Keeping your pet safe and secure on those long holiday trips

Holiday season is in full swing. For many, that means traveling the highways in potentially inclement weather to a relative’s home perhaps hundreds of miles away.

It means seatbelts for everyone in the vehicle. But what about your pet that comes along on the trip?

Do you let it roam around in the backseat? Do you place the cat or dog in a crate? Do you use a harness, much like a seatbelt?

It is something some pet owners might not think about as they head out on a long road trip, said Kate Fields, chief operating officer for the Humane Society of Greater Kansas City.

“It is maybe one of those afterthoughts,” Fields said. “Halfway into a trip, they might think, ‘We should have put the dog in a crate.’ A lot people say my cat or my dog is great in the car, and (we) don’t need to contain it at all.

“They probably do really well in the car, but it is the other drivers that can hit you. … One impact and that dog flies against the window or side, and it can cause some damage.

“We wear seat belts to keep us contained.”

In 2004, Lindsey Wolko thought she was doing everything possible to keep her dog, Maggie, safe while she was driving. She had her dog in a harness but didn’t notice that when Maggie laid down in the back seat, the harness had twisted around the dog’s legs.

“I had to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident,” Wolko said. “The harness was supposed to provide protection for her and provide protection for me. I slammed on the brakes to avoid an accident, and she went flying into the back of the front seat. She was injured.”

Maggie suffered a strained spine and a strained hip. She was on pain medication and confined for two to three weeks.

“We were lucky she wasn’t more seriously injured,” Wolko said.

The incident prompted Wolko to think more about pet safety in a car. Seven years later, she founded Center for Pet Safety based in Reston, Va. The Center is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit research and consumer advocacy organization dedicated to companion animal and consumer safety.

Wolko, the CEO for Center for Pet Safety, wants pets to be safe when traveling in a vehicle. The mission of her organization is to have an enduring, positive impact on the survivability, health, safety and well-being of companion animals and the consumer through scientific research and product testing.

“We did a pilot study in 2011 where we sampled a total of 12 pet harness brands,” Wolko said. “The pilot study found a likely 100 percent failure rate of these products to provide protection for consumers and their pets.

“In 2013, Subaru of America stepped up and sponsored an expanded study. We completed that last year. We had one top performer that offers protection where other brands failed.”

The harness they found that works the best is the Sleepypod Clickit Utility dog harness.

The Sleepypod Clickit Utility is the first dog safety harness to incorporate three-points of attachment to absorb force in a frontal collision by dissipating energy and keeping the dog in the car’s seat during an impact. It is similar in concept to the three-point seatbelt federally required in all vehicles.

Wolko stresses on her website that it is important for pet owners to remain vigilant and understand that a strong harness is good. A strong harness that prevents your dog from launching off of the seat and controls the movement of the dog is going to offer substantial protection to all family members.

“The majority of people don’t think it is needed,” Wolko said. “Every time they get into a car, they put their seat belts on. Every time they go out with their children, they make sure their children are secured. But if you take your Labrador retriever and have no anchor for it at all, that puts them at risk. You can actually be killed by a projectile dog. It is a significant risk.

“We don’t have a lot of statistics on animals involved in crashes but we do get reports regularly from pet owners who have been involved in accidents. It is unfortunate.”

The key, Fields said, is treating your pet like it is your child when you are traveling.

Some of Fields’ tips for long trips with a pet include prepping your dog or cat by taking them on shorter trips to get the pet accustomed to driving in a car.

“Dogs get car sick,” Fields said. “Cats get car sick. Take them on test drives. That is important. Give them a treat at the end and reward them for good behavior. Make sure the container they are in is big enough so they can stand and turn around and feel comfortable.

“You always want your dog or cat contained. It is for their safety. Just getting into a fender bender can cause injuries like a back injury or a sprain. It can be damaged just by (a) 10-mile-per-hour bumper to bumper (fender bender).”

Crates are most commonly used when traveling in a SUV or hatchback. A crate should fit easily in the back of the vehicle and should be tied down so it is not moving around.

Most important about traveling with a pet is to make sure you have all the papers for your dog or cat in case something happens and you need emergency veterinary care, Fields said.

“Always, always the dog or cat should have a collar, rabies tag on it, identification, name and phone number on it and microchip the animal,” Fields said. “When you get a dog or cat from the Humane Society, we always microchip it. We send the information to the microchip company.”

If a cat or dog with a microchip gets away, and a person finds it and takes it to a shelter, the microchip will be scanned. A number will come up that provides the name of the owner and the number to reach that person.

“If more people did that, I would not have half the animals I have here now,” Fields said. “We are so happy when we get a dog that has been microchipped because we can find the owner.

“You read those articles where there is a car wreck and the doors fly open and the dog or cat runs. The first thing they do when they are scared is they run and hide and won’t come out.

“You don’t plan on an accident. That is why it is always better to be safe than sorry.”