Traveling by Car with Pets

Road trip! It’s great to bring the whole family on a trip, even your pets.

To make your next road trip a breeze, read through these top tips from pet experts, vets and pet owners. Happy Trails!

NOTE: Most of these tips pertain to dogs. Many vets we spoke with stressed that cats tend to be homebodies and prefer to stay at home. Instead arrange for a pet sitter or a friend to come and keep an eye on your cat. If you do choose to take your cat on car trips, it’s best to keep your cats in a crate for the duration of the trip.

Before You Go

Get in Gear

  1. Use restraint: You will need a crate/carrier, pet restraint/harness and/or barrier for your car. “One reason to put a pet in a safety restraint is to prevent accidents,” says Susan Nelson, asst. professor of clinical studies at Kansas State University. “Pets are distracting; if you’re petting them or looking around for them, you’re not paying attention to the road.”

    WHN Expert TIP: Buckle Up!

    In an accident, pets, like humans can get catapulted or crushed if they’re not properly restrained. A dog can weigh up to 30 times its weight upon impact while traveling at 35 mph! – World Wide Pet Industry Association

  2. Some pet restraint options include:
    • Canine seat belts
    • Car or booster seats for smaller dogs
    • Crate or carrier (make sure the crates are tied down). Read our Choosing a Crate article for tips on what to look for when purchasing one for your pet.
    • Pet barriers (help ensure that pets stay in the back of vehicles)

WHN Expert TIP: Crates

I always use a crate and I feel better having them in one unit rather than obstructing my driving views. - Matt Stelter, Drs. Foster & Smith representative and professional Collie owner and handler

WHN TIP: Label It!

Be sure to label your crate with your name, address and cell phone number just in case. When you’re traveling, add an extra label with your destination information.

Practice Road Trips

If your pet is not accustomed to car travel, take it for a few short rides before your trip.
“Put a few treats in their crate each time you go for a ride so there’s a little extra surprise. To get them used to the motion of the car, drive once around the block and give everyone a treat when you reach home,” says Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, ASPCA Executive Vice President of National Programs and Science Advisor and owner of a dog, two cats and some fish.

“Another idea is to drive and take them to a dog park where they can be rewarded with some exercise. And even if it’s a park you can walk to from your house, drive them every so often.”

WHN Expert TIP: For Cats

Cats should be confined to a cage or crate to allow them to feel secure and to avoid having a pet under your feet while driving. – AVMA

WHN Expert TIP: Reaction Time

If your dog appears to be in a high state of stress, you might want to reconsider that cross-country drive.

– Dr. Tod Schadler, associate dean of clinical studies at Ross Univ. School of Vet. Medicine

Head to the Vet

  1. Tell your vet about where you are headed to, how you’ll be traveling and for how long.

    WHN TIP: Don't Have a Vet Yet?

    Read our Choosing a Vet article for top tips from veterinarians and pet owners on how to find and select the best vet for you and your pet.

  2. Make sure your pet’s vaccinations are up to date. Also, be sure to ask your vet about possible diseases that might be prevalent at your vacation destination.

    WHN EXPERT TIP: Dangers Ahead

    Anticipate dangers you may encounter along the way. Each area of the country has endemic diseases, plants and animals that might affect your pet. In Arizona, owners should look out for scorpions and rattlesnakes. The Pacific Northwest has salmon poisoning: this infectious disease can kill dogs without aggressive treatment. Animals traveling to the East Coast should be vaccinated against Lyme disease. The fleas are ferocious in Florida. Prevention is a must so ask your vet about these diseases and travel concerns. – Dr. Kristen L. Nelson of Veterinary Creative in Scottsdale, AZ

  3. Ask about current medical conditions and if they could pose a problem while traveling.

    WHN Expert TIP: Sedatives and Tranquilizers

    Dogs’ inner ears are much more sensitive than humans’, making them more prone to motion sickness. A sedative pill, prescribed by your veterinarian, can help to not only relax your dog but also lessen motion sickness

    - Dr. Tod Schadler, associate dean of clinical studies at Ross Univ. School of Vet. Medicine

    WHN EXPERT TIP: Sedatives and Tranquilizers #2

    If your pet needs tranquilizers to travel, don't ask for them last minute because if your pet has never used them in the past you will want to try them out before you hit the road as they may be overly sensitive and get excessively sedated or possibly get over-stimulated by them. Also, if you wait until the last minute to do this, there may not be any appointment times available. - Dr. Susan Nelson, asst. professor of clinical studies at Kansas State University

  4. Ask about feeding instructions and other things you can do to prepare your pet.
  5. Make sure your pet’s ID tags and microchip information are up to date with your current contact details and vaccination information, if necessary.

WHN Expert TIP: Make a Cell Phone Tag

Have a little tag made that has your cell phone number on it (many pet stores have machines that do this) – stick that on your dog’s collar when your traveling. If your dog gets away from you while you’re traveling, they’ll call you at home but you won’t be there! - Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, ASPCA Executive Vice President of National Programs and Science Advisor and owner of a dog, two cats and some fish

WHN Expert TIP: Ask for Referrals

Ask your vet about referrals for other veterinarians in your destination area. Write down their contact details, just in case. If your vet doesn’t have any names, do a little research of your own. Contact the destination vet and ask if your pet will need any additional vaccinations or medications, just to be safe. – Lisa Peterson, AKC Director of Club Communications and owner, breeder and handler of Norwegian Elkhounds

Getting Groomed

  1. Have your pet groomed before the trip. This will help your pet stay clean and healthy.
  2. Brush your pet’s hair and trim their nails before the trip.
  3. Read our Choosing a Groomer article for more top tips.

What to Pack

  1. Visit our Pet Travel Kit article for a complete list of items you may wish to take with you on your trip. A few suggested items:
    • Bottled water or water from your tap at home
    • Leash and collar
    • Medications and pet first aid kit
    • Pet’s food
    • Pooper-scooper, paper towels, cleaners, extra bedding and plastic bags

WHN Expert TIP: BYO H2O

A change in the water might cause diarrhea and intestinal distress for the pet. If you’re going to a different area, use bottled water. Also, your vet may be able to prescribe an anti-diarrhea medication or suggest a brand of canned food for your pet to prevent loose stools. – Lisa Peterson, AKC Director of Club Communications and owner, breeder and handler of Norwegian Elkhounds

WHN Expert TIP: Exercise Pens

I like to pack collapsible pens that are at least about 36” high. They’re not escape-proof but at least it’s something to set up when we stop at rest areas and let the dogs exercise. - Matt Stelter, Drs. Foster & Smith representative and professional Collie owner and handler

WHN Expert TIP: Emergency Contact Information

I like to keep an emergency ID info card in my car with me. It includes a calling number so in case I’m unconscious they can call someone I know to come and get the pet instead of taking the pet to a shelter or animal control. – Lisa Peterson, AKC Director of Club Communications and owner, breeder and handler of Norwegian Elkhounds

Last-Minute Things to Check

  1. Call your accommodation and find out if your pet is welcome where you may be staying. Read our Finding Pet-Friendly Hotels article for tips on finding the best accommodation.
  2. Research the dog-related laws in your destination area. For instance, you may need to keep your dog on a leash at all times and also pick up after them in some cities and towns.

WHN Expert TIP: Banned Breeds

Some cities also ban certain breeds (pit bulls, Dobermans, German Shepherds, etc.) Call the city administration or animal control offices to learn about the laws in your destination town(s). – Lisa Peterson, AKC Director of Club Communications and owner, breeder, and handler of Norwegian Elkhounds

On the Road

  1. Don’t allow your pet to ride with his head outside the window. This can subject him to inner ear damage and lung infections, and he could be injured by flying objects. – ASPCA
  2. Plan to stop every two hours or so to give your pet a chance to exercise and relieve themselves.
  3. Be careful at rest stops.
    “Rest stops have many hidden dangers,” says Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, ASPCA Executive Vice President of National Programs and Science Advisor and owner of a dog, two cats and some fish.

    “Everyone is excited and bursts out of the car. Make sure your pet is on a leash or restrained before those doors are open. I always suggest to have a leash on the floor, hook the leash on the collar first then unbuckle the dog or let them out of their crate.”

    WHN Reader TIP: On Hand

    In terms of having the dog in the car for a long drive, we make sure to have the water bowl within easy reach so we can give the dog a break (she's usually too nervous to eat) and keep the leash handy (and not at the bottom of a pile of luggage) as well. – Barry L., Hanover, MD

    WHN Expert Tip: Hot Paws

    Dogs who are often kept indoors may not have developed callouses on their paws and the hot pavement could be harmful to their paws. You may want to carry the dog from the car to a grassy area - Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, ASPCA Executive Vice President of National Programs and Science Advisor and owner of a dog, two cats and some fish.

  4. Watch out for dangers at rest stops and parking lots.
    “People are coming in and out of the area – they’re not worried about you, they’re rushing to get a parking spot,” says Dr. Zawistowki.

    “This is not a time to use retractable leash, instead keep the dog close to you. Beware of engine coolant, especially now in the summer. When engines boil over, that coolant seeps out and it’s poisonous to pets. Never let your dog drink anything [from the ground] at a rest stop or at a parking lot.”

  5. Don’t leave your pet alone in a parked car. It could put the pet’s health in danger due to rising heat.
    “Take your pet with you. The heat could kill it even with the windows down,” says Peterson. “Pet thefts are also on the rise, especially purebred dogs.”

    WHN Expert Tip: Why Dogs and Cats Can’t Handle the Heat

    Unlike humans, it’s hard for dogs to sweat. A dog simply doesn’t have the same abilities to cool down that a human does. Be sure to have extra cool water on hand for the dog and don’t leave the dog in a car or out in the bright sun and heat. - Matt Stelter, Drs. Foster & Smith representative and professional Collie owner and handler

    WHN Expert Tip: Reaction Time

    During the trip, keep a close eye on your dog. If you notice any signs of distress like shortness of breath or chronic fatigue, it’s a sign that your dog is not handling the trip well - Dr. Tod Schadler, associate dean of clinical studies at Ross Univ. School of Vet. Medicine

    WHN Expert Tip: Returning Home

    You may want to schedule a follow-up vet appointment to make sure your pet didn’t catch anything or that your pet wasn’t exposed to parasites and worms. – Lisa Peterson, AKC Director of Club Communications and owner, breeder and handler of Norwegian Elkhounds

    Want more travel tips? Top pet travel articles:

    - Pet Air Travel Tips

    - Pet Travel Kit

    - Finding Pet-Friendly Hotels

    Last Updated: 5/2009