Dog on the Go? Best Tips on Car Travel for Dogs

Golden Retriever Looking Out Of Car Window

Key Points

  • Some states have laws that require dogs to be in a carrier or safety restraint while the vehicle is in motion.

  • Always consult your veterinarian before long-distance car travel with your dog.

  • Crates are the best way for large dogs to travel in cars.

  • Sedatives should be the last resort to help alleviate anxiety during car travel for dogs.

For many dog owners, the prospect of traveling with their four-legged friend is an exciting and joyful experience. However, many people overlook the potential risks associated with car travel for dogs, including stress, psychological trauma, injury, and sometimes even death.

This article aims to shed light on the dangers of car travel for dogs without protective restraints, helping you understand and mitigate risks. Explore various precautions and the safest way for dogs to ride in cars.

American Pet Owners' Dangerous Driving Habits

The latest 2023 Forbes pet owner survey indicates that 65.1 million American households own at least one dog, and approximately 56 percent of these pet parents drive with their dog at least once a month.

According to the American Automobile Association (AAA)/Kurgo survey, one-third of drivers admit to getting distracted by their dogs while driving. Two-thirds actively engage with their dogs with activities such as talking (80 percent), petting (41 percent), giving treats (23 percent), or even taking photos of them (seven percent).

Even though most of these pet parents know about property safety protocol for keeping their pups safe while in the car, 47 percent still allow their dogs to roam free, choosing to drive slower to keep their canines safe and comfortable.

puppy with googles and head outside car

Risks of Car Travel for Dogs

Like many owners, you may prioritize your dog's comfort and assume your driving skills are sufficient to keep both of you safe. However, distractions make you twice as likely to crash, and even the most experienced driver may fall into unforeseen dangers on the road. Here are some of the most common risks for dogs riding in vehicles.

Car Accidents

Jessica Brady, a spokesperson for AAA, shares some alarming statistics, "An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at 50 mph will exert roughly 500 pounds of pressure, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert roughly 2,400 pounds of pressure. This amount of force can cause serious injury or death not only to the pet but vehicle passengers as well."

Common Injuries

The crash impact may cause many different types of injuries to your dog, including bruises, broken bones, spinal cord trauma, internal organ damage, and even death. Broken glass, loose objects, and car parts may become sharp projectiles and cause deep lacerations and trauma.

Like children, dogs sitting in the front seat risk severe injuries and death from crushing against the airbags or launching through the windshield.

Your Dog May Flee After an Accident

Your dog may become disoriented in an accident and fearfully flee the scene. Such a situation further threatens you, your pet, and other drivers on the road.

Your dog may risk getting hit by another vehicle or lost, depending on where the accident occurs. In the unfortunate scenario where you sustain injury and fall unconscious, you may never reunite with your pet.

High Risk of Psychological Trauma

In addition to physical dangers, car accidents have serious psychological consequences for dogs. They may develop intense post-traumatic stress syndrome and phobias of cars, traveling in vehicles, or even going to public places.

Your dog may become anxious about loud noises, quick-moving objects, car horns, or even the sound of your car pulling into the driveway.

Common PTSD symptoms include personality changes, fear of aggression, constant hiding and avoiding triggers, trembling, and frequent urination accidents. Aside from PTSD, your pup may often develop separation anxiety and panic if you leave them alone.

Heat Stroke

Humans often underestimate the temperature inside a vehicle, which may be deadly to their pets. Dogs are susceptible to heat and can't cool down as quickly and efficiently as humans. At the same time, heat builds up extremely fast.

Your car's inner temperature may escalate by 20 degrees in as few as 10 minutes. As a result, your pup may suffer from heatstroke in just minutes when you hop into the store to grab something in the middle of summer.

Signs of heat exhaustion include heavy panting, glazed eyes, excessive drooling, uncoordinated movements, vomiting, or even falling unconscious. In advanced heat stroke stages, dogs may suffer from severe brain and internal organ damage that may require your vet to put them down.


Short-haired breeds are highly susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia. When you see the Frenchies and greyhounds wearing sweaters during winter, it's not for fashion but a necessity to keep them warm.

Cold air and frosty winds generate faster than you think, and your puppy may suffer from subzero temperatures if you're not careful. Signs of hypothermia include shivering, slowed breathing, lethargy, weak pulse, and even comatose.

Ingesting Poisonous or Harmful Substances

You may want to save time during long-distance car travels by combining bathroom breaks with gas station visits. Sadly, this may put your dog in danger; dogs are notorious scavengers and love to eat anything they find on the ground.

In an unfamiliar location, your pup may ingest hazardous materials like gasoline or antifreeze from garage floors or other harmful substances others carelessly left behind. You might not even know until you hear your dog gagging, breathing with difficulty, or yelping in pain.

puppies in the car

Understanding Your Dog's Behavior While Traveling

Even with the talking buttons, dogs have limited ways of expressing their thoughts. That's why you have to rely on reading their signs of anxiety during car travel. Here are some common signs that your dog is in distress:

  • Excessive drooling or panting

  • Constant whimpering, crying, or barking

  • Pawing at the crate door

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

If your dog displays any of these symptoms, take them seriously and pull over if possible. Check on them and ensure they're safe and comfortable. Cuddle them and let them calm down before continuing the journey.

Why Some Dogs Dislike Car Travel

There's nothing quite like experiencing the world with your loyal companion by your side. However, not all dogs enjoy car travel. Here are several common reasons why dogs dislike riding in vehicles.

Motion Sickness

Motional sickness is common in puppies and younger dogs because their inner ears are still developing. Although they usually outgrow the problem when they grow older, some may still have problems after associating the unpleasant experience with traveling. Here are some tips to help prevent your pup from motion sickness:

  • Unless your dog suffers from diabetes or specific health issues that require fixed feeding times, withhold their food for a maximum of eight hours before traveling, as it minimizes nausea.

  • Provide plenty of fresh water.

  • Use a dog safety device or carrier to stabilize your dog from sliding in the back seats.

  • Avoid wearing perfumes or using car fresheners inside the car.

  • Discuss motion sickness remedies or CBD oil with your vet.

  • Use dog pheromone sprays that mimic the smell of nursing dogs to calm your dog's nerves.

  • Keep your car well-ventilated and cool.

  • Take your dog for a long walk to work off their energy before your trip.


Some dogs dislike tight spaces, and if your dog has never stayed in a crate or car, this new experience may be highly stressful. Help alleviate this anxiety by allowing your pup to explore the space before the trip.

Letting them know the place is safe and you're there with them makes a huge difference. Using familiar blankets and toys helps them associate the vehicle with your home.

Loud Noises

For some dogs, loud noises scare them. All that noise from the traffic or even the wind rushing by the car may trigger anxiety. This is especially true for dogs who suffer from anxiety from fireworks and thunderstorms.

Help your dog feel more comfortable in the car by playing soothing music or white noise to drown out the traffic sound.

Sudden Environmental or Routine Changes

Dogs are creatures of habit, and they thrive on routines. Taking your dog on a trip disrupts their routine while adding the stress of adjusting to a new environment. All these uncertainties confuse your dog and can cause them to become anxious or overwhelmed.

Ease the transition for your pup by allowing your dog time to become comfortable with brief car rides before a long-distance trip.

Stuffy Air Quality

Your car's interior gets hot and stuffy sometimes, especially if the air filter is old or malfunctioning. With people and dogs cramped in such a small space, you may end up breathing in each other's exhaled carbon dioxide. Over time, everyone begins to have headaches and become irritable.

To avoid this issue, ensure your air filter and the air conditioning system work properly before embarking on a long trip. Rolling the window down may also benefit everyone's health.

two dogs in car

Associate the Car With Fun Times

Instead of taking your dog on a long-distance trip without warning, start by letting him explore your car. Offer treats and plenty of encouraging praise. Allow them to jump out if they're uncomfortable. When they settle down, introduce your choice of safety apparatus to keep your pup stationary and safe — again, lots of treats and praise. Stop and try again later if they show any signs of discomfort or protest.

The next step is starting the car; as you do, watch for any distress signs. If your pup feels anxious, softly talk to them, assuring them everything's fine. Try playing some soothing classical music in the background. If the anxiety persists, stop and let them out of the car until they feel more comfortable.

If your dog is a happy camper, it's time for a short drive to their favorite park. Remember to drive at a slower speed and avoid any sudden stops or turns. Roll the window down for a constant stream of fresh air, or opt for the internal air conditioning system if your dog fears traffic noises.

Once your dog sees car rides are no longer a dreaded experience, try going somewhere a little further along with other passengers. These trial runs allow the pup to adjust to new environments and other people.

You may want to increase your driving speed or even take the car onto the freeway to see whether your pet remains calm. Be patient with the process and remember to reward them whenever they behave well.

Best Practices for Preventing Injuries While Driving

Safety should always be your top priority when traveling with your furry friends. Instead of regretting an unfortunate incident, it's best to prepare ahead of time and take precautions to avoid potential risks. Here are some best practices for preventing pet injuries while driving.

Secure Your Dog and Belongings

First and foremost, invest in a safety restraint system to keep your dog safe and secure while riding. Car seats, harnesses, and carriers protect your pet while keeping them from distracting you while driving. Secure any loose items in your car, such as water bottles, pens, and other sharp objects that can become dangerous projectiles, hitting your dog, you, and your passengers in the event of an accident.

Minimize Distractions

Many pet owners think keeping their pups on their laps may keep them calm and safe during rides. Unfortunately, they become airborne during sudden stops or even sharp turns.

When owners try to restrain their dogs, they might accidentally crush the smaller dogs. As a result, it's best to keep your furry friend in the back seat where they have more room to stretch out.

Keep Your Dog Hydrated and Fed

Everyone becomes agitated when dehydrated and hungry; the same goes for dogs. To keep your dog a happy passenger, ensure plenty of fresh water and snacks are available in the back seat.

Consider stopping every two hours to allow them to use the bathroom and stretch their legs. However, if your pup is prone to motion sickness, remember not to overfeed them as it increases their risk of feeling nauseous and sick in the car.

dog in car

Dog Car Travel Essentials

Although accidents may occur, you can minimize the injury risk by investing in car safety products for your pup. Out of all the products available on the market, harnesses, seat belts, crates, carriers, and dividers are the most common dog car travel essentials.

Seat Belts and Harnesses

A dog seat belt or harness anchors your puppy in their seat, protecting them from sliding sideways and rocketing forward during sudden stops and swerves. A dog seat belt is a strap that attaches to your dog's harness or collar and your car's safety belt receiver.

Most dog seat belts are adjustable in length and come in different sizes to accommodate different weights and breeds. These products are similar to human seat belts but offer more freedom for your pup to shift between lying down and sitting upright.

Harnesses strap your dog to your vehicle's back seat in a fixed sitting or upright position. These systems usually snap right into your car's safety belt receiver.

Choosing the Right Seat Belt or Harness

Using a harness is best if your dog doesn't have joint issues and doesn't need to change positions frequently. When looking for a seat belt or harness, find one that fits snugly against your pup's body. However, your dog must feel comfortable and the apparatus doesn't cut into their skin.

If you have a larger dog, the device's material must be sturdy enough to withstand yanking. In addition, the attachment piece must fit tightly into your seat belt receiver slot without wiggle room.

What Are the Pros and Cons?

Seat belts are more comfortable, allowing your dog to look out the window and check their surroundings. However, if you have a jumpy, curious pup, they'll still cause a distraction. At the same time, during an accident or sudden stop, your dog may still suffer whiplash or even break their neck from the impact.

On the other hand, harnesses distribute the impact force, and more dogs come out of accidents uninjured. The problem is that the strapping mechanism isn't the most comfortable option for long car trips. During hot summer days, you must crank on the air conditioning, or else your dog may easily suffer from mild heat stroke from the harness trapping the body heat.

Crates and Carriers

In many ways, crates and carriers are simpler solutions for long car trips if your dog is already familiar with them from their training days. With crates and carriers, your pup has room to move around yet still receive proper protection from impact and possible projectiles, making it the safest way for dogs to ride in the car.

What's the Difference?

Dog carriers usually use soft materials, and their purpose is to transport smaller breeds; unlike carriers, crates always come in metal or hard plastic casing. Many people use them for home use, but they also provide superior protection for larger dogs in the car.

Choosing the Right Crate or Carrier

When looking for a crate or carrier, measure your dog's height and get the correct size. Always leave enough room for your pup to move and shift around. Although many different materials are available for carriers and crates, the most important thing is to look for an option that holds up well against impact forces.

You also want to consider how to secure the crate or carrier to your vehicle to prevent it from sliding or tipping.

What Are the Pros and Cons?

In most cases, using a wired crate is the safest car travel method for larger breeds. The large mesh design lets your pooch look outside and enjoy better air circulation, giving your pup a sense of freedom even if they stay in confinement.

However, not all dogs love crates and carriers, even when they have their favorite blankets and toys. Depending on the size of your dog, you may need a van or a truck to have enough room for the crate.

dog in car


Dividers are barriers between the two front seats of your vehicle to block your dog from jumping into the front and distracting you from driving. The mesh barriers allow for proper visibility and are easy to install, typically attaching to the front seat headrest. If you're looking for more heavy-duty dividers, metal barriers — like the ones in police vehicles — are also available.

Choosing the Right Divider

Many pet owners use mesh dividers coupled with dog seat belts to prevent the pup from climbing into the front seats. However, they're only suitable for smaller dogs with less energy, and more robust metal dividers are much more convenient for active and large dogs.

What Are the Pros and Cons?

If you have more than one dog, metal dividers provide supreme protection for everyone in the vehicle. The barrier prevents your dogs from flying through the windshield, yet it's less bulky than having multiple crates or harnesses.

On the downside, they reduce your visibility and make it difficult to reach out to your dogs when they're in distress.

Car Seats

Even though these car seats allow dogs to sit more comfortably in the car, they allow very little protection during sudden stops and accidents. Most dog car seat designs look like a deep basket tethered to the car safety belt or seat, and none have a restraining device that keeps your pup from climbing out of the seat or ejecting through the windshield.

Therefore, veterinarians and animal experts rarely recommend using dog car seats.

Legal Matters

There isn't a federal law that requires pet owners to restrain their animals while in the car. However, some states have local ordinances prohibiting drivers from traveling with unrestrained animals or allowing them to sit in front seats.

For example, in Florida, all dogs must either stay in a crate or wear a safety harness while traveling in a vehicle. Allowing your dog to sit in your lap while you drive is illegal in Hawai'i. If you're going to another state, research relevant laws beforehand.

Who's at Fault in an Accident Involving a Dog?

In the event of an accident, insurance companies always use the circumstances surrounding the situation to decide who is at fault. If you travel with your pup unrestrained, you may be liable for breaking the law and held responsible for the other party's damages and injury.

At the same time, your insurance company may turn down your claim, and if your dog sustains any injury, you must pay for all medical expenses from your pocket.

Evaluate Risks Before Traveling

Traveling with your pup requires a lot of consideration and planning. However, before you hit the road, evaluate various risk factors so you can make arrangements to ensure both of you get the most out of the trip.

Size and Breed

Not all hotels allow dogs; even if they do, there may be weight and breed restrictions. At the same time, certain breeds may not be suitable to travel during certain seasons. If you have a brachycephalic breed, like a pug or a bulldog, they may quickly overheat and suffer from breathing problems during long car rides.

Age and Health

Another essential factor to consider is your dog's age and health. Puppies and senior dogs aren't great candidates for long car rides as they're the least tolerant of noises and most prone to sudden health issues. It's always a good idea to consult with your veterinarian before embarking on a journey.

Driving Conditions and Distance

When you must stop every two hours to let your dog pee and stretch their legs, you may suddenly realize that you have to spend more days driving on the road to reach your destination. Consider seasonal issues such as sudden thunderstorms, heavy rainfall, hail, or snow. Do you have all the emergency supplies to keep your pup healthy and safe?

Emergency Situations and Accidents

One of the most crucial problems to consider is the potential for emergencies and accidents. Where do you seek emergency medical assistance if your dog gets sick? What happens if you're in an accident?

The good news is that there is mobile internet, and you might easily find a local animal hospital. Also, it's wise to keep your dog's medical records handy, including vaccination records and emergency contacts.

Should You Consider a Sedative for Your Dog?

When you see your dog feeling anxious and uncomfortable in the back seat, it's understandable that you contemplate giving them a sedative to make the trip easier. However, it should be the last resort if you travel long distances with your pup.

Since sedation affects the heart's functioning and breathing, your furry friend may not be suitable for the treatment. In addition, they're at greater risk of injury when unconscious.

Are Over-The-Counter Sedatives Safe?

You probably have encountered dog sedatives at your local grocery stores or pet shops. Even though over-the-counter sedatives may be convenient and cost-effective, they may not always be safe.

Many manufacturers secretly market their medications as dog food that doesn't require FDA standard approval. Instead of jumping to conclusions, ask your veterinarian for suggestions.

The Best Dog Sedative for Car Travel

Some of the best dog sedatives for car travel are Acepromazine, Xanax, Valium, and Benadryl. They contain ingredients that have fewer side effects and leave your pup in a happier state without being completely unconscious.

Acepromazine: This sedative is derived from the phenothiazines class and functions as a dog tranquilizer. Large doses may knock out your dog, while low doses cause mild sedation. Typically used as a pre-operative anti-anxiety medication, the sedative lowers your dog's heart rate and blood pressure.

Xanax: This medication is an anti-anxiety medication that calms your dog. It's a short-term solution for long-distance travel. Xanax may cause drowsiness, lethargy, and decreased appetite.

Valium: This option, usually used to treat noise-related anxiety, reduces anxiety and relaxes muscles before travel. It works by increasing the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) activity in the dog's neural system and dulling the receptors that cause anxiety. With Valium, your pup may seem sleepy, slow-moving, and hungry.

Benadryl: Although the antihistamine mainly treats allergies and itches, it may act as a mild sedative for travel. Dogs taking Benadryl may suffer from dry mouth, constipation, drowsiness, and urinary retention.

Alternative Homeopathic Sedatives

One of the most recent trends in dog sedation is natural homeopathic remedies. The essential oil in Doggijuana, called nepetalactone, relaxes and calms dogs. This chemical is abundant in catnip, but if you offer your dog a fresh or dried version of the herb, they may get stomach upset.

Every dog may react differently to nepetalactone, so you may want to test the treatment in small doses before your trip.

dog in car

Preparing Your Dog for a Safe Ride

Regardless of your travel strategy, be aware of the risks when traveling long distances with dogs in a car. Continually educate yourself on travel options, and consult your veterinarian for more personalized advice. With proper planning, you and your dog are on your way to the best journey ahead.

Subscribe to BarkSpot for more dog advice and product recommendations.

Was this article helpful?

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.