Ask a Vet: Should I Restrain My Dog During Car Travel?

Belting or crating your dog in the car is not a guaranteed way to stay safe, but it's better than the alternative when an accident occurs.


The editors at Dogster and Catster HQ recently asked my opinion about restraining pets during car travel:

Is it possible to prevent severe injury or death for animals who travel in cars but aren’t in crates? Do you see pets who have been involved in car crashes, who might have been less injured if they were in a crate and strapped to the seat?

It is possible for unrestrained animals to survive major vehicle crashes without injury — I have seen it frequently. Likewise it is possible for dogs to fall off cliffs without sustaining major injury (I also have seen that many times). However, just as it’s generally better not to fall off cliffs, it’s also generally better to keep your dog restrained in the car.

I guess I’m getting old, because I remember the good old days when, at least in Idaho where I grew up, people didn’t wear seat belts, motorcyclists didn’t wear helmets, dogs rode in the backs of pickup trucks unrestrained, and it was actually safer for children not to wear bicycle helmets when riding around town (wearing a bicycle helmet on Saturday was a guaranteed way to get beat up at school on Monday). Most, but notably not all, of the people I knew made it through those days without braining ourselves on the pavement or the dashboard. During my youth I knew of only a few dogs who died after jumping out of the backs of trucks on the Interstate.

Despite that good fortune, few people now argue against helmets and seat belts. Kids in California must now wear bicycle helmets by law, and I imagine that Monday morning bullying now occurs for unrelated reasons. Legal movements are afoot in some states to require pets to be restrained while traveling in vehicles. Regardless of your state’s laws, I think that crating or seat-belting pets for travel is an excellent idea.

The most important reason to restrain your pet during travel is that this simple step reduces the likelihood of an accident. When my pal Buster first came into my life, I would just toss him in the back of the car and go. The result would be a road trip marred by Buster licking and panting in my face, slobbering on the center console, trying to climb into the front seat, and generally annoying me (and, more important, distracting me). I was lucky that he never caused an accident. Now I use a harness and a seat belt attachment to keep my pal comfortably restrained in the backseat. I’m able to focus on my driving, and my dog doesn’t get slobber or dirty paw-prints all over the car.

Unrestrained animals can cause accidents not just by distracting the driver. I have seen the aftermath of accidents that occurred when small pets crawled under the brake pedal, or when larger pets sitting in laps literally obscured the driver’s view of the road.

Drivers should be aware that dogs don’t just jump out of moving pickup trucks. I have treated plenty of dogs that, while traveling at 50 miles per hour, saw a squirrel and decided to give chase through an open car window. And, with the advent of automatic windows that can be opened with the press of a paw, I have had to treat an ever-increasing number of dogs who have jumped out of a car window after opening the window themselves.

In the unfortunate event of a major vehicle accident, I believe that restrained dogs generally will be safer. I cannot say whether it’s better to use a belted crate or a seatbelt and harness like Buster’s. But I can say that restraining the animal, like belting yourself, should reduce the likelihood of major injury.

And, critically, don’t forget about what might happen after the accident. Many major accidents occur on very busy roads. Unrestrained dogs often bolt from the vehicle after an accident; many are subsequently struck by other vehicles. Over the years, I have regularly received patients from humane officers who told me that the dogs were found near major vehicle accidents; the drivers in these incidents were hospitalized and unreachable. The dogs often were gravely injured, and in many instances the injuries appeared to have occurred after the dog ran into traffic on the freeway. In some of these instances, the loose dogs were implicated in additional accidents and further injuries (and potential legal liabilities) as drivers swerved to avoid them.

Belting or crating your dog for travel is not a guaranteed way to stay safe. But in my opinion, it is decisively the best thing for you, your dog, your bank account, and other drivers.

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