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Car Safety for Pets

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dog in a car with their family

Driving with a pet in the car is something that nearly all pet parents will do at some point in their pet’s life. Whether you take your dog to the office every day or it’s time for your cat’s yearly trip to their veterinarian, sooner or later, your best pal will be riding along with you. Before they jump in your car, it’s crucial that you take the correct steps so your pet is as safe as possible.

Car Safety for Pets

As a pet parent, your pet’s safety is often on your mind. You purposely keep toxic materials out of their reach. You ensure they can’t get loose. You hand-select safe toys—the list can go on for a while. However, many people aren’t familiar with the proper precautions when it comes to a pet’s safety in a car. For instance, it can be helpful to keep a pet first aid kit in your vehicle.

What Is the Safest Place for a Dog in a Car?

One of the easiest steps to keep your dog or cat safe in the car is being mindful of where they are sitting. The ideal place for your dog or cat in a sedan is in the back seat. For a larger-sized SUV, your dog can stay in the cargo area, though the back seat is still an option for them and the better choice for your feline friend. With vehicles that don’t have a back seat, such as some trucks or two-seater cars, your pet has no option but to be in the front seat. That said, there are still ways you can better protect them, such as turning off the passenger airbag.

Do Cats Need To Be in Carriers on Car Rides?

It’s highly recommended that your feline friend is in a carrier anytime they go for a car ride. Not only will this help protect them if you need to slam on your brakes, but it also helps avoid the issue of you becoming a distracted driver. Some cats are exploratory in the car and want to lie on the dash, sit in your lap, and may even try climbing down to the pedals. Others may panic and try to hide. While it may seem fun to have your cat riding with you in the seat, it could quickly become a safety hazard. The ideal place for your cat to be in a vehicle is in their carrier, securely in the back seat, away from the front airbags. Draping a towel over the carrier to eliminate their view of cars and other things flying by can also help them relax and give them a sense of safety.

Should I Let My Dog Hang Its Head Out the Car Window?

For many dogs, hanging their head out the window is their favorite part of going for a car ride. Unfortunately, this isn’t the safest thing to allow your dog to do, and many pet health professionals advise against it.

As you drive down the road, any amount of debris can hit your car—look how dirty your front bumper and windshield get. Now consider that if your dog’s head were out the window, that same debris could get in their eyes. From bugs and dirt to rocks and other materials lying in the road, any of them could fly up and cause problems.

Besides their eyes, a dog’s ears could also be affected by them hanging their head out the window. By reaching even moderate speeds, your dog’s ears will flap significantly in the wind. Although your dog may look like they’re thoroughly enjoying themselves, and it’s no doubt cute to see their ears dance in the wind, the issue is that canine ears are comprised of soft tissue which could become irritated, swollen, or tender. Continually exposing your pup’s ears to high-wind conditions could cause more serious issues that could be long-lasting.

Another crucial reason dogs shouldn’t be allowed to keep their heads out the car window is due to the risk of them possibly falling out. You never know when something outside the car could catch their attention and cause them to jump out, leading to more issues such as a broken bone, running into traffic, or even running away. Even if your dog is incredibly well-behaved, a sudden, sharp turn or slamming on your brakes could be enough to throw your dog off balance, and they could accidentally fall out the window.

Perhaps one of the best compromises is to open your back windows enough to let in some fresh air without the opening being big enough for your dog’s head. Don’t forget to put on your window’s child lock—some canines can work the window button.

Can Dogs Ride in the Bed of a Truck?

Simply put—no. Dogs should never ride loose in the bed of a truck, and in some states, you could receive a hefty fine for doing such. If you have a truck and need to bring your dog along, they should sit in the cab with you, preferably in the back row of seats if you have an extended cab.

When a dog rides in the back of a truck, all the risks associated with them sticking their head out the car window are multiplied. Their eyes and ears could accidentally be injured, and there’s a massive risk of them jumping or falling out of the bed. If this were to occur, it may be quite a while before you’d even notice your dog isn’t back there anymore. There are also the dangers of what would happen if you were in a wreck or rear-ended, not to mention, the bed of a truck can get incredibly hot in the sun, putting your dog at risk of heat stroke or burning their paw pads.

veterinarian putting a stethoscope on a dog’s chest

What Happens To a Pet in a Car Accident?

Despite taking all necessary precautions and being a safe driver, accidents can still happen. Sometimes they may not even be the fault of another driver, as many accidents can occur due to poor driving conditions.

No matter the cause or severity of the incident, even little fender benders can be stressful, especially when you have passengers—but what if your passengers are your four-legged pals? You will first want to assess the situation. If you weren’t injured and feel OK to move about, carefully exit the driver’s seat and go to wherever your pet is buckled in. Although your pet may be a bit shook up, try to assess their condition. Did you hear any whimpering? Do you see any noticeable cuts? For minor injuries, you may be able to use your pet first aid kit to immediately treat the issue.

After checking on your best pal, you will then need to assess the accident scene as a whole. In some situations, it may be safest to remain next to or in your vehicle. If police recommend you exit your car, be mindful that your cat is securely in their carrier or that your dog has their collar and leash on. The chaos of accidents and the events that take place shortly after them can easily cause pets to flee and run into traffic or get lost in an unfamiliar area. In the event that your pet needs to be carried out of the car, whether because they have a more severe injury, there’s glass on the ground, or they have to exit the vehicle through a window, it can be incredibly helpful to wrap your pal in a blanket or towel. Even large, reusable shopping bags can work well. These items can act as make-shift stretchers as well as help protect your pet from debris.

In the instance that you are injured during a car wreck and need to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance, what happens to your pet? For your own well-being, and for those working to make you better, your pet will not be able to ride in the ambulance with you. However, depending on the first responders and emergency workers on the scene, they may ask for contact information for a friend or next of kin who can watch your cat or dog until you are discharged. Some cities even have programs in place that offer these pets a temporary spot at a local veterinary office, the nearby shelter, or with a specially trained foster parent.

Just as you would visit the doctor if you are feeling sore after a car accident, it’s with your pet’s best interest in mind that you take them to their veterinarian after the accident as well. Your veterinarian can do a thorough physical exam, check any lacerations, and ensure that your pet is good to go.

In more severe cases, when your pet may suffer from a broken bone or head injury, there may be added stress with their expensive medical bills. However, signing your pet up for pet insurance could help relieve some stress and worry. For instance, with the ASPCA® Pet Health Insurance program, there’s an accident-only plan that may be able to help with costs related to injuries from a car accident. In the instance that your car is damaged in a wreck, you have car insurance to help with repair-related costs and if you are injured in an accident, you have health insurance to assist with your medical bills, so why not have coverage to help your pet out as well?

One of the many wonderful benefits of pet insurance is that all registered veterinarians should accept your insurance, so you don’t have to worry about finding someone in your network. This means you can rest assured that if you and your pet are in an accident in your hometown or states away, you can still get your best pal the care they need.

cat with a harness sitting in a car

Cold vs. Hot Weather: Is It Illegal To Leave a Pet in the Car?

At some point, you may find yourself driving around with your pet in the car and realize that you need to stop at the store to pick up an item or two. Of course, you may not want to run all the way home and then make an extra trip to the store, but it’s crucial to consider the risks of leaving your cat or dog in the car. Even if you only need to run into the store for a few minutes, can you leave your pet in a running vehicle without issues?

During the summer, or depending on your region, when temperatures are higher, leaving your pet in a car could lead to them experiencing heatstroke or other severe medical issues. A car’s internal temperatures can very quickly increase to unsafe levels, even on days when it isn’t scorching.

Although many people may hear the warnings and precautions about leaving pets in a car on a warm day, there are also risks associated with cold temperatures. Kittens, puppies, or pets with short coats can quickly get chilled, and your car could act as a refrigerator whenever temperatures drop. You shouldn’t assume that because your pet has a thicker coat, they will do better in cooler weather. Leaving your pet in the car during cold weather can pose dangers to their health as well.

In many states, though not all, there are laws against leaving animals unattended in cars. However, in the instance that you spot an animal alone in a vehicle and believe they’re in danger, there are a few steps you can take to help.

  • Write down the car’s license plate, make, model, and color, and take the information into the store. You can ask a worker to make an announcement to locate the car’s owner.

  • In some settings, like a large mall, locating the pet’s parent may be nearly impossible, and they could be gone for any amount of time. At this point, you can wait by the car to keep an eye on the animal and, in the meantime, contact the local non-emergency police. Once on the scene, they can assess the situation and help remove the animal from the car.

  • If you believe the situation is dire, you can decide whether to take more direct action and help remove the animal from the car—usually by breaking the window. However, in many states, you can be fined for the destruction of property, so it may be best to wait for officers to arrive at the scene.

During quick trips around town, it may be easy to avoid any unnecessary stops, but what about long drives? Whether you’re going on vacation or traveling home for the holidays, sometimes, on road trips, you will have to leave your pet in the car. For these unavoidable instances, there are many precautions you should take to ensure your cat or dog will be OK.

  • With warm or hot temperatures, park in the shade and ensure the air conditioning is on and reaching your pet, especially if they are in their crate. Leave them access to some water and make your restroom break or trip into the gas station quickly. Ideally, your pet should be alone in the car for only a few minutes. Remember to lock your car doors when your vehicle is running as well.

  • In cooler or cold weather, turn on your heat (not too hot, though) and leave a blanket with your pet. Once again, ensure your car doors are locked and make your stop as quickly as possible.

  • If you are traveling with someone else, trade off your trips inside so that your best pal is never left alone in the vehicle.

Although it is not illegal in many states to leave your pet in the car as long as it’s running, it is still not recommended if you will be gone for longer than just a few moments. For instance, if your dog is roaming about the car, they could accidentally turn off the air or bump the controls.

Whether you are taking extra precautions to keep your pet cool on their next car ride or you’re being more diligent about keeping your dog’s windows rolled up, the great thing about car safety for pets is that you can make a significant difference in protecting your pet with only a few extra steps. So, from where your best pal sits, to their car-safety accessories, the next time you take your cat or dog for a ride, ensure they aren't just riding in style but also safely.

An ASPCA® Pet Health Insurance plan can help you with eligible costs for covered conditions like surgery expenses for accidents and help provide peace of mind that your pet can receive the care they need. Check out our online resources to learn more about your insurance options and get a free quote today. The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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