Traveling with Your Pet : In the Car

Written by: Dr. Jean Hofve, Holistic Veterinarian, DVM

Many dogs love to ride in the car, but some dogs, and most cats, do not. Even pets who enjoy the car may not do as well on very long trips. Air travel may get the trip over faster, but it can be extremely stressful for your pet. Traveling with pets can be a hassle, but good preparation will ease the stress for everyone.

General Travel Info:

All traveling pets (even close to home) should wear a collar or harness with current ID tags. If you haven’t already done so, consider micro-chipping your pet. (Rumors about microchips causing cancer are greatly exaggerated). Be sure the chip is registered and kept up-to-date in an appropriate database, and bring the chip number and registry contact information with you in a separate pocket or purse.

If you will be crossing state lines on your trip, you are legally required to have a current domestic health certificate for your pet(s). This requires examination by an accredited veterinarian within a certain time frame (typically 10-30 days). Each state has its own rules, so be sure to ask the states you’ll be traveling to (or through) for their requirements. A list of state veterinarians, with contact information, can be found online at the Vet World website.

If you’re traveling outside the U.S., a special USDA-issued international health certificate is necessary. It’s best to contact that country's consulate or embassy for the most up-to-date information. Most countries require a current rabies vaccine; many require a microchip; and some impose a quarantine. A list of consulates can be found online at the U.S. Department of State’s website. 

Travel in Car:

Do not feed your pet within 8-12 hours of departure, to help prevent carsickness. (But just in case, be sure to have a non-toxic cleaner handy to quickly remove pet messes.) Allow a moderate amount of water up to an hour before departure.

For pets who aren’t fond of the car, there are many effective holistic remedies, such as flower essences, herbs, pheromones, and homeopathics, for both anxiety, and motion sickness. Ideally, try the remedy out ahead of time, to make sure your pet tolerates it (some pets may do better with a particular form or taste). A side benefit: a few “practice” car rides will help your pet get used to the idea.

The safest place for traveling pets is in the back seat, in a safety harness or carrier. Pets loose in the car can cause risky distractions and interfere with the driver, which could result in an accident. Harnesses designed as “doggie seat belts” provide safety during the trip, and prevent your dog from getting loose if someone unexpectedly opens the door.

Cats should be kept in a carrier while the car is in motion; many cats actually prefer it, because the smaller space makes them feel safer. Always make sure the cat is well secured before opening the car door. Some cats can be trained to walk with a harness and leash, but this is not something to try for the first time the day of the trip!

You might want to check out the Four Paws Safety Seat Adjustable Support Harness or 3 in 1 VestHarness.

Make “pit stops” every 2 hours to exercise dogs on-leash. If the drive will last more than 12 hours, plan to stop at a pet-friendly motel. If you’re traveling with cats, who can slip through the tiniest cracks and slink into inaccessible spots under furniture, you may want to ask for a handicap-accessible room. You can set up the extra-large bathroom with bed, litterbox, food and water, and presto! You’ve got a quiet, safe retreat for your kitty.

Never leave your pet unattended in a hot vehicle! Any direct sunlight, even on a relatively cool day, can quickly heat up a car’s interior. On a hot day, even parking in the shade isn’t enough. If you must leave your pet in the car for a short period of time (less than 10 minutes), be sure to leave all of the windows partially open (not just a tiny crack). Better still, add a battery-operated fan that affixes to a partially opened window.

Dogs and cats regulate heat primarily by panting; they do not have sweat glands throughout their skin like we do. Heat builds quickly in a vehicle; and temperatures over 100oF mean your pet cannot get rid of heat by panting. A pet’s body temperature can rapidly rise to dangerous levels. If you still need convincing that this is a serious problem, take an outdoor thermometer in the car with you a few times—you’ll be shocked. For more information on warm weather safety, please see our article, "Top 10 Summer Safety Tips for Pets."

You may also want to consider bringing plenty of water from home or enough gallon containers of bottled water to last the trip. A change in water sources can sometimes cause tummy upset in sensitive pets.