With the Easter holidays about to start, our newest blogger Jo asks some serious questions… Are you one of the estimated 2.5 million UK drivers who travel with an unrestrained dog in the car? Or perhaps you are one of the 60% who admit being distracted by their dog whilst driving?
Rule 57 of the Highway Code states: “When in a vehicle, make sure dogs or other animals are suitably restrained so they cannot distract you while you are driving or injure you, or themselves, if you stop quickly. A seat belt harness, pet carrier, dog cage or dog guard are ways of restraining animals in cars.”
Although breaching the Highway Code is not in itself illegal, there are plenty of offences that could be committed by ignoring this rule. ‘Driving without due care and attention’ or ‘causing or likely to cause danger by reason of load or passengers’ are both justifiable offences when a dog is bouncing around in the car, and fines, penalty points and even licence disqualification are all possible outcomes.
It’s not a silly rule, either. The distraction itself – of stopping your pet moving around or removing them from the passenger seat – can cause problems just as using a mobile whilst driving can cause problems. It is not unheard of for scared cats to escape from poorly-constructed boxes and secrete themselves under the pedals, restricting your braking. During an accident, unrestrained dogs can turn into projectiles as they fly through the air, injuring themselves, or even you, in the process. Airbags are designed to save adults and can be fatal to children and dogs, if deployed. And there is every chance an overexcited or panicking cat or dog could leap from the window and injure themselves.
So how can we safely restrain our pets?
For cats and rabbits, a good pet carrier is essential. It should be solid and have clips to secure it to the car. Although most carriers have a handle, not all will have seatbelt connectors, so this is something to look out for. It needs to be the appropriate size for the pet, as well. Too large and they’ll rattle around inside and are more likely to be injured in an accident. Too small and they’ll become stressed and the carrier could break under pressure. As a vet, I also tend to recommend carriers that can be easily taken apart in the consult room – this means I can access the animal in order to examine without pulling them through the tiny door and causing more stress.
For dogs, several restraint options are possible. Simple dog guards can turn the boot into safe havens for dogs. They can have their own space, a bed and toys, and even food and water bowls for longer journeys. The guard stops them from leaping over into the back seats, and also prevents them from hurtling forward in case of an emergency stop or accident.
If boot space isn’t an option for you, restraining your dog properly in the back seat is the next best thing. Consider whether a properly attached crate could provide a safe area for your dog – they’re particularly useful for dogs who get over excited on car journeys and try to run around. For very small dogs, cat carriers may even be suitable.
Dog car harnesses are also available. These attach your dog’s harness to a seat belt clip, therefore providing a safe restraint for your dog. These are especially useful for dogs that dislike crates, but should only really be used for dogs that are well behaved in the car – harnesses still provide plenty of opportunity for dogs who get worked up to move around and cause havoc. It is very important that you use this type of restraint with a harness and not a collar- in case of an accident this will be what stops your dog flying forward, and sudden force around the neck can cause horrible injuries.
Whichever method of restraint you decide on, it’s important to get your dog used to it. Make jumping in and out of the car a game, with treats as a reward. Ask them to sit for lengthening periods of time, rewarding good, calm sitting. Build up to short car journeys before going for longer ones, and make sure not all journeys end in a dreaded visit to the vets.
Don’t forget basic canine car safety too. Never leave your dog unattended in the car, even when it doesn’t appear to be warm outside. Cars are small greenhouses when it comes to trapping heat and even a small amount of sun on an otherwise chilly day can quickly cause a dog to overheat, which can result in seizures and death. On longer journeys, always provide plenty of fresh water, and stop for toilet breaks and to stretch their legs if necessary.