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On the Road Again—Pet Safety Tips

Photo of The Improper and Unsafe Way of Transporting One's Pet The Improper and Unsafe Way of Transporting One's Pet

Now that you’ve read The Summertime Pet Safety Series parts I (The Dog Days of Summer) and II (Summertime Festive Food Safety), let’s move onto the final topic of pet-safe car travel.

Summertime presents abundant opportunities to get outside; far more than permitted during winter’s chilly months. Sunny skies and balmy weather motivate plans for adventurous road trips, oftentimes with our pets. When planning your trip, pet-safe transport should be a top priority if you’re taking Fido or Fluffy along for the ride! Needless to say, I don't advocate the means of transport as exemplified in this article's photo.

Clinical Signs of Travel Stress

Whether it’s obvious or subtle, any type of travel (plane, train, or automobile) puts stress on your pet. Obvious signs of travel related stress include:

Pacing and restlessness
Salivating (ptyalism)
Inappropriate urination or defecation
Vomiting (emesis)
Food refusal

Subtle signs of travel associated stress are:

Withdrawal from interaction with other pets and people (hiding)
Body position changes (crouching, dropped tail, etc)

If your pet reacts negatively to car travel then a road trip is probably not the best option. Stress negatively impacts multiple body systems due to the release of steroid hormones (cortisol, etc) and other stimulating substances (epinephrine, etc). Excess steroid hormones hinder the immune system’s ability to fight infection and manage inflammation (arthritis, etc), while epinephrine (adrenaline) elevates heart rate and blood pressure. In this scenario, leaving your dog or cat with a trusted caretaker is healthier than subjecting them to the potential negative health implications associated with travel.

Should You Sedate Your Pet?

Veterinary prescribed sedatives (Acepromazine, Alprazolam,etc), over the counter medications (Diphenhydramine Hydrochloride= Benadryl) and natural products (Rescue Remedy Pet, Spirit Essences, etc) can help take off the stressful edge associated with travel. Consult your veterinarian about the appropriate use of such products for your pet. Before your trip, participate in a trial run with the chosen product to gauge your pet’s response. Typically, a tired pet is more prone to sleep during travel, so try to provide vigorous exercise within the 24 hours prior to your departure.

Food or No Food?

If your canine or feline companion is prone to motion sickness, withhold food and large volumes of water before departure. Skipping a meal is less harmful on a pet’s body than the esophageal and oral irritation caused by the eruption of acidic stomach contents and the potential for aspiration (inhalation of food or liquids).

Proper Pet Restraint

If your pets are natural born adventurers or have been acclimated to traveling, then bring them along for the ride. Ensuring safe car travel for the driver and passengers (both human and animal) by using a restraining device is essential. Without the appropriate restraint, your pet is free to wander the car’s cabin causing a significant driving distraction and subjecting them to trauma from an accident. Even a minor fender bender can cause life threatening injuries when a pet is suddenly thrust forward or out of a window.

The best options for restraint are a seat belt harness or a rigid carrier. Medium to large dogs are typically more suitable candidates for a seat belt harness, which provides confinement to the seat’s boundaries. Smaller dogs and cats should travel in a carrier, which should be strapped or hooked down.

Climate Control and Human Observation

Unlike humans, dogs and cats lack the ability to efficiently expel heat through their skin. The respiratory tract is their primary means of excreting heat, which is why you may notice an increased respiratory rate or pant in warm weather.

A Stanford University Medical Center study published in Pediatrics reports that a “car’s interior can heat up by an average of 40 degrees F within an hour, regardless of ambient temperature. Eighty percent of the temperature rise occurred within the first half-hour”. As your car’s interior temperature increases, so will your dog or cat’s body temperature. A dangerously high level (hyperthermia) can occur after only a short time and can cause your pet to suffer the severe effects of heat related illness, including collapse, abnormal blood clotting, multi-organ system failure, seizures and death.

Unforeseeable circumstances may keep you occupied longer than initially anticipated, so never leave your pet unattended in a non-climate controlled car, even on a relatively cool day. Additionally, provide continuous circulating ventilation with air conditioning during your trip.

Frequent stops can help to reduce stress by providing your pet with a change of scenery and the opportunity to hydrate, urinate and defecate. As the chosen break site will be unfamiliar and holds the potential for a variety of unknown dangers, always use a leash.

These pet-safe travel tips have year-round applications, so use them during winter, spring, summer, and fall. Happy Travels!

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Copyright of this article (2012) is owned by Dr Patrick Mahaney, Veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist. Republishing any portion of this article must first be authorized by Dr Patrick Mahaney. Requests for republishing must be approved by Dr Patrick Mahaney and received in written format.

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