We are a nation of animal lovers! With over 11 million cats and nearly 9 million dogs kept as pets in the UK – plus thousands of rabbits, rodents and reptiles – it’s inevitable that there will be times when they need to travel by car. Whether it’s a quick trip to the local vet or a longer drive, it’s important to keep our precious pets safe and comfortable.
Here’s our guide on everything you need to know about driving with animals.
What are the rules?
Any animal travelling in your vehicle must be “suitably restrained”, under Rule 57 of The Highway Code. This is so it cannot distract you while you are driving or injure you, or themselves, if you have to stop quickly.
At 30mph, an unrestrained Border Collie would be hurled forward with a force equivalent to the weight of a polar bear in an emergency stop!
Travelling with animals, on any length of journey, is also covered by animal welfare laws and anyone found to be in breach of these could face a fine or penalty points on their driving licence.
What is a suitable restraint?
Appropriate restraints for dogs in cars include a seat belt harness, cage or guard. Pet carriers are suitable for smaller animals such as cats, rabbits and rodents. Reptiles should be placed in well-ventilated plastic containers.
Whichever restraint you choose, it must be safe, comfortable and suitable for the size of your pet. There are many products on the market but not all have been crash-tested, so it’s worth comparing cost and specification. Carriers should be properly secured in the car to stop them moving during the journey.
Planning your journey
Before setting off, check that your pet is fit and healthy to travel. Take plenty of water with you and make sure your pet has access to it throughout the journey. The RSPCA says animals travel better if they do not have a full stomach so consider feeding them at least two hours ahead. However, if you know your journey is long enough that your pet will need to be fed en route, remember to pack a light meal. If your pet gets travel sick even on an empty stomach, talk to your vet to see if medication could help.
On the road with pets
Take regular breaks to allow your pet to exercise and have toilet breaks. Cats and small animals should be given the chance to use a litter tray. Make sure your car doors and windows are closed when animals are out of their container to prevent them from escaping.
Err on the side of caution and exercise your dog on a lead, especially in busy locations or places you are not familiar with. Many service stations have dog-walking areas now so it’s worth researching in advance to find out whether there are any on your route.
If you are feeding your pet during a break from travelling, allow plenty of time for them to digest their food before carrying on.
Tips to make it easier
Some animals love being in the car. But if yours is nervous or stressed, there are various things you can do to make them more comfortable.
PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) recommends introducing pets to the car as early as possible, as part of the socialisation process. Start off with the car parked and get them used to sitting in it with you. Then make short trips, building up to longer journeys. End the drives with something fun – like a walk or treat. This makes the experience as positive as possible for the animal.
Other tips from the RSPCA include:
However your dog is restrained, make sure it has enough room to sit, stand up at full height, turn around and lie in a natural position. If they are in a crate, they should be able to see out of it. Some dogs are calmer when they can see their owner in the car. Placing treats in the container can help to create a positive association with it.
Gradually get your cat comfortable with its carrier by keeping it in the home when not in the car, in a place that your cat likes to use. Placing familiar smelling items in the carrier, like toys or bedding, can help cats get used to it and feel more secure when the carrier is used in the car.
Travel can be very stressful for rabbits. Familiarise them with the carrier by leaving it open in their home enclosure, with the front door open to encourage them to investigate. Rabbits should never be pushed into the carrier so try to entice them in with food.
Putting familiar smelling items in the carrier can help these pets feel at ease. But some small animals, such as hamsters, find travel extremely stressful so it is worth checking the detailed advice for your type of pet.
It is recommended to transport these pets in a well-ventilated plastic container lined with soft, absorbent paper. Heat packs may be needed to keep reptiles warm in cars but be careful they do not overheat.
Buying a new car?
If you’re looking to change your vehicle, there are several things to consider to make sure your new choice is pet-friendly, particularly for dogs since they tend to be the largest to accommodate.
Nathalie Ingham, from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, recommends checking not just whether there is enough boot space but also how easy it would be to get your dog – and any travel container – in and out.
She also told Auto Trader: “Many dogs suffer from travel sickness, so good suspension is just as important for them as it is for us, while easy-to-clean seats and interiors are a must.”
Air flow and ventilation should be another key factor in your choice of car, she added.
“Even if you’ve got the air-conditioning on in the front of the car, your dog in the boot may not experience the benefits on a hot sunny day and may still suffer from heat stroke.
“Equally, ensure your back windows can be controlled from the front, so you don’t have to stop the car to wind a window up or down for your dog.”
What to do in hot weather
Any responsible dog owner will tell you that dogs, cars and hot weather are not a good combination.
Consider whether you really need to take your dog on a trip in the car in the first place. The Dogs Trust recommends avoiding congested roads or busy times of day in hot weather, because dogs could overheat if your journey takes longer than expected. If you have to drive, consider travelling at cooler times of day, take plenty of water with you and allow time for regular breaks. Sun shades and cooling mats can also help to make your dog more comfortable.
Never leave a dog or cat alone in a car on a hot day. They can overheat quickly and leaving them for as little as 20 minutes could be fatal. Experts agree that even opening a window or parking in the shade doesn’t offer enough protection from the heat.
Stay safe on the road with pets
By following the rules and advice on driving with animals, you should be able to reach your destination with a happy pet. If you need further information, check the RSPCA website for detailed information on your specific type of pet or ask your vet for advice.
Sources: The Highway Code, gov.uk, The Dogs Trust, Battersea Cats and Dogs Home, RSPCA, PDSA.