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
WHN Expert TIP – Safety First: “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
Buy a recommended carrier or pet restraint. The Center for Pet Safety has information on selecting a harness and a list of CPS-approved harnesses. The Center for Pet Safety is a registered 501(c)3 research and advocacy organization dedicated to companion animal and consumer safety.
“One reason to put a pet in a safety restraint is to prevent accidents,” says Dr. Susan Nelson, Clinical Professor/Pet Health Center 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.”
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).
- Pet barriers (help ensure that pets stay in the back of vehicles)
Consumer Reports’ Safe Road Tripping with Pets article covers the options as well as other travel tips.
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.
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). Attach it to your dog’s collar when you’re 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
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. Zawistowski. “Another idea is to drive 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. American Veterinary Medical Association
After you’ve done a few trips, extending the length of time for each, evaluate how well your pet handled the practice run. If your pet appears highly stressed, or barked or whined the entire time, you might want to reconsider a long road trip. Not only will the pet be unhappy, it’s reaction will also distract you from paying attention to the road.
Head to the Vet
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 Choosing a Vet for top tips from veterinarians and pet owners on how to find and select the best vet for you and your pet.
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
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 University School of Veterinary Medicine
Does your pet need tranquilizers to travel? Dr. Nelson recommends not waiting until the last minute to get them in case you can’t get in to see the vet. If your pet has never used them before, try them out a few weeks ahead of time, just in case of a reaction: either over-sedation or over-stimulation.
Ask about feeding instructions and other things you can do to prepare your pet.
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 — 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
Have your pet groomed before the flight so it will be clean and healthy. Then do a final brush and nail trim before the flight.
Need a pet groomer? Read Choosing a Pet Groomer for tips.
What to Pack
Read Create a Pet Travel Kit for a complete checklist of items you might wish to bring on your trip. These include:
- 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
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
Last-Minute Things to Check
Call your accommodation and find out if your pet is welcome where you may be staying. Visit Pet Travel Center to find links to pet-friendly lodgings.
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
On the Road
The ASPCA says 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.
Plan to stop every two hours or so to give your pet a chance to exercise and relieve themselves. But be careful at those locations, cautions Dr. Zawistowski. “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. This is not a time to use retractable leash, instead keep the dog close to you,” he says. “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.”
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. Zawistowski.
Don’t leave your pet alone in a parked car. It could put the pet’s health in danger due to rising heat as well as make it a target for pet thieves.
“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,” says Stelter. “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.”
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 University School of Veterinary Medicine
Once you’re home, schedule a follow-up vet appointment, suggests Peterson. “You want to make sure your pet didn’t catch anything or that your pet wasn’t exposed to parasites and worms.”
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