I’m a huge gear head — obsessively into our hometown industry, the BBC TV show “Top Gear”, and I keep a mental “Life List” of exotic cars that I see when I travel. Automobiles are so much a part of the culture here in the midwest that those of us who grew up here don’t realize how integral a car is to our daily lives. Everything we do is spread out over large areas. We commute long distances. Public transportation isn’t nearly as extensive here as in other metropolitan areas. In some ways, that’s great, if you’re into cars. It brings up a lot of issues, too, from a social and environmental perspective. Any of you who come to see me in the hospital with your pet will know that I’ll run my mouth forever about cars. I’m as intent on keeping my car clean and polished as I am about keeping pets healthy and happy. It may sound weird, but a good neat, clean car is as satisfying as a neat, clean, well-stitched incision.
How does this relate to vet med? Glad you’re still here to ask. 😉 The connection is this: we take our pets with us when we’re traveling by car. Naturally, taking a pet to the veterinary hospital requires travel (for us, by car). I also see people taking their pets with them to go shopping, or to the dog park, or to dog sports events, dog shows, and so on. Most dogs love to ride in the car. The imagery of the dog’s head hanging out the window is an iconic “summer dog” theme. In concept, the idea represents freedom in a lot of ways. We’re free to travel, with roads going anywhere we need to go. The dogs are also able to sniff the air for tens of miles that would otherwise have been too far from home. Exploration is part of human and canine nature in a lot of ways. (Most cats, I’ll admit, would be just as happy to be on their own feet or in their own yard/house, NOT in the car.)
Part of being a responsible motorist is safety. We shouldn’t be talking on the cell phone or texting or cooking omelets. No make-up, no Sudoku puzzles, no wardrobe changes. We also know that our vehicles are equipped with airbags, collision avoidance systems, advanced engineering to make the cars safer in a crash. Most importantly, we wear our seat belts. But what about the dogs?
I see almost NO dogs wearing seat belts. They’re usually standing on the owner’s lap with their heads out the window, or free in the back seat. I’ve seen dogs in the back of pickup trucks, too. I’ll say it clearly: all of those things are utter and completely negligent, irresponsible pet ownership decisions. Here’s why:
Dogs with their heads out the window can be struck by bugs, debris, rocks, etc. This could result in eye damage – including blindness – or worse. We don’t drive with our heads out the window, and we don’t let our children hang out of the car. Why let the dog do it? If you’re firm about letting the dog’s head hang out the window, at least get some goggles to protect the eyes.
Unrestrained pets not safely buckled in can become projectiles in the event of an accident. There are numerous reports of owners being severely injured by pets that go flying through the car when an accident occurs. I’ve personally treated a dog that was severely injured when it jumped out of a moving car. I’ve treated dogs that have been dragged by the leash when they fell out of the car, too. Quickly recalling physics class, the amount of kinetic energy a moving object has is determined by its weight and movement speed. Every time the speed doubles, the amount of energy goes up four times. Pets can also be seriously injured by airbags. A dog sitting on the driving owner’s lap can be crushed or burned by the airbag if it deploys. The car is a dangerous place for pets!
Seat belts are available for dogs. There are MANY styles out there. Sadly, I don’t have any data to offer in terms of which are the best. My gut tells me that the harnesses that have a larger padded structure (instead of just harness straps) will distribute the force over a wider area, which should be better. They buckle into the safety belt, though some systems include hardware to create a tie-line attached to the inner roof of the car. These systems are designed to stop your dog from flying through the cabin. This protects you AND the dog. For cats, keeping them in a carrier that is seat-belted in is the easiest way to travel. The only safe way to have a dog travel in the back of a pickup truck is to put it in a crate that is secured to the bed.
Last summer, I blogged about the dangers of hot weather for pets. The car is, by far, the most dangerous hot-weather risk for pets. Cars can heat up to insane temps very very rapidly. Dogs can and will die from heat exposure. This sort of death is messy, painful, and horrible. Close on the heels of hot cars are outdoor public events like fairs, art shows, fireworks festivals, etc. It’s also a pet peeve of mine. I see owners walking around in shorts and a tank top drinking bottled water while their dog is desperately panting to try to cool off. Aside from the immediately dangerous circumstances, it’s very inconsiderate of a dog’s comfort.
I’ve soapboxed enough for one post, obviously. I realize that a lot of this sounds harsh and like a wet blanket on summer fun. It doesn’t have to be, as long as common sense is employed. Treat your pets well, respect their safety and yours, and the automobile can still bring that freedom of being on the road without the dangers. Summer can be a great time to enjoy the great weather by being out and about. Just be smart about it so that your pets can enjoy it, too. Here are a few links to keep you informed: