives your pet a cozy and safe place to ride when you hit the road.

Another option is a safety harness; these have become very popular in recent years, to judge from what I’ve seen at Global Pet Expo. I like the kind that works as an extension of the car’s own safety-belt system, using the vehicle’s own design to help protect pets. Look for safety-belt materials when choosing these products, as well as a padded harness designed to protect pets in an accident.

What about barriers and simply leashing a dog? Or putting a cat’s unsecured carrier on the seat next to you? If you think about what can happen to a leashed dog or a loose cat carrier in an accident, I have no doubt you’ll opt for safer options. Barriers prevent driver distraction, which is good, but don't offer much protection for people or pets in an accident. A simple barrier won't stop your dog or cat from becoming an airborne ball of fur in the event of a crash.

Can a Loose Pet Cause an Accident?

A properly secured pet will not be flying around the car in an accident, injuring or possibly killing people. But even under the best of conditions, a loose pet, or one that is riding in the driver's lap, can cause other issues. Driving with a dog in your lap — or simply unsecured in your car — can pose a serious distraction to the driver, which can be dangerous for everyone on the road.  The risk is bad enough that in a few states it is illegal to drive with a pet on your lap. A lap-sitting pet is a distraction, just as using smartphones and eating while driving both are.

Our Becker family pets spend more time going places with us than ever before. Everything from the patios of restaurants to high-end hotels now welcome pets, especially the small dogs that have enjoyed such a meteoric rise in popularity in recent years — and who are the most likely to ride in a driver's lap. And while it's fun to take our pets everywhere we go, we need to protect them and protect ourselves from the distractions they present when we’re on the road.

So yes, I admit it: In the distant past I took my dogs for joyrides without safely securing them. And maybe you will do the same today. But as a veterinarian I know that prevention is the key to caring for our pets in the best possible way. That's why I recommend that your pets ride as mine always do now: in secured crates or in safety harnesses.

You can’t guarantee that you won’t be in an accident. But you can reduce the risk of serious harm to your passengers, your pets and yourself by not letting your animals ride loose. If you love your pets, secure them. It’s just that simple.

Read more Vetstreet articles about travel including Dr. Becker's piece, "How Can I Teach My Dog to Enjoy Car Rides?"

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