Dog crated in car
You put your dog or cat in a crate, car seat or harness when he rides in the car. Seems like the right thing to do, doesn’t it?

You might be surprised and dismayed to learn, however, that pet carrier safety isn’t regulated by any organization or government agency. Crash tests involving many different types of restraint devices end with anchor straps failing, connection hardware deforming, crate doors breaking open, crate bodies becoming crushed, and canine and feline crash test dummies (not live animals) going airborne.

Pets who become projectiles can injure car passengers or even go through the windshield, resulting in injuries ranging from bruises and contusions to broken bones and paralysis — or even death.

Keep Pets Safe on the Road

Let’s start with a basic truth: Everyone is safer when pets are confined or restrained. “Too many times, people are taking pets to the vet or picking up kids at school, and they get distracted by the pet’s movement or vocalization,” Dr. Marty Becker says. “They take their eyes off the road to check on them, turn and baby-talk them, or try and touch them in an effort to comfort them.” For this and other reasons, it is important to always secure your pets when they are riding in the car.

But the wrong crate or harness — or one that is used incorrectly — can be almost as dangerous as doing nothing. Veterinarian Elizabeth Colleran says that in some crash test videos she has watched, the figures of crash test dogs or cats hit the side of the carrier with a significant amount of force, sometimes enough to break through the carrier. In these cases, the carrier ends up fracturing as the dummy animal flies out.

This is a hazard in real life, too. Lindsey Wolko’s dog, Maggie, was seriously injured in 2004 while wearing a car harness for pets. That led Wolko to investigate pet restraint manufacturing practices. In 2011, she founded the nonprofit Center for Pet Safety (CPS) to establish crash test standards for pet carriers and restraints, and certify those that made the grade.

While having your pet in a carrier is an important first step, securing it properly is also important, as this can help prevent the carrier — and your pet — from being tossed around in the event of a crash. Specifically, don’t hold a carrier in place with the seat belt unless it is specifically made to be used with a seat belt. While the seat belt might seem like the safest way to hold a carrier in place, Wolko says it can crush a carrier in the event of a collision. Instead, tie carriers down with strength-rated anchor strapping.

Make Pets Comfortable in the Car

Before you secure your pet in the back of your SUV and take off driving, though, you want to spend some time acclimating your pet to the crate or harness. “It’s something they need to get used to,” Dr. Colleran says. She trained her own cats to love their carriers by placing them at the foot of two high-value cat trees and leaving the doors open. “It’s got nice bedding in it, and they nap in there,” she says. “When I close the door to the carrier, their heart rate doesn’t go up, their respiratory rate doesn’t go up, their pupils don’t get dilated. They just look at me like ‘OK, now what?’”

Instead of setting off on a full-day road trip, Wolko suggests pet owners take animals for brief drives for the first week or so to help them become accustomed to a harness or carrier. “You do a five-minute trip for a couple of days, and then a 10-minute trip, and you just progressively make it longer,” she says. “Take them around turns, so [your pets] can get a feel for where they’re going to go as you turn the vehicle.” And to help pets stay relaxed, Dr. Becker recommends covering the crate or carrier with a light towel or sheet to reduce visual stimuli and enhancing the ride with a spritz of calming pheromones and the sound of pet-friendly music.

Finally, place pets in separate carriers. It may save space to put two animals in the same carrier, but they can be injured if they’re thrown against each other or if one slams another into the side of the carrier.

Choose CPS-Certified Products

The organization has developed crash test standards for pet transportation products, conducts its own tests and substantiates manufacturer claims. It accepts no funds from manufacturers.

Products that earn certification can be expensive, because of the cost of materials, development and manufacture. They tend to be built to last and can often give your pet — and sometimes future pets — a lifetime of use. Even if you can’t afford a certified carrier or harness, your pet tends to be safer if he’s contained. So are you. “Containment and restraint devices can help prevent accidents by minimizing driver distraction,” dog trainer Mikkel Becker says.

Properly restraining your pet may also help prevent high veterinary bills. The cost of repairing broken bones or providing veterinary rehab can soar to thousands of dollars. “If you are in a crash, having a product that you can count on is huge peace of mind,” Wolko says. “They are expensive, but I know what happened with my Maggie, and my vet bills far outweighed the cost of a good-quality harness for her.”

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