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Traveling by car with a small dog: How it works

Last weekend, Chloe and I flew to Chicago to meet my oldest niece, just finishing her first year at college. I rented a minivan and we filled it with my niece’s stuff and drove to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Chloe and I had driven together before for two or three hours at a time, but that was in my own car, equipped with Chloe’s beloved Snoozer Lookout, and leaving from our own driveway. This took more preparation.

Packing for a road trip

Chloe’s Snoozer certainly wouldn’t fit in a suitcase, so I chose instead to pack a harness and strap, as described in an earlier Dog Jaunt post. I could also have chosen to have her travel in her airplane carrier, which has straps through which a seat belt can pass, or I could have packed a Pet Tube — read through the post to find the option that works best for you and your dog.

Since it’s getting hot, I also packed a Zentek pad to put on the seat under Chloe. Your goal is to protect your dog from a hot or otherwise uncomfortable seat surface, and to protect the seat from your dog’s fur, drool, etc. As usual, I packed Chloe’s travel crate and her tote (containing her food, treats, toys, grooming supplies, etc.) in her suitcase.

I packed copies of her shot record, in case she had a medical emergency. A shot record is also necessary if you need to temporarily board your dog while you’re traveling — at Disneyland’s day kennel, for example.

Bring a picture of your dog with you, in case the worst happens and your dog gets lost. If you have a picture with you, you can act rapidly, giving copies of the photo to local animal shelters and rescue organizations, and creating lost-pet posters and handouts. Either carry a hard-copy photo with you, or upload a picture to a website (e.g., Flickr, SmugMug, FaceBook) so you can make a printout any time at FedEx Kinko’s.

Settling in to the car

When we got the minivan at the airport, I set Chloe up on the right rear passenger seat, on her pad and in her harness, and clipped the strap to the small bar supporting the seat belt socket (the same bar parents use to secure baby seats). I suction-cupped a sun shade to her window, and I took her tote out of her suitcase and set it on the floor of the van, so it and all its contents were close at hand. And I loaded up on bottled water, for me and for Chloe.

As I’ve already emphasized in an earlier post, it is dangerous to allow your dog to travel without a restraint of some kind (harness-and-strap, crate, carrier, tethered to a car seat), and it is dangerous for her to travel in the front passenger seat. The safest place for her is in the rear passenger seat, and if she’s on the right side, you can keep an eye on her (and vice versa).

On the road

When you’re on a long road trip, feed your dog her normal food at her usual times (morning and evening, in Chloe’s case), but not while the car is moving (some dogs get carsick if they have food or water en route). Be sure to give your dog a really long walk before setting out, so that she’ll sleep as much as possible. Stop every 2-3 hours to give her a bathroom break and a drink. And give her a long walk when you park for the night, to stretch her legs and reward her for her forbearance.

Your dog should wear her collar, with ID tag and rabies tag, at all times while you’re traveling. Whenever you plan to remove her from the car, clip on her leash before you open the door, even if you are positive that she won’t bolt. A recent Seattle Times article about an utterly reliable 7 year-old Golden Retriever who bolted from his family when he was spooked at a rest area by a train whistle illustrates the point: Buck ordinarily never left the son’s side, but “‘When Buck heard the whistle, he took off like a shot. None of us even saw him.'”

Keep an eye on the sun, and make sure your sun shade is doing its job throughout the day. Also keep an eye on the temperature in the back seat: My own station wagon has a vent just for the right rear passenger seat, but the minivan I rented didn’t, so I needed to adjust the vents to send some cool air back to Chloe.

Under no circumstances should you leave your dog in the car by herself! Even on a pleasant day, a car interior can be unbearable, as a recent MSNBC article makes clear:

When it’s 72 degrees, a car in direct sun can reach an internal temperature of 116. Even in the shade, a car can be 10 to 20 degrees hotter than outdoors, and cracking the window has almost no effect.

Veterinarian Cate Rinaldo, a volunteer with United Animal Nations, points out that dogs don’t have sweat glands all over their bodies like humans do, so the main way they can cool off is by panting, which isn’t very efficient.

Once a dog’s body temperature gets over about 106 — normal temperature is around 101 — the result is “everything from nerve damage, heart problems, liver damage, systemic organ failure, and it happens fast, within a matter of minutes,” she says.

It’s also a security hazard, since even a slightly-open window invites car or dog theft.

There’s no reason you’d need to leave your dog in the car, though — choose gas stations where you can pay at the pump, choose dog-friendly restaurants or restaurants you can drive through, and when you need a bathroom break, tuck your small dog into her stealth carrier (for Chloe, this is her messenger bag) and bring her with you.

Chloe snoozed almost continuously, but when she was awake she appreciated a really good chew toy to work on. Bring ones that your dog hasn’t seen for a while, or ones that she can’t resist, to keep her interest. For Chloe, that means Texas Toothpicks, a windy pipe, or a bully stick.


  • HS

    Firstly, I LOVE your site. I recently adopted a super sweet toy poodle (about 9 lbs) and have learned so much helpful info from your site. (He’s coming with me next month to meet the family on the east coast so will be trying out the SturdiBag carrier.)
    I wondered if you ever use the seatbelt straps on the SturdiBag for car travel vs a completely independent harness/restraint system?

  • I do, Heidi, and it works great — on trips where I know I’ll be driving a lot, I bring Chloe’s PetEgo Pet Tube because it gives her a little more room to sprawl, but the large Sturdi is a perfectly good car carrier!

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