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Tips for Traveling With Pets by Car

Traveling with pets is stressful, no matter how you slice it. However, millions of Americans won’t leave home without them, especially when driving to their destination for a holiday, and most often when the pet is a dog.

Occasionally, owners may be able to travel with a pet by train, but most of the time, the choices are air or car. Each brings its unique challenges, but, generally speaking, car travel is easier on the pet and his associated humans. Indeed, the Humane Society of the United States recommends that you not transport pets by air unless absolutely necessary.

Planning a car trip

If you have previously traveled by car with your pet, even on a short trip, you have an idea of how the animal reacts to road trips. If your pet has not traveled by car except perhaps to the veterinarian, it would be a good idea to take a short trip of a few hours to get an idea of what you might be dealing with and, if it comes to it, to discover the good reasons for not taking him on a longer trip. If you are comfortable that your pet can make the journey without being too miserable or causing you too much difficulty, it is time to make some plans with your animal’s well being in mind.

For one thing, you don’t want to travel with a sick pet. It’s a good idea to have your veterinarian look at your pet with your projected trip in mind, and ensure all vaccinations are up to date. Also, an ID tag is essential so you have a good chance of recovering your pet if it runs off while you are traveling. Attach a temporary ID to his collar with information on where you will be staying. This is in addition to the permanent ID tag with details of your home address and telephone number. Attach tags so they cannot be snagged on a carrying case or other object.

These suggestions assume you will travel with a dog. Not many travelers regard a road trip with a cat as a holiday. However, if your pet is an exception, or this is a one-way journey for relocation purposes, you need a way to ensure you do not lose your feline companion or companions. If your cat tolerates a collar, the advice is the same: Attach permanent and temporary IDs. If that won’t work, consider having your veterinarian insert a computer chip under the cat’s skin. This is less efficient than a tag that anyone can read, but it may be the best you can do.

The trip will be strange enough for your furry pals, so take some time to familiarize them, in the comfort of your home with carrying cases, safety harnesses and other travel products you will use. Let your dog wear his harness in the house a few times. Place treats or favorite toys inside the pet carrier, leaving the door or lid open so the pet can come and go.

Make your pet as comfortable as possible. Plan to travel with his favorite blanket or familiar bed. Or, look into one of the cozy pet car seats now available on the market, and, as with other travel products, allow time for the animal to become familiar with it.

Hitting the road

For their safety — and yours — keep your animals secured at all travel times. Keep dogs inside well-ventilated pet carriers or use a pet safety harness, which functions like a seatbelt, designed specifically to secure animals inside vehicles. Pet barriers are a suitable alternative choice for larger pets, especially if you are driving an SUV. Keep pet carriers secured, such as with a seatbelt, so a moving carrier itself does not become a hazard to either the pet or you. Keep cats inside their carrying cases pretty much all the time, only releasing them for litterbox visits when safely inside a secure space.

Essentially, pets need to be secured for the same reason their humans have to be secured in the car. Kim Salerno, president of Trips With Pets, Inc., in South Portland, Maine, says it’s not just that an unsecured animal could be injured in a car or even thrown from the car; in a highway accident, others could be injured by the loose animal as well. Animals also are a hazard if they try climbing on the driver or around the driver’s feet.

In the event of a mishap, regardless of the reason, frightened or injured animals are likely to run from the scene if they are unsecured. Also, when you stop a vehicle for any reason and open the door, an unrestrained animal — even the well-trained pet — could impulsively jump out.

Place your pet or pets in the back seat, and never allow your pet to ride with his head sticking out the window. Some dogs love riding with the wind at their faces, but they are vulnerable to infection from the blowing dust or to injury from larger flying objects.

And never travel with a pet riding in the bed of a pickup truck. Even a leashed animal could jump or be thrown — and be killed. Some states prohibit the transport of animals in the back of a pickup while others regulate how dogs can be carried on a truck bed. For example, Trips With Pets’ Salerno points out that California law requires dogs either be in a cage or cross-tied to the truck unless the truck sides are at least 46 inches high. (Cattle and sheep dogs used by farmers and ranchers are exceptions.)

Moving along

Here are a few other important things to bear in mind.

  • Provide frequent bathroom and exercise stops. Travel service areas generally have designated areas for walking a pet. Be sure to use those areas, especially when your dog is taking a potty break. Bring a bag to pick up after your dog. When outside your vehicle, your pet should always be on a leash and wearing a collar with the permanent and temporary ID tags.
  • During pit stops, provide your pet with fresh water. Travel sometimes upsets an animal’s stomach, so come prepared with ice cubes, which can be easier for the pet to handle than a lot of water.
  • Don’t overfeed a traveling animal; rather, keep feeding at a minimum. Also, only use food the animal is used to, not leftovers from your snacks.
  • Never leave your pet alone in a parked vehicle. Temperatures inside closed vehicles—even if you crack the windows—can reach 120 degrees, which is lethal; extreme cold is equally dangerous. Besides, an untended animal is a temptation to pet thieves.

Overnighting on the road

By the same token, if you have to overnight along the way, try not to leave your animal alone in the hotel or motel room. A dog may bark, and any pet could become destructive. If you can trust your pet for short periods, advise the front desk when you are out and leave a note on the door advising that an animal is inside.

You will need pet-friendly accommodations; look for a directory of U.S. facilities at www.tripswithpets.com. If you have to stay in your accommodations for an extended period, look into local pet sitting or day care services. Getting a room at or near the ground floor makes bathroom runs easier for your dog, and be sure to clean up after your pet. Always keep the dog on a leash and don’t bring him to the dining areas. If you have a cat or cats, place the litterbox in the bathroom. For any pet, cover any furniture your pet will be allowed on.

These pointers aim to ensure your pet’s comfort and well being, but they are good pet etiquette, too. For a list of pet-friendly hotel chains, see TripsWithPets.com. Lists of pet-friendly accommodations and other travel resources are also available at these sites: DogFriendly.com, PetsWelcome.com, PetsOnTheGo.com and TravelPets.com.

On the other hand, if you have to transport your pet by air, see the companion article “Traveling with pets by air” in the Trip Planning Information tab at Best Trip Choices.