Whether for necessity or pleasure, if you have a pet, you may eventually find that need to hit the road with them.
Dogs have a reputation for liking a good road trip (cats not so much) but so much depends on the temperament of your pet, whether she likes the feel of the road or gets carsick driving across town to the vet. If your pet is trainable—and so many are, regardless of age—you can teach them to be a good companion on the journey. They’ll never be able to search a restaurant app to find a great lunch or use maps to find a nice waterfront park, but they can be a mellow sidekick for your drive time.
Here are a few tips that will help you travel safe and happy when you hit the road.
Start by going nowhere
Got a critter that hates the car? Sit in the car with them and don’t go anywhere at all. Give them treats while you listen to the radio for 20 minutes, and then, call it good. After your pet is comfortable with the interior of the car, take a short drive. Go somewhere your pet enjoys: the dog park, visiting a friend who spoils them. You’ll create a positive vibe that your pet won’t forget and soon they’ll be eager to jump in and go.
Once you’ve started making longer trips, give your critter time to chill. They might have lots to say for the first half hour or so, but if you’ve done your job, they’ll settle in for the ride, and maybe even a good long nap.
Crates, harnesses, and dividers
It’s simply not safe to leave your pet unrestrained in your car while it’s moving. The best choice is to crate your pet and make sure the crate is secured in the back seat or hatchback compartment. It should go without saying, but never put your pet in the trunk or on the roof rack.
Seatbelt harnesses keep your pet clipped in and might help protect them in case of an accident. They’ll also keep your pet from climbing into your lap while you’re driving. Special dividers can keep animals out of the front of the car entirely.
It can be very dangerous for dogs to ride in the open bed of a pickup truck. They can slide around, get thrown out, or jump out of a moving vehicle. While there are many safety harnesses designed especially for this situation, a well-secured crate is the safest option. It is illegal in some places to transport animals in this manner. Know the law before you travel.
Everyone likes roadtrip snacks
Whether it’s a day trip or a cross-country adventure, keep snacks and water handy. Options include water bottle toppers so your pet can hydrate without a water dish, collapsible dishes, or you can just bring the bowl and fill it when you’re stopped. Don’t overdo it though! Special rich treats or too many bribes can lead to an upset belly and the results of that while stuck in the car… nope. Save the stinky cheese for a home day.
You might enjoy some rousing Shostakovich for the road, but your critter may find Mozart’s strings more soothing. Maybe you want some headbanging metal, but melodic pop keeps your companion cool. Pets really do respond to music.
There are Spotify playlists and smart speakers with matching apps and digital downloads designed especially to keep nervous animals calm. Once your pet is road tested, you can experiment with variety, but if you’re starting with a friend who doesn’t love the drive, select sounds that are curated with their anxiety levels in mind.
>> Check out our ultimate travel playlist.
Useful apps for your journey
Sure, there are lots of apps that help you find a restaurant or hotel, but BringFido is the doggiest of the lot. (Yeah, you can probably bring your cat or rabbit, instead, but call ahead to be sure.) Apps like Dog Park Pal and Paw Parks help you find… you guessed it, while VetFinder… you get the drill. Nearly all the usual accommodation booking apps allow you to filter on pet friendly stays, should you need to book a last-minute overnight.
Mind the weather
Let’s just say it: leaving a pet in the car in extreme weather can kill them. If you’re traveling in a place where it’s too hot or too cold to leave your pet in the car, change your plans. This is a heartbreak no one wants to experience. There is no, “I’ll just run in and grab a soda,” on a hot summer day or, “We’re just getting coffee,” on a cold one.
If temps are above 70F or below freezing, find another plan. Bring a friend to stay in the car with your pet and run the heat or the A/C. Plan for your own needs so you don’t have to make a snap decision that puts your pet at risk.
Plan a break—safely
It’s not just humans who benefit from stretching their legs and using the facilities. Highway rest stations often have designated areas for pets. But make sure your pet is in its crate or harnessed (if you use one) and leashed before you open the door.
Even if your pet is reliably well-trained, the new environment might be frightening to your friend and the last thing you want is for them to run off. Never let your pet roam free range in an unfamiliar location.
You’re making a restroom run? Let your pet go, too. Travel litter boxes are a thing, but use the same brand of litter you use at home so it’s familiar. If you’re a dog owner, you should always have poop bags in the car; you never know when they’ll come in handy. Potty pads can also be handy if you’re not confident your pet can hold it until you’ve made a stop.
Snoot in the wind
As much as we love the sight of a critter’s ears flapping out the car window, it’s not particularly safe. Bugs and debris can get in your pet’s eyes or nose and injure them. It’s okay to crack the window and let fresh air in, but keep your pet clipped in and let the air come to them.
Clean and comfortable
If you’ve got a seatbelt harness for your critter and their bed fits on the back seat (or in the hatchback compartment) that’s a great way to make sure your pet is comfortable for the journey. You can buy specially designed seat covers that are sort of like a hammock space for your pet, anchored between the front and back seats and bonus, they keep fuzz off the upholstery.
Wherever possible, err on the side of familiar comfort items; put a well loved blanket in their crate, use the bed they use at home. It’s not required, but it will help your pet feel more relaxed.
Last resorts for anxious travelers
Some animals never take to the road, they just don’t enjoy it. If you simply must roadtrip with your pet, you may have to medicate them to make it possible. Make an appointment with your vet to discuss your options. Some pets do well with special compression vests and herbal remedies, others require prescription medication. It’s a good idea to do a test run to check for side effects before you take the big trip; that way you’ll know what to expect.
Don’t start your motor just yet
You’ve got your treats packed, figured out how you’ll keep everyone safe and comfortable, and your own stuff is ready to go, too? One last thing: take the dog around the block. Show the cat the litter box.
Okay, now you can hit the road. Buckle up, everyone—pets too—and drive safe.
Traveling with your pet? You can also read our tips for flying with pets or advice on staying in a hotel with your pet. Join Going for cheap flights and more travel tips delivered right to your inbox.
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