A large brown dog sticks their head out of the window of a car

Safety Tips for Traveling With Your Pets

December 11, 2019

Traveling With Pets: Car, Airplane, and General Safety Tips

Photo credit: Unsplash

Whether for business or leisure, an increasing number of pet owners are choosing to bring their pets with them when traveling. An overwhelming majority of pet owners believe their animal companions are another member of the family, and it’s only natural that, much like their human loved ones, they want to travel with their beloved companions by their side. Traveling with pets is an exciting experience that provides an opportunity to bond and explore a new place together, all while saving money on boarding or pet-sitting expenses, and guaranteeing their proper care and safety.

However, traveling with a pet isn’t always easy. Even the best-behaved or most relaxed animals can get nervous and anxious in new places or on the road. Being in unfamiliar environments, around strange people, with new smells and sounds can be overwhelming and stressful for all types of animals. Air travel, in particular, can be difficult, but some pets may become stressed or upset in short car trips around town. It simply depends on the pet, and some, regardless of what type of animal it is, will travel better than others.

Many pets, though, can successfully travel in cars or in the air if you know how to do it. As a pet owner, it’s your responsibility to minimize potential safety risks while providing them with the level of comfort they need to keep them as relaxed and calm as possible. Getting your pet ready for travel can be difficult in and of itself, but making these preparations ahead of time will ensure that you and your pet are ready for your upcoming journey — and that both of you will enjoy yourselves each step of the way.

Everyday Car Travel

Short car rides for appointments or errands around town are likely the most common way that a majority of pet owners travel with their pets. In fact, over half of the surveyed pet owners bring their animals in the car with them more than six times per month. Though they’re common, short car trips still require you to take some safety precautions for your pet. The majority of car accidents occur close to drivers’ homes, often within just a few miles, and if you aren’t careful, a quick trip to the vet or park could result in injuries for you and your pet.

Keep Them in the Backseat

First off, you should always keep your pet in the backseat of your vehicle. It may not be as fun as having them sit in the passenger seat next to you, but it’s crucial for your safety, as well as that of other people on the road, to keep pets in the back. Pets can be incredibly distracting for the driver, and they can easily hurt themselves (or you) while moving around the vehicle. Further, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, an unrestrained pet “that weighs 50 pounds, in a 35 mph collision, is projected forward like a cannonball with 1,500 pounds of force.” This can easily result in severe injuries to anyone sitting in the front seat, as well as the pet itself and other people on the road.

Even if your pet doesn’t ride in the car often or isn’t used to sitting in the back seat, it’s not too late to start cultivating this habit. Small animals, such as rodents and reptiles, can easily be transported in their usual carriers, but they should still be restrained or tied down to the seat of the car in some way. Dogs, especially large ones, can be more difficult to contain. Crates, barriers between the front and back seats, zip lines, dog seat belts, and hammocks are all common, safe, affordable, and effective ways to make sure that even the most excited and nervous pooches stay put. Explore several different options to see which works best for your car and your canine.

Prepare a Travel Kit

Before going anywhere, you should prepare a pet travel kit that you can keep in your vehicle — that way, should you ever need it, the kit is readily available with all the necessary supplies. If your car breaks down, your pet has an emergency, or anything unexpected occurs on the road, you have one less thing to worry about. What you include in the kit will vary greatly depending on what type of pet you have and what they need, but generally, your kit should have:

  • Food, water, and treats;
  • Medications and basic first aid supplies;
  • Food and water bowls;
  • A leash or other restraint for walking;
  • Waste pickup bags and/or potty pads;
  • Toys, blankets, and other items for entertainment.

Not only is it important to have items you would need for your pet in case of emergency, but you should also have items that will help them feel more comfortable on the road. This is especially true for pets who get anxious or upset in the car. Having their favorite toy or blanket can help them feel more relaxed despite the stressful situation. Additionally, giving them their favorite treats or some kind of reward for going in the car can help them associate car rides with positive outcomes, rather than as a negative experience.

Leaving Pets in the Car

Finally, no matter what time of year it is or what type of pet you have, you should never leave them in the car unattended. Leaving your pet in the car can have disastrous consequences, including making them more anxious and putting them at risk of theft or harm. They could roam around your vehicle and engage in destructive behaviors, or put themselves in a position that interferes with your ability to drive safely — such as getting stuck underneath your brake pedal.

Additionally, the weather can have adverse health effects on your pet. The temperature in a car can raise or lower very quickly in extremely cold or hot weather, but on a 70-degree day, your car’s temperature can increase by 20 degrees within 10 minutes, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. These high temperatures can cause overheating, dehydration, or death if your pet is left unattended for extended periods of time. Because of the severe consequences of leaving pets in a car, 28 states have actually made it illegal to do so. Even in states where it is not illegal, many people may take it upon themselves to help a pet left in a vehicle, which may involve alerting the authorities or breaking a window to get your pet out. For their wellbeing, it’s best to simply have someone stay in the car with them or bring them home if you know you have to leave your vehicle.

Car Safety Tips

For long drives and short trips alike, there are a few things to consider about general car safety that you need to keep in mind before and during your journey. You should know your car, its limitations, and its mechanics well; having car troubles is bad enough, but things will only be more stressful for both of you if your pet is along for the ride. Similarly, don’t take your car out into conditions that it can’t handle, and don’t push yourself to drive in situations where you’re uncomfortable, especially if you have your pet with you. If you aren’t familiar already, consider exploring your automotive educational options to see how you can learn more about cars and car safety. Learn as much as you can about how to make your vehicle as safe and secure as possible for both you and your pet.

Update Your Insurance

Look into some of the different car insurance options that you have available and see if you can find any coverage for your pet. In addition to standard coverage options, some insurance policies can cover pet injuries in the event of an accident. In fact, many insurance companies — namely Erie, Metromile, and Progressive — consider pets to be your property, and if they get hurt in an accident, their care may be covered by any property liability coverage. Unfortunately, there are limitations to the pet coverage from the policies offered by the three companies listed above; pet coverage is not applicable in all states, and it usually only applies to cats and dogs.

Alternatively or additionally, you can look into pet insurance as a solution for your pet. It can greatly reduce the cost of any unexpected medical problems or health conditions, regardless of whether or not your pet is in a car accident. Depending on what company you pick, you’ll also be able to find coverage that protects birds, reptiles, rodents, and other types of exotic animals as well. Many pet owners question if pet insurance is worth the cost, but it can be highly beneficial in the event of a car accident. Be sure to do your research, think about what your own pet needs, and shop around for different policies before purchasing one.

Window Safety

Much like children, it’s important to be mindful of the windows in your car when your pet is along for the ride. For small animals that have to be transported in carriers, windows may not be much of a concern, but they can be deceptively dangerous for dogs. Although your pooch may look cute with their tongue hanging out and their ears flapping in the breeze, if they stick their head out of the car window, they can get foreign objects stuck in their eyes, nose, or mouth; even worse, they may try to jump out of the car entirely.

If your dog enjoys the fresh air, you can still leave the window cracked, but you have to make sure the gap is small, so they can’t stick their head out. If your car has a child lock feature on your windows, use it whenever you bring your dog in the car to make sure they don’t accidentally hit the button to roll the window down. If your car doesn’t have this feature, you can purchase a child safety lock and install it yourself. Window guards and other barriers can also help deter your dog from doing something potentially dangerous, especially if they seem to love hanging out of the window of your car while driving.

Motion Sickness

Similar to their human counterparts, animals can also get motion sickness in a car. Dogs are quite susceptible to motion sickness, especially when they’re puppies, which can lead to vomiting and other accidents in your vehicle. Pay attention to how your dog behaves when you first get in the car for some of the most common signs of motion sickness:

  • Licking their lips
  • Yawning
  • Drooling
  • Whining and crying
  • Acting afraid to move around
  • Vomiting or regurgitating
  • Urination or defecation

If they continually exhibit these symptoms every time you get in the car, you may need to speak to your vet. If your dog is a puppy, they may very well grow out of this condition as they get older. It could be a behavioral issue, as some dogs may be afraid of the car due to a previously traumatic experience or simply because they have an anxious disposition, but it could also be a physiological problem that requires medication.

In cases of behavioral issues, motion sickness can largely be prevented or better managed with time and gradual but continual training. It’s important to create positive associations with the car and make it an enjoyable experience for your pooch; using toys and other rewards can help make that connection, distract your dog, and reinforce the behavior you’d like to see. Keeping the air in the car cool or cracking a window can help make the car environment more comfortable; similarly, listening to soft or relaxing music can help soothe them and make the car seem less stressful. Additionally, always avoid feeding them right before car trips to reduce the chance that they’ll get sick on the road.

Dangers of Riding in a Truck Bed

Finally, you should never let your pet ride unrestrained in the bed of a truck. This is mostly relevant to dogs, especially large ones who may not fit as easily in the truck’s cab. While it may seem like an easy way to give your dog more room to roam and move around on long car rides, it leaves your dog highly susceptible to possible illness, injury, and even death. The open bed of the truck exposes dogs to weather conditions, as well as dust and debris from the road. Your dog may also jump from the bed, or be thrown from it in the event of an accident, which can result in severe injuries or death. For this reason, several states have banned this practice altogether, including California, Maine, and Rhode Island.

There are ways that your dog can ride safely and legally in the bed of a truck. Putting a cover or topper on the back of your truck is relatively simple, but it can be costly and there’s still the possibility that your dog gets hurt from being thrown around or against the sides of the truck. Tethers can also work, but introduce hazards such as choking or strangulation; cross-tethers with a padded harness or cushion beneath them are the best choice if you want to go this route. You may also consider a crate, but it cannot be too large and it must be tied down to the bed of the truck itself. Some of these options can be costly, but they are significantly better than a costly vet bill or an injured pooch.

How to Travel Long-Distance With Pets

Most pet owners will find themselves needing to take their pet for shorter car trips — at least to see their veterinarian — at some point or another, but in some cases, you may have to embark on a long journey with your pet in tow. Whether you’re moving across the country or simply going for a road trip, it’s important to know how you can transport your pet safely and successfully. However, there are a few more things you have to keep in mind about long-distance travel. All of the above tips for shorter trips still apply, but you’ll have to make some additional preparations before setting out on a long trip with your pet.

Identification

You should ensure your pet’s tags and other identifying information is up-to-date before you head out on your trip. That way, if your pet escapes or gets lost, whoever finds your animal will be able to contact you, even if your address or phone number has changed. You may also want to take pictures of your pet before you hit the road, so you have current images to share of your pet with other people. In addition, you should also consider putting a temporary travel tag on your dog or cat’s collar that has your lodging information on it so someone could at least contact your hotel or accommodation, if they are unable to get in touch with you directly.

You should also make sure your pet is microchipped before you go on your journey. Though it is most commonly done to cats and dogs, virtually any animal can get microchipped, including rodents and reptiles. If your pet has a microchip with all of your up-to-date contact information, they’re significantly more likely to be returned safely to you. Microchips are also beneficial in your pet’s day-to-day life for the same reason; even if you decide not to travel with your pet, you should discuss getting your pet microchipped with your vet anyway.

Bring Documents

Bring all important documentation with you when you travel with your pet, particularly if you’re traveling internationally or crossing state lines. Depending on where you go, you may need proof of vaccinations, a health certificate from your vet, or a pet passport. Check what the requirements are in advance for your destination and any other states you may be traveling through. Always bring every document you need with you, and maybe even ones that aren’t required but could be helpful, such as your dog’s registration paperwork, proof of ownership for your cat, or exotic animal permit. It’s better to have these documents and not need them than to need them and not have them.

Not having the required documentation can create additional issues and stress while you’re traveling. Depending on the laws and regulations in a given state or jurisdiction, you could be breaking the law if you don’t have these documents with you. This could result in a fine or other legal penalties, but in some instances, you may not be permitted entry into the state or country. While you may not have any problems or need these documents, it’s best not to risk it so your trip goes smoothly.

Prepare for Emergencies

Emergencies can happen at any time during your travels, and though you can’t prevent them from happening, you can figure out how you’ll respond to them. When something unexpected happens, you’ll probably be overwhelmed and unable to think clearly, which is why it’s critical to think about how you’ll handle these situations before they actually happen. Having an emergency response plan is always important, but it’s even more so when you have your pet with you, as they are another thing to worry about. Whether you get into a car accident or your pet gets sick, don’t just think about how you’ll handle the emergency — also consider what you will do with your pet to ensure their safety while you deal with the situation, whatever it may be.

To set yourself up for success on your trip, take a few precautions before heading out. Keep a list of all relevant emergency numbers, including that of your primary veterinarian, in addition to your pet’s documentation and identification information. You should also make sure your car is in good working order and able to handle a long trip. Additionally, check the road conditions and the weather forecast to make sure it’s safe enough for you to drive in each place you’re traveling through or to. For instance, you may be able to drive safely in the rain in some areas, but in others that are prone to flooding, you may encounter floods that damage your car and endanger you and your pet. Be as thorough as possible in your research and preparations to minimize the possibility of any sort of emergency.

Plan the Route

Similarly, you should always plan your route in advance when you’re going for a long-distance car ride with your pet. You need to time your trip properly so that you better estimate your total travel time and stop at places that can accommodate your pet. With birds, rodents, reptiles, and other small animals, it may be easier to keep them in their carriers, aquariums, or crates for longer periods of time. They are used to being in a more confined space than cats and dogs, and it can be difficult, or even dangerous, to take them in and out of their carrier while you’re traveling.

Route planning tends to be most important if you have a dog, since they need more frequent rest breaks. For most dogs, it’s best to stop once every two or three hours for a bathroom break, but you should stop as often as your pooch needs. You should look into the laws concerning dogs in the locales where you stop to ensure you follow them correctly, especially leash laws and regulations for pet transportation, so you have no problems during the drive.

Book Hotels

If you need to stop overnight with your pet, you should try to find a pet-friendly hotel as early in the travel planning process as possible. Pet-friendly hotels can be tricky to find, and many require advance notice if you’re bringing an animal with you. You’ll likely have to pay an additional fee or deposit, just in case your animal damages the room in any way. Bring potty pads, a clean litter box, or the appropriate waste receptacle to minimize the chance of an accident in the hotel room. You may also want to bring or request extra towels or blankets to put on the furniture or floor to prevent the spread of debris and hair. If you have a dog, you should also request a room on the ground floor so it’s easier to take your pooch outside for bathroom breaks and walks.

Alternatively, you could consider booking a house or room on Airbnb, VRBO, or another vacation rental website. You’ll still want to do your research and book a vacation home as early as possible; though they may be more pet-friendly than a hotel, as of 2017, only 12% of Airbnb properties allowed pets. You’ll also want to follow some of the same best practices as you would in a hotel room to ensure the home stays clean and intact. However, an entire home or apartment offers more privacy and space for your pet to move, stretch, play, and recover from the drive.

Keep Pets Comfortable

While you’re on the road, do your best to keep your pet as comfortable on long-distance drives. Taking frequent breaks so your pet can stretch their legs, go to the bathroom, and eat and drink is crucial, especially for dogs. You may also want to schedule more breaks or shorter legs of your trip than you would on your own to make sure your pet has the chance to rest and recuperate.

Remember, car travel can be stressful or agitating for animals, so be sure to give them the basic things they need for their health and comfort. Provide toys (either their favorite one, or a special one just for the car), a bed or blanket, and other things they need to be comfortable and relaxed. If your pet usually struggles with car travel but is being especially calm or doing well, be sure to praise and reward them as much as you can to create a more positive experience. That way, it’ll be easier to bring them along on your next trip.

Pet Air Travel Tips

In some cases, it may be better to travel with your pet by plane rather than by car. Air travel can greatly reduce the amount of time you spend traveling and spare you the hassle and stress of having to drive for a long distance with your pet. Depending on where you’re going, flying may be your only option, especially if you’re traveling overseas or to a remote destination.

Traveling by plane can still be incredibly stressful and upsetting for your pet, possibly more so than by car. Flying also poses significant health risks for animals, and it’s important to consider if your pet is healthy enough to handle the flight. The Humane Society of the United States ultimately recommends against air travel and advises pet owners to “consider all the alternatives to flying.”

This doesn’t mean you can’t fly with your pet — over two million animals fly in the United States without issue every year — it simply means that you should think carefully about what other options you may have. Further, if you do choose to fly with your pet, you should take the necessary precautions to keep them safe before, during, and after the flight. By taking steps to reduce your pet’s stress and ensure their comfort and wellbeing, you’re both more likely to relax and enjoy your flight.

Airline-Friendly Carriers

If possible, you should always try to bring your pet into the cabin of a plane, but in order to do so, they need to be in a carrier. Airlines require different carriers from what you would use in a car or to take your pet to the vet. Airline-friendly carriers are designed with specific dimensions so they fit underneath airplane seats and comply with the airline’s policies and regulations. Typically, these carriers are lightweight, soft-sided, and easier to travel with than bulk and large hard-sided carriers.

The best carrier for a flight will depend completely on what type of pet you have and which airline you fly. It’s important that your carrier fits under the seat in front of you, but also meets the airline’s weight requirements; often, the combined weight of the carrier and your pet cannot exceed a certain weight. Your carrier should have plenty of ventilation, so your pet can breathe more easily and see their surroundings. You may also want to consider additional features, such as expansions that provide more room or pockets for extra storage, to make the flight even easier.

Bring Extra Food and Treats

As with long car rides, you need to pack extra water, food, and treats for your pet during your flight. Refrain from feeding your pet for a few hours before flying, unless told otherwise by your vet, in case it upsets their stomach during the flight. You should give them water and help them stay hydrated before and during the flight, but be careful with your timing to avoid any accidents while you’re in the air. Giving your pet an ice cube to chew on during takeoff works well as a fun treat that helps their ears pop and hydrates them.

Giving your pet treats, toys, and other rewards during the flight can make the entire experience more positive, rather than stressful or upsetting. As an added bonus, treats and toys can help distract and entertain them mid-flight, giving you time to relax instead of worrying about your pet. This strategy is particularly effective for dogs, but you know your pet best and should do whatever works well for them. Before flying, talk to your veterinarian about other ways you can make your pet more comfortable on the plane; they may have specific advice for you that can make the entire process easier and more enjoyable.

Tips for Cargo Travel

Virtually every airline prohibits larger dogs and many exotic animals, with the exception of service animals, from riding in the cabin of a plane. While most animal experts advise against putting pets in the cargo hold, many pet owners have no other option if they need to transport their pets by plane. There has been a seemingly endless stream of horror stories about pets dying when transported as cargo, and doing so can be risky, but your pet isn’t guaranteed to suffer or experience any health problems. Official reports about animal deaths focus exclusively on those in cargo, not those in the cabin, which can make cargo transportation seem scarier and more dangerous than it actually is. If you’re aware of the risks that come from flying as cargo and do your best to minimize them, your pet will likely be fine.

If you do have to fly with your pet as cargo, make sure the airline staff is aware of this; don’t hesitate to tell the gate or flight attendants about your pet, and outfit their crate with a label that says “live animal” and their appropriate documentation so everyone knows there’s a pet on board. Give them access to food and water throughout the flight, and line their crate with potty pads so your pet can relieve themself. Again, include toys, blankets, and other items that can help bring them comfort during this stressful experience. Finally, always follow all of your airline’s policies for animals in the cargo hold to avoid any trouble and make your pet as safe as possible during the flight.

Traveling With Cats

Though many of the rules and tips above apply to animals of all types and sizes, traveling with cats differs from dogs, small animals, and other pets. Compared to dogs and small animals, cats are often more difficult to travel with. While dogs may enjoy frequent trips to the park or go on hikes, cats don’t often get to ride in the car, and may only associate it with unenjoyable activities, like going to the vet. Do your best to train your cat to enjoy car rides and being in their carrier; it may take time for them to adjust, but with enough positive reinforcement, your cat will grow to enjoy (or at least tolerate) traveling.

Cats are creatures of habit, and when their routine is disrupted, they may behave in concerning ways. Traveling and being in unfamiliar surroundings is one of the most common reasons cats refuse to eat, drink, or go to the bathroom. You can’t force your cat to eat or drink, but giving them wet food can be an exciting treat that is both nourishing and hydrating; you can even mix in broth or cooked egg to make it that much more enticing. Finally, you’ll have to bring along a litter box so your cat can go to the bathroom. You may want to consider a collapsible box, so it’s easier to transport, but you should train your cat to start using it well in advance of your trip so they’re used to it by the time you head out. By investing enough time and energy into training your cat before your trip, you both will be comfortable enough to enjoy your travels.

Traveling Internationally With Pets

Whether you fly or drive, you’ll have to take a few additional steps to travel internationally with your pet. Each airline and country has its own unique requirements for pet imports; be sure to check with your airline what their policies are, as well as with the US Department of Agriculture’s online tool to ensure you’re complying with all pet laws in your destination country. Generally, you’ll need to get a checkup with your veterinarian and receive a certificate of health to verify that your pet is healthy enough to travel; depending on your destination, you may also have to provide medical records, proof of certain vaccinations, or a blood test to confirm a negative result of certain diseases. You may even have to obtain a pet passport to bring them into certain countries.

Traveling internationally with pets can be expensive and time-consuming, and you should think seriously about whether or not your animal needs to come with you. It may not be worth the cost if you’re going on a vacation or short business trip. If you’re moving abroad, give yourself more time than you think you need to get all of your pet’s documentation and travel arrangements in order. You may even want to consider selling your car and other hefty items before you leave to ensure you have enough money to care for your pet before, during, and after the move. Establishing yourself in a new place can be tricky, but with the right preparations and a big enough safety net for you and your pet, you’ll be just fine.

No matter what type of pet you have, it can be difficult to travel with them and make sure they’re happy and healthy throughout the process. However, it can be equally rewarding to know that wherever you are in the world, you have your trusted companion by your side.