Image: Pet riding shotgun
Jerry Larson  /  Waco Tribune via AP
Natural ice-breakers, pets help their humans make new friends, get exercise and notice things they otherwise would miss. With a little planning, road trips and pets can be a great combination.
By Mark Sedenquist Travel columnist
updated 4/20/2007 11:13:24 AM ET 2007-04-20T15:13:24

Over the years, I've seen quite a collection of dogs, cats, birds, snakes and ferrets at roadside rest stops. I've even seen a hamster or two. Truth is, pets make great travel companions. Another truth: They require special handling. If you're considering taking a dog or cat on your next road trip, these tips can help ensure that the journey will be safe and fun for everyone in the vehicle.

Create the expectation. Even if your animal is accustomed to riding in a car to the vet or groomer, take her on some short trips to other destinations. Walk her around some new places, and let her sniff and explore at her leisure. New smells and new places are highlights in a critter's life — almost as good as treats! These little warm-up road trips can create the expectation in your pet's mind that a car trip will be fun — not just a ride with a rabies shot at the end.

Create the space. Invest in an appropriate carrier or in an animal safety seat or restraint system and let your pet get used to it when traveling. When I travel with a dog, I make a point of always referring to his kennel as his "bed," and I put a favorite toy or special treat inside it every time we get into the vehicle. Dogs really like routines (cats, too, though to a lesser extent), and my dog quickly came to associate his seat harness with the chance to go somewhere new and exciting.

Create the paper trail. Always carry a complete set of medical records for your animal companion, along with a current statement from your veterinarian saying that your pet is in good health. Vaccination records are particularly important if your trip involves crossing state or national borders, and in an emergency your pet might need to stay in a kennel or other animal care facility. The most commonly required vaccinations for dogs include rabies and bordetella (kennel cough), but you should also consider a shot for Lyme disease if you will be traveling through tick-prone areas. Check with your vet for other recommendations.

Slideshow: Animal Tracks: Aug. 4 - Aug. 11

Create the "Critter Go Kit." I often suggest equipment and gear that should be in every human road tripper's "Go Kit," and pets need a similar cache of supplies. Here's what I recommend at a minimum: water and food bowls from home, two bottles of water per day reserved for the pet, food and treats, an extra leash, cuddly toys, blankets and beds. Some animals need a medicinal calming aid when traveling, and there are a number of sedatives that you can purchase if needed, including spray products that include natural dog or cat pheromones. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recommends using ginger capsules if Rover suffers from car sickness. If your pet's identification tag doesn't have information for reaching you while you are traveling, have one made that includes your cell phone number, e-mail address or other appropriate contact info in case you become separated.

On-the-road considerations
1. Stop every two to three hours and give your pet a chance to run and stretch.

Roadside attractions USA2. Give your animals water at the start of the rest break, not at the end. You don't want a freshly energized critter to drink some nice cool water and immediately get back in the car — that's a recipe for upchuck down the center console (I know this from personal experience). I carry a small plastic container with a snap-on lid in my fanny pack as a mobile water bowl, and I make the dog stop and drink fairly often when on extended walks.

3. While most motels, bed and breakfasts, and upscale hotels are becoming more pet-friendly, it is still a good idea to speak with a live person when making a reservation to ensure that pets are indeed welcome. Policies and management change, and it's possible to get outdated or erroneous information from a brochure, guidebook or a Web site. Many of the inexpensive chains charge a pet fee or pet deposit; most higher-end inns don't. Some establishments limit the number, size or weight of visiting pets, so be sure to ask for the "house rules" regarding animals before you check in.

4. Some hotels are so pet-friendly that they have treats waiting when you check in. I recommend that you not give these treats to your critters, having found from experience that it is much better for them to eat as consistent a diet as possible when they are on the road.

5. Cats can be fussy travelers. Provide a box or other cave-like place in the car where they can hide from time to time, and offer them their own litter box at every rest stop. Exercise can be problematic for those cats who prefer not to go for walks in unfamiliar settings. Try getting the cat accustomed to walking on a leash or riding in a pet backpack before the road trip, so you can get them out of the car or motel room every so often without running the risk of losing them.

6. Cats seem to be more prone to getting dehydrated on car trips than dogs. An electrolyte solution called Pedialyte (available at drugstores) can be administered for hydration and to prevent vomiting. Consult your vet for the dosage.

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7. Consider teaching your pet verbal cues about when it is time to potty while on walks. With my dog, the magic phrase is: "It's time to go back." Whether we are headed back or not, the dog will perform his duty.

8. For bedtime walks, always carry a flashlight. Not only does carrying a light make it easier to find and pick up droppings, it is a sensible safety precaution.

9. Many dining establishments welcome dogs and cats to outdoor table areas these days. Keep your critters on their leashes and attach the leashes to your chair, not to the table, as sudden noises or other distractions could lead to the table being toppled. But first make an honest assessment of your pet. If he is not comfortable and well-behaved around strangers and other animals, choose a take-away restaurant instead.

Roadside attractions USA10. Avoid leaving your pet unattended in your vehicle. In many states, this practice is illegal, no matter the reason or weather, and it is often unsafe. If you must leave Rover alone for a few moments, I recommend that you crack a couple of windows and put reflective window covers on all windows, except for a side window facing away from the sun (so the dog can see out). Also leave a note on the window giving the time you will be back. But never leave your pet in the car if the outside temperature is more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Your car is a convection oven under those circumstances, and the temperature inside can rise high enough to injure or even kill your pet.

It's been my experience that pets adapt more easily to the delights and rigors of the road than most people. Natural ice-breakers, they help their humans make new friends, get exercise and notice things they otherwise would miss. With a little planning, road trips and pets can be a great combination.

Try an animal-enhanced adventure on your next road trip!

Mark Sedenquist is the publisher of RoadTrip America, a Web site providing expert planning, advice and suggested itineraries for road trips. He's spent 30 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America. Email Mark or visit his website.

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