Pet owners have many reasons to bring their furry friend along for summer travel — and making sure you’re transporting them safely should be a top priority. There are a few basic safety precautions to consider whenever you road trip with your furry friend, including restraints, up-to-date health checks and vaccinations and pet-friendly travel kits that include everything from water and food bowls to doggie bags. If you're planning on taking your dog along for a car ride, we consulted veterinarians and pet safety experts on the best ways to keep them safe and rounded up some highly rated and crash-tested crates, carriers and safety harnesses.
SKIP AHEAD Crash-tested products for traveling dogs
Types of dog safety restraints: Carriers, car seats and safety harnesses
Just like humans should wear seat belts in case of a crash, dogs should be properly strapped into a crash-tested restraint, whether that’s an enclosed pet carrier or a travel safety harness. These restraints don’t just lessen the chances of serious injury to your dog during an accident — they can also keep them from “escaping inside the car and distracting the driver,” said Kristen L. Nelson, DVM, the author of “Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life.”
According to the experts we spoke to, there are three basic types of dog safety restraints on the market: carriers and crates, car seats (or booster seats) and safety harnesses.
- Carriers: These are typically covered enclosures that can be strapped in using a seat belt or the vehicle’s LATCH/ISOFIX anchors. “There are two types of carriers: those that only prevent distraction and those that offer crash protection,” said Lindsey Wolko, founder of the Center for Pet Safety (CPS), a registered non profit and advocacy organization that crash-tests car restraints and containment devices for pets. These carriers should remain connected and closed while the car is moving.
- Crates: These are typically larger in size and heavier than carriers. “Crash protection crates have strength-rated anchor straps that are used to secure the kennel to the vehicle via the available connections in the cargo area,” said Wolko.
- Car seats: These are not typically containment devices, according to Wolko. They may serve as open-air suspended seats or booster seats, and some can be anchored by the seat belt or attached to the console. Others may look like a catcher's mitt.
- Safety harnesses: Typically used in conjunction with the vehicle’s seat belt system and a car seat, travel harnesses can safely keep your pet secured in your car as long as they’re crash-tested.
While all of these restraints essentially serve the same function, there are pros and cons to each option. However, one thing remains consistent for all options: Pets should never be placed in the front seat, but rather in the rear seat or the cargo area of the vehicle. “Car seats should never be placed in the front seat as the air bags can hurt or kill the pet,” Nelson explained.
When shopping for your pet, be sure to “check the weight and size guidelines of the doggy car seat to ensure it’ll fit your pet securely and comfortably,” advised Jamie Richardson, BVetMed, medical chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary. “If a harness or seat is too big, they may be able to wriggle out during the ride, creating a distracting and dangerous situation.”
Crash-tested products for car travel with dogs
To help you determine which products are safest for your companion, we’ve compiled the safety products and containment devices that are crash test-certified by the CPS, which tests everything from latches, zippers and stitching to connections and any reinforcements designed into products.
Top crash-tested harnesses
This safety harness from Sleepypod is certified crash-tested by the CPS for dogs up to 110 pounds and features a three-point design to secure the dog’s torso to the seat using the seat belt system. It also includes shock-absorbing sleeves that work with a padded vest for additional security and comfort while in the car and during outdoor activities like walking or hiking since it can also double as a walking harness. The Sleepypod Click-It Sport also passed the CPS crash test for dogs up to 90 pounds.
Designed for small dogs weighing 25 pounds or less, the Rocketeer Pack received a 5-star safety rating from the CPS. It contains a harness that you can slip your dog into and requires the anchor straps to be attached to your vehicle’s baby car seat connections, according to the brand. It can also double as a front- and backpack to conveniently carry your dog when you’re not in the vehicle.
Top crash-tested carriers and crates
The Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed accommodates pets up to 15 pounds and received a 5-star safety rating from the CPS. Wolko noted that the bottom of the carrier “can be used as a bed inside the home, making acclimation training easier for the pet.” The carrier includes velcro positioning points that secure a seat belt in place, removable and machine-washable bedding and mesh panels that allow you to see your pet. It’s also offered in a mini size, which is certified for pets 7 pounds and under and is considered an appropriate size for several airlines.
Available in Small, Medium, Intermediate and Large sizes, this kennel earned a 5-star safety rating from the CPS in both the crate and carrier class — it’s the only product that has earned a dual certification, according to Wolko. It features a double-wall construction, and the brand claims it provides double the impact protection for your pet. The reversible door design allows it to be opened from either side of the crate, while the door system is reinforced with an aluminum frame that can keep your dog safely contained in case of a car crash. “This is appropriate for vehicle travel, but not for the truly tiny pets,” Wolko said, adding that other CPS-certified carriers may be better for smaller cats, dogs and other pets.
The Sleepypod Atom earned a 5-star safety rating from the CPS for pets under 12 pounds, with the organization deeming it appropriate for both vehicle and airline travel (although experts recommend looking at your airline’s carrier size requirements before boarding). This carrier is compact and lightweight for easy portability, with a buckle on both sides of the carrier that can secure it to the seat belt in the rear seat of the vehicle. The included plush bedding on the inside of the carrier is also removable and machine-washable.
With a 5-star safety rating and certified for pets up to 75 pounds, the Lucky Kennel can be a worthwhile option for traveling with larger dogs. It’s made from durable rotomolded construction and features reversible doors and specifically placed ventilation holes to keep air flowing on hot days. Multiple Lucky Kennels can be easily stacked and the brand offers a comfort pad that fits within the crate.
Other dog travel essentials
Richardson recommends packing a collapsible travel bowl and plenty of fresh water to keep your pet “hydrated and comfortable” during your trip. Each bowl in this four-pack can hold up to 12 fluid ounces of water or 1.5 cups of pet food, according to the brand. It’s also dishwasher-safe for easy cleaning.
Wolko recommends taking a first aid kit specifically for pets in case of an emergency. This 50-piece one by Kurgo includes cotton swabs, antiseptic towelettes, gauze pads, sting relief pads and more all inside a functional pack with multiple compartments. You can also make your own that can include scissors, tweezers, gauze, antiseptic spray or wipes and hydrogen peroxide. In addition to a first aid kit, Richardson suggested researching “an emergency vet at your destination” and having their “contact number handy, in case you need them urgently while you’re away.”
No matter where you travel with your dog, waste bags are an essential item to take in order to avoid leaving messes behind. This option from Earth Rated comes in either a 120-pack or a 270-pack, and you can choose to purchase either fragrance-free or lavender-scented bags. The brand claims these bags are odor-blocking, leak-proof and made with recycled materials.
Pet wipes can serve multiple purposes on a trip, from cleaning up dog-related messes to wiping their paws or faces whenever they get dirty. These fragrance-free wipes are hypoallergenic, meaning they’re free of parabens, alcohol and harsh chemicals that can cause a reaction for your dog, according to the brand. They’re made with aloe vera, vitamin E and Hawaiian awapuhi ingredients to soothe and condition your dog’s coat and skin.
What kind of car restraint is best for your dog?
Below, we outlined all of the major similarities and differences between pet carriers, booster seats and safety harnesses to help you make an informed decision about which one to get for your pet.
Pet carriers and crates for dogs
Dogs often “don’t realize the dangers of interfering with a driver, so many may try to climb on the driver or get in their lap — especially if they are anxious,” said Wendy Mandese, DVM, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, who noted that “crates and carriers are the safest travel option for dogs.” The experts we spoke to also emphasized that carriers — along with all other pet travel products — should be independently crash-tested by the CPS to ensure safety outside of brand claims.
“The pet products industry is highly unregulated and many brands subjectively ‘pass’ their products if they test them in the lab,” said Wolko. This can give owners a false sense of security. “You want to look for a carrier that has been engineered and tested for safety. Most carriers on the market only offer distraction prevention, which is important, but in a crash, they may not perform as you would expect them to.”
Experts recommend never connecting the internal tether of the carrier or the seatbelt to your pet's collar since it can result in “neck fracture or airway damage when brakes are applied suddenly,” said Mandese. Nelson also noted that the tethers are “often too long and don’t keep the pet in the seat” anyway.
While carriers usually go in the back seat, crates typically go in the cargo area of an SUV. “They’re typically larger in size and heavier, [and] therefore they should not be secured on the rear seat of the vehicle,” said Wolko. But Nelson admitted she isn’t a fan because the pet can “slam into the walls of the crate during impact” and crates can sometimes break “and the pet flies through or it collapses on [them].”
Car or booster seats for dogs
Because car seats are typically open, they can serve as a good way to let your dog look out of the window and reduce car sickness, which is common in puppies and many outgrow as they get older, according to Mandese. These seats should always be paired with a safety harness to ensure your dog is secure and prevent them from flying out of their seat.
However, Wolko noted she has several concerns about car seats, and the CPS does not recommend any to owners for a few reasons. Many use the seat belt system to stay secure, and according to Wolko, the seat belt system should be used to secure the pet with an approved harness, and the travel or booster seat needs to use ISOFIX/LATCH anchors to secure it to the vehicle. “This will allow the seat belt system to be used independently to secure the harness the pet will need to wear,” she said, adding that “the travel seat should be used only to elevate the pet.” The harness provides the protection, giving your pet the best possible chance of survival in a crash through anchoring.
Wolko also noted that some car seats require dogs to be connected directly to the seat. These connections are typically very weak and will not prevent injury, she explained. Other pet travel seats connect to the console between the driver and passenger seats, which is unsafe because they don’t usually utilize strong connections to secure the seat. “Pets need to be secured in a booster using a crash protection harness, which also requires a separate strength-rated anchor point,” Wolko explained. When the booster seat sits on the console, “there’s nothing above or around the console to connect the pet to that is strength-rated,” which can be catastrophic in a crash.
If you do decide to use a car seat for your dog, Nelson recommends rear-facing car seats in combination with a safety harness. She does not recommend any of the forward-facing car seats since your pet can fly out during a crash. Wolko said to avoid seats with exposed plastic bases, since they easily fracture and shards can be sharp.
Additional expert safety tips for dogs in cars
When it comes to restraining your dog, tightening seat belts is important to ensure they’re restrained against the back of the seat. “The most common mistake is leaving the seat belts loose to make the pet more comfortable,” said Nelson. “Unfortunately, the extra room lets them fly during a crash.”
Where your dog is located in the car can also pose several risks. According to the American Kennel Club, you should never let your dog ride in the back of an open truck since it can lead to severe injuries or even death. You should also never let your dog ride with their head sticking out of an open window since that can lead to serious eye injuries due to road debris. And be sure to “bring medical records, medications and identification, including pictures of you with your pets,” said Wolko.
Additionally, never leave your pet alone in a car, at any time, for any reason. Especially in the summer, “heat stroke can be deadly and can happen in minutes,” said Wolko. This scenario results in many pet deaths every year, Douglas Kratt, DVM, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, told us in our guide to keeping dogs cool. He said you should leave your dog at home while running errands in the summer — temperatures inside cars can quickly rise to life-threatening levels, even if you crack the windows open or park in the shade.