You should always plan some details before taking any car trip with your dog. Most dogs love a car journey but there are many aspects to consider to ensure it is a safe and enjoyable experience for both of you.
Basic dog psychology and car journeys
Always take account of your dog’s behaviour, what it thinks and how it may react. For example, some dogs are nervous of noises like car engines so give them a distraction such as affection during and after their first drive so they are no longer scared. Dogs are sociable and like to be close to their owner or other person, so use this knowledge to make them feel good when in a car, sit them near you or a passenger but not so they can distract you. Dogs quickly learn new things, so make car travel a pleasant experience at first and the dog will then not be fearful next time. Dogs have a basic behavioural need to drink, eat, urinate and defecate, so make sure they have the opportunity to do these on a long journey. Dogs don’t like veterinary visits, so this should not be the only reason for them to ever have gone in a car if you want to make a subsequent long journey. Like people, dogs can get bored in cars, so make allowances for them acting bored, or make sure they are able to sleep during a long journey or provide a chew or toy.
First car journey
For many dogs, their first journey is as a young puppy going to their new home. At a young age, they usually hardly notice the journey, but pay attention to the points advised below. If a dog is adult before its first journey, try a short practice car journey or preferably several short journeys to get it used to the idea and feelings of car travel. To make the first journey fun, reward your dog at the end such as with a walk, affection or a treat. This should help ensure your dog looks forward to future car travel.
Ensure your dog has an identity tag and collar even if it also has a microchip for identity. Should your dog get lost away from home, having an identity easily read by anyone is essential.
Collar and lead
A collar and lead on your dog before you open the car door lets you keep control of your dog when you let it out and will stop it running into traffic or away from you.
Restraint in the car
It is dangerous if your dog can interfere with your driving, for example by getting access to the car pedals or causing a distraction. Also, should there be a car accident, a dog loose in the car can be badly injured if it is not restrained. Safety harnesses for all sizes of dog can be purchased. A dog may be physically restricted to a part of the car by a barrier, for example this could even be luggage. Or, it can be confined in a dog carrier or a crate. For small dogs, there are special seats available that can be harnessed to a passenger seat. If no restraint is possible, a passenger using a seat belt can carefully hold a quiet dog during a short journey. Get your dog used to any restraints or carriers before taking its first long journey.
Head out of the window
Most dogs enjoy looking out from the car and we have all seen cars with a dog’s head out of the passenger window looking at the road ahead. While this looks amusing it is not something that should be allowed. Firstly, wind in the eyes dries them very quickly and the dog will be unaware of this and it can cause eye disease. Secondly such a dog is not restrained and is at more risk of injury or of distracting the owner.
Blanket and cloth
It is useful to carry a blanket and cloth for your dog when in the car. A blanket may be used to help keep your dog warm or comfortable, while a cloth can be used to clean up any doggy marks on the upholstery or inside the windows.
Planning longer journeys
For a long journey or taking your dog on holiday, do some planning just for your dog. Some ideas to consider are:
- Exercise your dog before loading it in the car
- Avoid feeding your dog immediately before departing
- Take water, food and drink plus travel bowls
- Take bags for dog waste
- Take some toys and/or chews
- Take a tie out stake and lead if this might be needed on route or at the destination.
- Plan places to stop in advance, every two hours just as for the car driver is a good stopping frequency. Your dog will get bored with long travel and also needs regular toilet stops.
It is dangerous to leave your dog in a hot car for more than a short period of time, say 5 minutes. If it is necessary for you to have a break, park your car in the shade if you can, with windows slightly open for air circulation and lock the car. Regardless of whether you ever need to leave your dog briefly in the car, remember to give your dog water regularly, or if it seems hot and has been panting. We have a special guide for heatstroke in dogs.
Some dogs get bored in cars and may start chewing, although this is most likely if they are left alone in the car which should anyway be avoided. Damage to car upholstery can be expensive, so ensure your dog does not get the opportunity to cause this.
Just like humans, some dogs get sick on car journeys. If you believe your dog gets car sickness, consult with a veterinarian who will prescribe some anti travel sickness medicine.
Taking your dog to the veterinarian
Dogs don’t usually like visiting the veterinarian, so it is important not to make a dog fearful of car journeys because all its first experiences have been when visiting the vet. Do some short car journeys involving fun before the first veterinary visit to prevent your dog developing a fear of cars.
Some of this recommendations can be useful for other pets, however, if you also have a cat, please visit our special recommendations for travelling with a cat by car.
Dr Peter Messent 9th May 2017