Buckle up the pet? You bet.

Dr. Nicholas' daughter Lotte and Wendy buckled up for a ride

Dr. Nicholas' daughter Lotte and Wendy buckled up for a ride

Spot did some informal polling with readers, family and friends on an issue much discussed of late:  whether people should restrain their dog(s) or cat(s) in the car.  The response is on par with recent statistics, which suggest most pet parents — 84 to 98 percent — do not. 

The reasons vary, but mostly people seem resistant to relinquishing their dog’s freedom in the car, whether for their comfort or the sheer joy of hanging their head out the window or bouncing around when nearing a favorite destination like the dog park or beach.  But recent awareness campaigns such as Paws to Click and legislative efforts banning driving with unrestrained dogs might be harbingers of changing how we transport our companion animals.

AAA, The American Automobile Association, reported recently that unrestrained pets cause more than 30,000 accidents each year.  The organization also conducted a survey, along with pet product manufacturer Kurgo that found 83 percent of respondents acknowledged the dangers of having an unrestrained dog in the car.

But statistics are dry stuff and rarely have great sway when it comes to daily living, particularly in shifting cultural mores.  For example, this writer is old enough to remember jauntily bumping along in the back of grandpa’s pickup for the three-mile drive to the lake.  The restraint used then?  The command to “keep your butt in the truck.”  These weren’t negligent grandparents; this was the accepted practice at the time.  In fact, it wasn’t until 1984 that states began legislating mandatory seat belt laws.  Today, you don’t leave the driveway until the kids are strapped in.

Similar to 30 years ago, states have begun requiring drivers to buckle in or crate their animals.  Currently Hawaii, New Jersey, Connecticut, Arizona and Maine all have laws prohibiting unrestrained animals in vehicles.  In Oregon, Senator Ginny Burdick attempted to introduce similar legislation in 2011, but was unsuccessful.

“I think a lot of people jump in with the resistance that the last thing we need are more laws,” says “The Preventive Vet,” Dr. Jason Nicholas, veterinarian and pet safety expert.  “But I think it’s a matter of awareness.  People don’t realize there are easy, effective and inexpensive ways of restraining their cats and dogs, nor do they fully appreciate the importance of doing so.”

Nicholas cites numerous reasons for keeping animals buckled in, including preventing distraction to the driver, as well as the safety of the animal.  Some risks are the same faced by people, some are animal unique:  a sudden stop can throw any passenger into the windshield or dashboard.  Other risks with pets include bolting out of the vehicle or window, or getting into toxins often in a car, like chocolate or gum.  (See Jason's blog, Traveling with pets: The case for restraint).

Driver safety in the event of an accident is also a concern.  An unrestrained dog can cause injury to passengers and/or driver.  In a release by AAA, Jennifer Huebner-Davidson, AAA National Traffic Safety Programs manager cautions that, “An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph exerts roughly 300 pounds of pressure, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph exerts approximately 2,400 pounds of pressure.”

Wendy proudly sports her car wear

Wendy proudly sports her car wear

Evidence aside, overwhelming resistance to restraints prevails . . . so far.  Nicholas says he’s heard people say that their dog won’t tolerate the confinement of a restraint or that they want their dog to be free while in the car.  There’s also concern about not being able to free a dog quickly in the event of an accident.  “It’s a valid concern,” says Nicholas.  “But the flipside, in addition to the overall higher risk of driving with an unrestrained pet, is that if the dog is able to get out he may cause another accident, or injure and prevent an EMT from getting to you.  Besides, many pets are actually more comfortable and less anxious when properly restrained.”

Giving up the camaraderie of your best friend riding shotgun may not come easy, but like with seatbelts, it seems likely restraints for pets will eventually become the norm.  And why not?  While things like helmets and restraints are a pain at first . . . in time they become second nature . . . for good reason. 

Happily, companies like Kurgo and Bergan manufacturing are creating restraint devices that make buckling in the pet surprisingly easy.  Just like safety seats for babies and young children, consumers are wise to do their homework.

“It’s an unregulated market,” says Nicholas, “so people may get products that haven’t been tested.”  Nicholas says products like the Sleepypod carrier and the Pet Buckle Travel Harness have been crash-tested, as have products by Bergan, the first manufacturer to develop a safety standard for pet restraints (see Bergan develops first test standard for pet restraints).

These new standards and products do signal a shift in the making.  And several Spot readers have in fact begun to buckle up their furbabies.  But, just like grandparents of 40 years ago, those who don’t aren’t demonstrating a lack of love for their animals.  “Most people don’t do things out of negligence,” says Nicholas, “just a lack of awareness.  People lead busy lives, and don’t always think about every aspect of their pet’s safety.  It’s not really in people’s consciousness yet and it’s going to take some time.”

What do you think?  To weigh in on the topic, join the conversation in the forum at SpotMagazine.net.

See more of Dr. Nicholas’ pet safety tips at ThePreventiveVet.com.