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Road trip tips for traveling with dogs and cats

Traveling with dog looking out the car window on scenic road

In the maybe not so good old days, dogs rode untethered in the back of a pickup. Or they traveled with their heads out of a drool-splattered side window, nostrils flaring and ears flapping. A lot has changed, though: Many states have outlawed free-roaming dogs in pickup beds. And owners are now more aware of the dangers of a dog sticking its head into the slipstream. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the desire of pet owners to take their companions along on family trips.

Pet-friendly travel
Despite state laws and increased cautions, it’s easier to travel with your pets now than ever before. Today, there are products to ensure your pet’s comfort and safety, along with lists of hotels and motels online that cater to pets. However, pet owners aren’t off the hook. The difference between an enjoyable road trip with pets and one marred by panicked animals is up to you. Here are some road trip tips to make your journey more enjoyable.

Pet travel practice run
First, if this is your pet’s maiden voyage, make sure you both are ready. Do a couple of “dry” runs to happy destinations – a dog park or a good dog-walk area. Start this process a few weeks before the vacation and lengthen the trips. If your dog never quite settles down in the car or suffers from motion sickness, call your vet for recommendations on prescriptions that relieve travel stress. And if you do need to medicate Fluffy, do so sparingly. I heard of a neurotic Siamese cat that got drunk on tranquilizers and yowled for hours in an enclosed car. Not a happy experience. 

Other trips with pets have been really fun. My first long trip with my young terrier mix started out with her little pointy feet in my lap and her front paws on the steering wheel. While it probably looked pretty cute to passing motorists, it wasn’t comfortable for me or safe for her. Thankfully, after about 100 very long miles, she was snoozing in the passenger seat.

These preliminary trips can also indicate what additional safety or restraint products you may need. Harnesses (like pet seat belts) and carriers that can be strapped in and/or barriers to keep pets in the back of an SUV are good ideas. Quick stops, swerves and curvy roads can all send your pet flying; in the event of even a minor accident, an unsecured 60-pound Lab can injure itself, you or your human passengers. If a dog is in the bed of a pickup, make sure to remove any loose objects, and secure your pet with a non-stretching leash that doesn’t extend any farther than the edge of rails. Also, lay down a piece of carpet or other soft fabric to provide some insulation and cushion.

Pets welcome
Use this preparatory period to locate pet-friendly stops along your journey. It’s as easy as Googling “pet friendly hotels.” There’s a broad range of these accommodations, from “Motel Cheap” to luxury hotels with doggy spas. Find out what they require in terms of shots or other special care, and what kind of behavior they expect from your pet. 

While on the subject of injections, it’s always a good idea to make sure your traveling pet’s shot records are up to date. To be entirely on the safe side, find out if any special shots may be recommended at your destination point, especially if your pet will be exposed to the local pet population.

Frenzied feline
So far, we’ve concentrated on dogs. Whoever heard of a cat with its head out the window, ears flapping? (I’ve had a hard enough time just putting one in the car!) Unless your cat is truly exceptional, get a carrier. Cats have an affinity for that nice dark spot under the pedals, if you’re lucky. If you’re not, little Fluffy may decide an escape is called for and start bouncing off every hard surface of your vehicle.

Once I scraped my cat off the headliner, I was bloody and covered in very fine cat hair, as was the car. Cats are home-oriented; dogs are people-oriented. As long as the cat is in familiar surroundings, it’s OK whether you’re there or not. Dogs don’t seem to care if you take them to Outer Siberia as long as they’re with you. Think seriously before you bring your cat on a vacation trip.

Pet packing
Next, pack for your pets. Bring their bedding (if small enough to fit), blanket or pillow. One of your sweatshirts with your body scent might do to provide a sense of normalcy. Include favorite toys and enough of their regular food to last the trip. Even if you think your pets have a cast-iron stomach, limit them to their home diet and avoid new and exciting local delicacies. Also include a water bowl and water to use on those frequent potty breaks. 

Bring kitty litter and a box for your cat. Also, during that preparatory time, get your cat used to a cat harness and leash. Dogs seem to acclimate fairly quickly to a leash, but cats may have ideas of their own.

Leash laws
Another personal experience: If your dog is not used to taking potty walks on a leash, get him used to it. On our first road trip, my terrier mix went 14 hours without performing properly on her many potty breaks. At home, she ran free all day and took one last outdoor excursion before bedtime. Apparently, she didn’t think she could pee on a leash. Judging from the volume that came out of her once we got back home, I’m surprised her bladder didn’t burst. 

Invest in one of those special collar tags and include your name, your pet’s name and your cell phone number. We’ve all heard stories of lost pets on family trips and how they managed to find their way home. But we don’t hear the sad stories about lost pets who never make it home and end up in shelters with no way to contact traveling owners.

Home schedule
Try to keep to your pet’s home schedule. Feed Fluffy in the morning, about an hour before you take off, then again in the evening when you get to your destination or first stop. If he’s used to regular walks, plan breaks that would coincide with his schedule and be sure to pack poop bags. Even if your dog is great at staying with you without a leash, keep him on a leash in unfamiliar surroundings. Every dog has its own “nature”: terriers are fearless, herding dogs tend to stick closer to their people and retrievers are chasers but give up much more quickly than terriers. But all this is moot when you and your dog have no idea what’s going to leap out of bushes in new territory.

Weather or not
Hot weather presents very specific perils. It goes without saying that you should never leave your pet in the car unattended in hot weather. Even if it’s relatively mild but sunny, the interior of your car can heat up very quickly. If you’re one of those hardy travelers who doesn’t use the air conditioner, use it for your pet’s sake. And if you don’t have a functioning A/C, keep the windows rolled partway down and keep an eye on your pet. Dogs and cats don’t sweat, they pant. It’s probably safer and less messy to pull over and let your pet have a drink. If you’re in the middle of rush-hour traffic with a violently panting pet, give him a drink anyway (hopefully, you’ll have a human companion to assist in this procedure). 

Despite our shaky start, my little terrier and I have enjoyed many road trips together. I have to be careful not to leave the truck door open when she’s roaming about. She hops into her spot in the passenger seat and does everything but strap herself in and start the ignition for me. With any luck and good preparation, your pet can become an equally adept traveler.