Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
1. Never leave an animal in a parked car in warm weather.
Pets can die of heat stroke if they’re left for even a short time in a hot car. Heat exhaustion isn’t only a summertime risk. On sunny days, a car interior can become dangerously hot even if it’s pleasantly warm outside. The temperature inside a parked car can increase by nearly 20°F in only 10 minutes. When the outside temperature is 70°F, a car interior may reach 113°F in an hour. If it’s 95°F outdoors, the temperature inside a car can climb to 114°F in 10 minutes. Cracking the windows open has no effect on the temperature inside a parked car.
Signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke include panting, dark red gums, rapid heart rate, vomiting, and difficulty breathing. Heat stroke can be fatal. Brachycephalic (flat-faced) animals are especially at risk. Read more about heat stroke here.
2. Keep your pet restrained.
Just like children, pets are safest in cars when they’re securely restrained. Seat belt harnesses and crates keep pets from becoming airborne during hard braking or being thrown out of the car in a collision. Pets riding in laps can be crushed by a person’s body or an inflating airbag. Unsecured animals can also injure people in the car if they become projectiles during a crash.
Animals that are loose in cars can also distract the driver, increasing the risk of accidents. Pets may worm their way into a driver’s lap or line of vision, and those that make their way into the footwell interfere with the foot pedals.
Dogs riding in truck beds should be confined in a ventilated crate that is protected from the weather and attached to the truck. Dogs should never ride in a truck bed unrestrained or secured only by a leash; they can be killed or severely injured if they jump or are thrown out.
If possible, give your pet time to become familiar with the restraint (harness or carrier) before using it on a road trip. Start with short rides that end in something fun to help your pet build positive associations with the restraint.
3. Don’t let your dog ride with its head out of the window.
A dog sticking its head out of a car window with its ears flapping in the breeze may look cute, but this is not a safe way for dogs to ride. Dogs can sustain eye and head injuries from flying debris. A dog that is able to get its head or other body parts out of a window is also not safely restrained.
4. Manage anxiety and nausea on car trips.
Stress and motion sickness are not as dangerous for pets as heat stroke or being ejected from a moving vehicle, but managing these common problems makes a trip easier for everyone. (And a dog vomiting all over the upholstery is certainly a distraction for the driver.)
Both anxiety and motion sickness can cause vomiting, so discuss your pet’s symptoms with your veterinarian to determine the best treatment approach. Two things you can try are withholding food for a few hours before travel and starting with very short rides. Pets with motion sickness may experience less nausea with an empty stomach—at the very least, cleanup will be easier if they do vomit. Pets with anxiety may need to begin by just sitting with you for a few minutes in the parked car. Over time, with patience and positive reinforcement, you can begin driving them around the block and building up to longer rides. One of my own dogs is much calmer in the car if he’s in the crate that he likes to nap in at home (in this case, the crate is both a restraint and a safe, familiar space).
Antianxiety and antinausea medications help many animals travel more comfortably. The choice of medication depends on the symptoms and the cause of the problem. Talk to your veterinarian if your pet continues to have signs of nausea or stress in the car.
5. If in doubt, leave your pet at home.
Not all pets like to ride in the car, and not all destinations welcome animals. Some trips, like visits to the veterinary clinic, are unavoidable. For other excursions, consider leaving your pets safely at home if they don’t enjoy car rides and don’t have to go with you.
Photo by n-k
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM