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Hitting the road with your pets this holiday season? Read this first.

SUV driving on a snowy road

We have officially entered the biggest travel season of the year. And when you are a pet guardian, travel means either finding a pet sitter, using a kennel, or traveling with your pet. This article will explore how to keep your animal companions comfortable and safe when you hit the road.

One of my favorite things about my family is that when we gather for any event, our dogs, and sometimes kittens, come as well. Including fosters, I've had upwards of 10 dogs at family dinners I've hosted.

At my mother's house on Thanksgiving Day a few weeks ago, there were 5 dogs, only one of which was hers. While my two and my sister's Chi were familiar visitors to Kayla, the resident Westie, my daughter's dog Pasta made his debut at the clan gathering. Amazingly, all the dogs were so relaxed and well behaved that we kept checking to make sure everyone was present and accounted for. Although Pasta had been to my house and met my dogs, when all the dogs are together the dynamics can get a little weird.

One thing my daughter did that contributed to Pasta's successful visit is she arrived before everyone else did, so he and Kayla had a chance to get comfy with each other. He then had a chance to relax into his new surroundings before everyone else started arriving.

She has also traveled with him frequently since she adopted him earlier this year, so little by little he is becoming comfortable with new critters, people and environments.

Traveling with pets isn't for everyone, but most pets must at least get to the vet in a car. So, what does that look like?

Unfortunately, it often looks like this:

Teeny dog in a person's lap

Or this:

Dog riding in a car with his head out the window

This is not good, my friends.

But my dog LOVES to ride with his head out the window...

Ah, the good ole' days! Remember when dogs roamed the neighborhood free and Trixie just hopped in the car, sat on your lap and hung out the window, smelling all the great smells? Yeaaah, about that....

The often referenced "good ole' days" are usually "the way we did it because we didn't know any better". We now have studies showing that when drivers are focused on something other than the bazillion things one must be aware of while driving, even for as little as 2 seconds, the odds of crashing into the car that just stopped suddenly in front of you greatly increase. Full disclosure: I myself have traveled with dogs in my car that have caused me to momentarily not pay attention to the road. Do I see some heads nodding?

The fact is that dogs and cats (or birds, mini-pigs, or Bearded Dragons) roaming the car = a distracted driver.

The internet is FILLED with examples. Last month in Maine, a cat was riding in a driver’s lap. When she thought she felt something warm and wet, she glanced down and swerved into oncoming traffic, hitting a school-bus full of kids. Thankfully, there were only minor injuries, but the cat was killed.

While the conversation about distracted driving always includes texting and phone use, roaming pets are right up there. And when you add the challenges of looking for exit signs or navigating traffic (or using your "hands-free" navigation app- grrrr!), you could be an accident in the making.

Allowing your pets to roam freely can be as distracting as texting, putting on make-up, eating or trying to get the darned voice recognition thingy to work right and then having to resort to pushing buttons.

Won't my [insert creature of choice] be miserable confined to the back seat?

Oh, how we love our animal family members! Listening to our kitty in her carrier, meowing mournfully for the entire trip, can be hard for our hearts to take (not to mention our nerves). And is there any happier sight than a dog smiling out the window, ears flapping in the breeze?

Well, considering that road gravel can chip our windshields, imagine what it can do to your dog's face. And can anyone calculate the PSI that cicadas have when smashing into an eyeball at 50 miles an hour? Don’t worry – Myth Busters did that (the answer is 37 pounds).

Improperly secured pets become projectiles in an accident. Several years ago, in an episode of Good Morning America, Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies said that an unsecured 20-pound object carries 1,000 pounds of force at 55 miles an hour.

That is about the weight of my dog, Max.

Even a minor fender-bender can seriously injure or even kill a dog or cat that is sitting in the front on someone's lap if the airbags go off (remember the kitty in the previous story).

And in the aftermath of accidents, pets have been known to panic, run and hide.

As much as we might think that letting our pets snuggle with us in the car will make them feel safe and secure, ensuring that they are safely secured is truly the most loving thing we can do.

Okay, I'm convinced- what do I need?

While I was researching for this post, I learned that while there is a plethora of options that will prevent your pets from wandering the vehicle, there are few that will keep them safe in an accident. And there is no government entity that tests and regulates pet restraint/carrier safety. None. Nada.

Some manufacturers will make you believe that they will provide a safe ride for you and your pet, but what you are really getting is a distraction-free ride. And for sure, that IS safer than a kitty under your feet while you are driving.

So, we buy the harness, bed, car seat, or carrier. We feel good in the knowledge that we are making our pets, ourselves and our fellow man safer. And sadly, we may find out too late they do not protect our pets at the time when they need it the most- in a car accident. Nor will they protect us, as our pets become missiles when hooks and clips break under extreme force.

Enter a hero: Lindsey A. Wolko. The Center for Pet Safety (CPS), a non-profit research and testing center, was created by Lindsey in 2011 after her dog, Maggie, was injured in a car accident while wearing a dog seat belt. Using the same standards that are used in testing children’s car seats, and relying mostly on donations, CPS crash tests pet harnesses, carriers, crates, booster seats and so on. Read more about Maggie and Lindsey here.

I strongly recommend you go to the CPS website and consider the harnesses, carriers and crates that have received their safety rating. You can also read about the test criteria here. I can testify that watching the crash tests, even knowing that the weighted and instrumented test dog was not real, was a heart pounding, unbelievably stressful exercise for me. I could easily imagine either of my dogs in its place.

They recommend that a containment system be used for small dogs and cats rather than a harness.

  • For dogs and cats 15 pounds and under, The Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed looks like a useful item. It can be used as a cozy bed at home without the dome, thus becoming a source of safety and comfort before transport. Then secure it in the car with the dome for 5-star safety. It has a handle for easily transporting your precious cargo from the car to their destination.

  • The Jet Set Forma Frame from Pet Ego, also 5-star rated, goes up to 22 pounds, and looks to be quite versatile. It can be used in a car, a plane, the back of a bike, or even as a back pack.

  • We tend to use harnesses with our dogs, so I looked at the Sleepypod Clickit Terrain. This received a 5-star safety rating and has sizes small to extra-large (rated to 90 pounds), and look like a possibility for us.

  • At this time, it looks like the only CPS Certified containment option for dogs larger than 22 pounds are crates by Gunner. These are heavy duty kennels, designed to be secured in the cargo area of an SUV, van or truck, although the Gunner G1 Small can also be secured on a back seat. The small is suitable for animals up to 30 pounds, the intermediate is rated at 75 pounds and the large is for the big dogs, approximately 110 pounds, depending on the build of the dog.

The restraints I am using for my dogs did not make the cut. And, yes, some of these items are expensive enough to take your breath away. But as I look down at the two of them, sleeping beneath my desk as I write this, I am planning on purchasing two Sleepypod Clicket Terrain harnesses. When I became their guardian, I made an unspoken commitment to keep them safe. Believe me, I am going to have to adjust my budget to make it happen, but they depend on me. They trust me.

And now that I know what I know, I can’t not know it.

Yet again, the powers that be are actually NOT looking out for us or our pets- shocking, I know. We must be our pets' advocates.

General Tips for Traveling with Pets

In addition to the actual car ride, here are some things to think about besides packing food dishes and a bed. It’s helpful to have a checklist of best practices.

  • Make sure your pets are up to date on vaccinations.

  • If your pet is not micro-chipped, get it done as soon as possible. If it is, make sure information is current and you have it with you.

  • Know where to find a vet or emergency clinic in the location where you will be. Pet Flight has an emergency vet clinic locator. You can also ask your vet for recommendations.

  • Have a current picture and copies of medical records on hand.

  • Add pet pertinent first aid items to the pet bag or car.

  • Have potty pads, belly bands and cleaning supplies handy. Even well-trained pets may have a "whoops" when in an unfamiliar environment, whether hotel or host's house

  • Most people know to bring familiar food and treats, but consider bringing water. Water can vary greatly from place to place and could cause gastric upset to sensitive systems. Bring some from home or use bottled.

  • Of course, don’t forget to check to make sure you have reordered any medications or prescription food you will need, along with any other potentially hard-to-find items.

  • A few familiar toys and loved items will go far to provide comfort.

  • On longer trips, don't forget to build in time to stop for stretching, bathroom breaks, snacks and so on.

While writing this post, I remembered that I hadn't updated chip information on our newest adopted girl, Maddie, so I called our vet right away and put that task on my to-do list. We all tend to be lax when letting our gang out at my mom’s house since her fenced yard is securely “dog-proofed” but in the wake of writing this, I am thankful that there were no incidents.

At a gathering with lots of people it only takes once for someone to not latch the backyard gate very well and a curious dog to decide to go exploring. And if there happened to be a loose dog in the neighborhood, your holiday meal could become the holiday search and rescue mission.

Now, that may seem farfetched, BUT consider this: our adopted Boston Terrier boy Max was found as a stray in a large Maryland city. He was not chipped and made his way to a foster family, where we eventually found him. Yay for us, but maybe not for a prior family.

We have always felt that he must have been someone's loved pet because of some of his mannerisms. He is the only dog we have that we would trust to let out in the yard without a leash- with us there, of course. He sticks very close, and is not one to even think about chasing squirrels, cats or other dogs (toys, balls and his humans are his obsessions). Yet, somehow, he ended up a stray. Is it possible that his family was traveling with him and something happened, and he ended up panicked, lost and alone in an unfamiliar city? We will never know, but it seems a plausible scenario.

This is a case of better safe than sorry, and if you never have to use some of the above items, then do a happy dance and thank your lucky stars.


  1. Research which traveling system will work best for your specific budget and needs, then buy it and use it. Bonus points for having the time to get your pet used to it before the 4-hour ride to grandmother’s house, but don’t let that be a deterrent! Turn up the Christmas carols to drown out the disapproval, or better yet, play some pet relaxation tunes.

  2. Start packing for your pet ahead of time so that you can be sure you haven’t forgotten something important

  3. Relax, and enjoy ride.

Traveling with your pets can be a wonderful experience. With some planning and the right equipment, you can make it as fun and relaxing as being home. And when taking your pet with you is not an option, a professional pet sitter to care for your pet in the comfort of their own home is the next best thing. At Home and Loving It Pet Care is here if you need us.

Image credits: Photo of Lap Dog by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash, Photo of dog out window by Andrew Pons on Unsplash, Photo of Snowy Drive by Chris Peeters on Pexels

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