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Driving with pets

Sep 3, 2021

Heading off on a road trip with your pet pooch? Or just wondering how to get your moggy to the vet for its annual boosters?

Then you need to take a few precautions to avoid putting you, your pet and other road users in danger.

Driving safely with pets is an essential skill for every animal owner to learn. A smooth, calm journey is just what an anxious animal needs – and it could help you lower the cost of black box insurance, too.

Read on for our top tips for driving with pets. 

What are the risks of driving with pets?

Your beloved pooch may entertain you with its crazy antics at home. But a leaping lurcher or miaowing moggy is a huge distraction when you’re driving, potentially causing you to make errors that could lead to an accident.

If your pet isn’t restrained, it might also interfere with the car’s controls, perhaps even squeezing under the brake pedal. And, in an emergency stop, your pet could be flung around the car, hurting itself, yourself, and any passengers.

What are the penalties?

If you get distracted by your pet while on the road, you could get stopped for careless driving. You face a hefty fine and points on your licence, plus your insurance premiums could rise, too.

And if you are convicted of causing an accident due to careless driving, you might find your insurer will only pay third party costs. You might even struggle to get insurance in the future.

One great way of getting back behind the wheel is to take out black box or telematics insurance. This involves placing a device in your car that monitors how well you’re driving, so you can prove you’ve learned your lesson and are safe on the roads.

A dog putting its head out the side of a moving cars window with its ears blowing in the wind
Cats and car travel

We think of our cats as adventurous beings, eager to roam for miles at all hours of the day or night. But in fact, they’re creatures of routine, who hate being removed from their territories.

So to avoid a feline freak-out, it’s best not to transport your cat unless you absolutely have to. Instead, find a cat-sitter who will visit your home, or, if you must, cat boarding kennels while you’re away.

Of course, sometimes a quick car trip is unavoidable, for example when taking your puss to the vet. So while most of our top tips are aimed at dogs, do keep reading if you’re a cat owner, too.

Dogs and car travel

Unlike their feline counterparts, dogs tend to adapt quite quickly to car travel.

For a start, they have an innate trust in their pack leader – that’s you! So if you are telling them to get in a car, their instinct is to oblige.

Plus, they quickly learn that car travel often means walkies – and what could be better than that?

But of course, all dogs are different, and some canines make poor car companions. So what can you do to improve their enjoyment of their journey, and keep all of you safe on the roads?

Pet restraints

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.”

So what are the pros and cons of each type?

A harness is a special seat belt that goes round your dog or cat’s chest. Just as with a collar, you need to make sure it’s not too tight or loose: you should be able to put two fingers between the animal’s body and the harness. Smaller dogs or cats might need a booster seat, too.

While harnesses are safe, many pets will find them bothersome. If yours is likely to start howling, barking or miaowing, then that could prove a big distraction to the driver.

So it might be better to place a dog in a crate. It will then have enough space to shift around a bit during the journey, keeping it more content.

Pet carriers are a simple alternative, and can be secured using the car seatbelts. They’re best for short journeys like those to your local vets, as they don’t give larger animals much space to turn around. To be extra safe, you could look for a crash-tested carrier or crate.

And if you regularly travel with dogs in the boot, then invest in a dog guard to separate them from the passenger area. Your dogs then have a nice spacious area to themselves without getting in the way of the passengers or driver.

Depending on the type of restraint you’re using, the best places for your pet are the boot or the back seat. Footwells can also work for smaller carriers or crates.

The front passenger seat is the least safe place for your pets to be in your vehicle – even if they’re restrained, they might distract you as you drive. If you can’t place them anywhere else, then push the front seat back as far as you can, and remember to disable the airbag.

A dog sitting in the back seat of a moving car with the sun setting through the window behind
Start them young

Your puppy or kitten is likely to take its very first car trip just a few weeks after its birth, when it leaves its mother to go to its forever home. If that’s with you, it’s a huge responsibility!

Your tiny pet is likely to find the whole experience pretty alarming. You can ease the transition by including a blanket bearing its mother’s scent nearby, plus a couple of treats. When you get home, give it a dark comfy corner to hide in until it’s ready to emerge.

In fact, it’s good to get your pup introduced to car travel while it’s still very young: it’s far more adaptable at this age. Within a few weeks, it should learn that the car is nothing to be scared of.

Try your very best to keep those first journeys as smooth as possible. Sudden braking or sharp cornering will knock your pet off balance, and possibly lead to it developing a phobia of travelling in the car. Of course, smooth driving is good practice generally, and is one of the things measured by insurance with a black box.

Build up to longer journeys

Getting your puppy used to car journeys is a crucial part of its socialisation.

So start with short, slow journeys and build up gradually. Make a fuss of your pooch whenever it behaves well in the car, giving it plenty of treats and strokes. Don’t get angry if it takes a while to settle – you’ll only make the situation worse.

If you’ve got an older dog, too, transport the pair together once they’ve got to know each other – your mature mutt’s tranquillity should help teach the younger pup to take cars in its stride.

If at all possible, delay any longer motorway trips until you’re sure your dog can cope. The last thing you want on a once-in-a-lifetime road trip around Europe is a travel sick, homesick hound!

Plan ahead

If you’re going on a long car journey, make sure you’ve factored your pet into your plans. Have you got water for your animal? A comfy place for it to snooze while travelling? Food and treats to keep the hunger pangs at bay?

Above all, don’t forget to draw up an itinerary that allows your pet plenty of breaks.

Dogs will benefit from stops to stretch their legs and have a run. Perhaps you could look at a map before you set off to find some suitable green spots such as woodlands?

Even if you’re on a long motorway journey, many service stations have spacious outdoor areas that are suitable for a quick dog walk – but do keep yours on its lead, and remember to keep your poo bags to hand!

Cats will need to use litter trays if you’re travelling for more than around six hours. Another good reason to leave them at home unless it’s really unavoidable!

Keeping your car cool

It’s no fun for your furry friends to be cooped up in a car on a hot day. So think carefully about how you’ll keep your canine companion cool during the summer months.

Keep the aircon on, and stop regularly for water. If you don’t have aircon, open the windows – but not enough for your pup to poke its head out! While the sight of a spaniel or beagle’s ears flapping in the breeze does look very cute, it’s also very dangerous.

Sunshades on the windows will also help keep the car a pleasant temperature, and stop your pet being dazzled by the rays, too.

You could set off on your journey earlier or later to avoid the midday sun. That way, you might also miss most of the traffic, thus limiting the amount of time you spend in a stifling car.

A cool, comfortable car and low-stress driving conditions will help you drive smoothly and carefully, too.

Insurance with telematics monitors how careful you are behind the wheel, and if you can prove you’re a sensible driver, you could get a reduction on the cost of your premiums after a year.

A dog looking out the window of a hot parked car
Passengers and dogs

If you know your pet hates cars, could a passenger sit next to it and keep it occupied throughout the journey?

For dogs especially, the presence of a trusted human is hugely calming. If your passenger strokes the dog and speaks to it soothingly, there’s a good chance that Fido will settle down and snooze contentedly for much of the way.

The passenger can also keep an eye on the animal to make sure it’s not uncomfortable in its restraint, travel sick, or excessively distressed by the journey.

Avoiding travel sickness

Just as with people, some animals get more travel sick than others. So if your pooch is prone to an upset tummy in your car, what can you do?

First off, avoid travelling too soon after its meal. Give it time to digest its food thoroughly.

Follow all the tips above to keep your animal comfy on the journey. A stressed, anxious pooch is more likely to be sick than a chilled chihuahua.

And if poor Rover still throws up whenever you hit the road together, visit your vet, who may be able to give you further tips or prescribe you medication.

Spotting warning signs that your dog is in distress

Dogs tend to be vocal about their feelings! But it’s not always obvious to their owners whether they’re excited, impatient, or seriously suffering.

Signs of travel sickness, other than vomiting, are: drooling, panting, lip licking, swallowing, and retching.

Signs your dog is scared of cars include barking, whimpering, shaking, peeing or pooping, and trying to avoid getting inside.

If you have passengers, ask them to look out for these signs during a journey. When travelling alone, take regular breaks to check that your pooch is ok.

Don’t leave your dog in a parked car

Finally, when you take a break, take your dog with you.

This is especially important on warm or hot days: dogs can overheat fast, as the temperature inside your vehicle builds. Even leaving the windows open a crack or parking in the shade will make little difference. Your dog can become ill very quickly, and could be suffering severe heat stroke by the time you return.

Even on colder days, your pet might feel abandoned if left alone. So bring a lead and take your pooch with you wherever possible. Enjoy your travels together!

Careful driver? You need black box insurance

At Smartdriverclub, we want to help people and pets stay safe on the roads. We offer telematics or black box insurance, which involves placing a device in your car to monitor things like how smoothly you take corners, how sharply you brake, and how often you drive at night. If you get a high driver score over a year of driving, you could bring down the cost of your premiums.

Get a quick quote today.