Sensible drivers buckle in themselves and their children before starting the motor. But what about their dog's safety? Many drivers simply command their pets to jump into the backseat, the pickup's cargo bed or even onto their laps. Lap dogs they should never be. In fact, dogs shouldn't be anywhere near our laps when we're driving, safety experts and pet advocates say. But many drivers ignore the safety risks and allow their dogs to roam freely in cars.
That can be a big mistake, says Dr. Kimberly May, a veterinarian since 1994 and the director of professional and public affairs at the American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Illinois.
"Even a low-speed crash can cause injury to unrestrained dogs," she says. "There are all kinds of prominences inside a car, so depending on what structures they hit, dogs can suffer broken ribs, broken legs or eye injuries. They can hit the windshield or be thrown outside of the car.
"A dog riding on a driver's lap can interfere with driving, climbing down into the footwell, or otherwise distracting the driver," May says. "In a crash, the dog could be suffocated or crushed by a deployed airbag or thrown into the windshield."
Harness and Seatbelt Are Best
May says that the best restraint for dogs is a good harness and a seatbelt. A properly secured crate is a close second — but crates can have drawbacks, too.
"If the crate is too big for a dog, the dog can still be hurt slamming against the sides of the crate, even in a low-speed crash," she says. The best choice seems to be an individual restraint, such as a good-quality, properly fitted harness.
"Crates are all right," agrees Dr. Thomas Scherer, a Fountain Valley, California, veterinarian who has been in practice for 40 years. "But are you going to secure the crate well enough? With the forces that happen in car accidents, will the crate hold?"
A harness and seatbelt are a better solution, he says. "Do the same for dogs that you would do for people."
Dangerous for Drivers
Of course, injuries to dogs aren't the only reason to properly restrain four-legged automobile passengers. They can put humans at risk, too.
In an August 2010 survey by AAA and pet-travel products company Kurgo, nearly a third of 1,000 dog-owning drivers admitted they'd been distracted by their dogs and 21 percent allowed their dogs to sit in their lap. Five percent played with their pets as they drove. These and other behaviors can distract the driver and increase the risk of a crash. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that looking away from the road for only 2 seconds doubles crash risk.
The exact number of accidents caused every year by such dogs is unknown, but Paws to Click, which seeks to educate drivers about riding with unrestrained dogs, puts the number at about 30,000 accidents annually.
There are very few laws making it illegal to drive with a pet in your lap, though several states' legislators have proposed such bans in recent years. Hawaii is an exception: It explicitly bars drivers from having any "person, animal or object" in their laps while driving.
Driving with a dog in your lap could, however, be considered illegal in several states under distracted driving statutes.
The danger posed to humans by an unrestrained pet can be big even if the pet isn't. In a USA Today story about drivers distracted by unrestrained dogs, an AAA official said a 10-pound dog would strike at 50 times its weight in a crash at 50 mph. And that's not the only danger to humans, since an unrestrained pet can hamper a rescue, cause another accident or hurt rescue personnel.
And don't even think about letting dogs ride with their heads out the window, even if they're restrained. May says that if the restraint allows a dog to hang its head out the window, it's probably an indication that it would not sufficiently protect the dog from injury if a collision occurs.
Also, she says, "Dogs with their heads hanging out of the window are at risk of injury to their eyes, nose, ears, mouth and face from airborne debris."
As dangerous as riding unrestrained inside a vehicle can be for dogs, doing so in the bed of a pickup can be even worse because animals can jump or be thrown at high speed. An AVMA paper puts it this way: "Dogs transported in open truck beds are at risk of severe injury." They can suffer critical, multiple fractures and abrasions.
Several states bar dogs from being transported in the bed of a pickup unsafely or inhumanely, and still others, including Connecticut, New Hampshire and Oregon, require that dogs carried in pickup beds be restrained.
Riding unrestrained isn't the only danger to pets in cars, however. Being left unattended in vehicles also can be harmful and even deadly, especially when the weather turns warm.
"Heat prostration can be a lot more serious than it looks because some things don't happen right away," says Scherer, the California vet. "It takes maybe three or four days for organ-function problems to become an issue. But there are things that happen right away that are really bad (such as) seizures and serious central nervous system problems."
Owners should never leave pets in a car unattended, even on a temperate day, May says. "People don't realize that on a 70-degree day, the temperature inside the car could reach 110 degrees or higher. On a 60-degree day, it could get up to 100 or higher. Unless you're taking your pet to the vet or traveling with your pet, just leave him at home.
"I'd love to put people in fur coats and leave them in that car for just five minutes," she says. "My bet is they will feel very uncomfortable, very fast. They won't be able to take it, so why do they think their pet can?"
Normal rectal temperature for a dog is 100-102 degrees, Scherer says. "If a dog's temperature rises to 104 degrees, that's significant." He adds that a temperature of 105 or higher would be very bad for a dog. The problems also depend on the kind of dog you have, he says. Dogs that are short-nosed, old, heavy or have heart problems will have more trouble than other dogs.
Scherer says that a pet's temperature is the best gauge as to whether to take action, such as giving a dog a cold-water bath and using a fan to cool it. "However, if there's a serious problem, some issues won't be evident right away," he says. "Even if your dog appears normal, you can't always say that it's OK. So when in doubt, call your vet. There is no negative to doing too much."
To determine if your dog is in heat distress, you can look for heavy panting, he says. If the dog is ill enough, he might sweat through the pads of his paws. Disorientation is another symptom.
"But temperature of the dog is key," he says. "The higher it gets, the more you worry." To be safe, he says, "Just don't leave your dog in the car." For both heat illness and the dangers of unrestrained riding, it boils down to common sense, May says. People love their pets, and so it's a matter of reminding them that their actions can put them in jeopardy.
She says: "Is taking them on a short errand worth risking their life?"