Pets are considered part of the family by most pet owners, and we love taking them along in the car on both short and long excursions.
In Australia, pets tend to be limited to dogs, cats and perhaps a caged bird. Because of this country’s strict import/export regulations regarding exotic animals, you don’t see too many Aussies driving around with chimpanzees, baby llamas or iguanas like in the US or some European countries.
One big issue in Australia is unrestrained pets (especially dogs) that can either distract the driver from concentrating on the road or be injured or killed in the event of an accident. There are a number of important safety rules to be aware of when you have pets in your car – both for your well-being and theirs.
Danger: unrestrained dogs
Over 5,000 dogs are killed or injured in car accidents each year in Australia because they’re improperly restrained (or not restrained at all). Inside a car, an unrestrained dog is an extremely dangerous projectile.
Over 5,000 dogs are killed or injured in car accidents each year in Australia because they’re improperly restrained (or not restrained at all).1 Inside a car, an unrestrained dog is an extremely dangerous projectile. You don’t need to be in a crash, either – any sudden stop to avoid a collision can send a dog hurtling toward the windscreen – even at speeds as slow as 20 kilometres per hour.
No matter where you live in Australia, it’s illegal to have a dog sitting on your lap while you’re driving. Other legalities related to driving with pets vary from state to state, so make sure you check with your state Road Traffic Authority (or equivalent) so you’re familiar with what is and isn’t permitted.
Penalties can be substantial: in NSW, for example, you’re looking at 3 demerit points and a fine of several hundred dollars (increasing if the offense occurs in a school zone) if you’re caught driving with a pet on your lap, or it is determined that your pet is interfering (either physically or as a distraction) in your ability to properly operate the vehicle.
And that’s just the beginning – the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act stipulates that if a pet is injured in a car as a result of being unrestrained, pet owners can be hit with fines of up to $5500 and face up to 6 months in jail. The same Act also makes transporting an untethered dog in the back of a ute illegal, with a possible on-the-spot fine of $5002.
It’s worth checking whether your car insurance policy covers injuries to pets in the event of motor vehicle accidents. If not, you may have to take out pet insurance to protect your animal under these circumstances. Pet insurance is one of the most economical types of insurance you can buy these days – it can save you from big veterinary bills and provide peace of mind if your pet should be involved in any kind of emergency.
What kind of pet restraint is best?
Your local pet store can advise you on the different type of restraints available to help keep your dog safe in the car. Essentially, these come in two types: harnesses that attach to existing seats belts (or clip into seat belt buckle receptors) and ‘pet crates’. These transport containers are box-shaped and can be secured within the car; they should always be big enough to allow the animal to lie down comfortably and tall enough to let them sit erect of stand up inside the container.
Never harness your dog into the front seat – if an accident occurs, the front airbag deployment could cause serious injury to your pet.
Always make sure pet crates are properly secured within the car – otherwise they can become a hazardous projectile. In many cars, the safest place for the pet carrier is right behind the cargo barrier in the back of the vehicle. If a carrier box has a padded cushion on the bottom, it can be quite comfortable for a dog during longer journeys. A waterproof liner might be useful for dogs with notoriously unreliable bladders, too.
Everyone has probably seen a dog with its head stuck out a car window and thought ‘oh, how cute’. Unfortunately, it’s not so much cute as dangerous. Windblown debris can easily get lodged in a pet’s eyes when travelling at speed, and they could even be hit by passing tree branches or other obstacles. It also isn’t healthy for a dog to have air rushing into its lungs at high speeds. If your dog is secured in a harness, make sure its head cannot be stuck out the car window.
Airbags are great for people but bad news for dogs.Seatbelt-attaching harnesses for pets aren’t very expensive, so buy a good one. Ideally the brand you choose should have been crash-tested at speeds of at least 35 kph. Get the sturdiest-looking harness you can find to give your pet maximum protection in the event of a crash.
You should be able to pick up a reliable harness for $20-$60. The harness attaches around the dog’s neck and shoulders and behind the front legs, and can be made out of any combination of leather, fabric or nylon. Ensure the one you buy is a good fit for your dog.
Is your dog ready for a road trip?
Dogs love holidays just as much as people, but before you take your pet on a car vacation, here are a few things to consider. The first is identification. Your dog should have an ID tag on its collar with your contact details, so if it’s lost it can be returned to you as quickly as possible.
Microchipping your dog is an excellent idea, even in parts of Australia where it isn’t mandatory. At the moment, microchipping for both dogs and cats is compulsory in NSW, VIC, QLD, ACT and WA. In Tasmania, microchipping for dogs only is mandatory. If your pet should become lost, you’ll have a much better chance of being reunited with it if it has been microchipped.
A pet microchip is no bigger than a grain of rice and is implanted just beneath the animal’s skin at the back of the neck as a permanent form of identification. Your pet’s microchip number is unique and detectable with a microchip scanner, and connected to a database registry that keeps owner and pet details on file.
That way, if your pet is lost, animal shelters, veterinarians and local councils can scan your pet and get in touch with you quickly. You can find out more information on pet microchipping from your local RSPCA branch. Your mobile phone number (as well as home landline) should be included on your contact details so you’re reachable while travelling.
Make sure your dog is healthy and ready to roll before a big car trip. Have an adequate supply of any medications your pet might need to last the duration of the holiday, and ensure your pet is up to date with flea and/or worming treatments. If you’re introducing a new harness or pet carrier for the big journey, get your dog used to it with several smaller trips beforehand. You want your dog to be as relaxed and comfortable as possible.
Are we there yet?
If your pet is a ‘frequent traveller’ in your vehicle, you may decide it’s worth investing in rubber floor mats and/or waterproof covers for the back seats. Just like small children, dogs can ‘have little accidents’ and get carsick too.
There are a few sensible rules to follow when travelling with your dog in the car. If your pet is a ‘frequent traveller’ in your vehicle, you may decide it’s worth investing in rubber floor mats and/or waterproof covers for the back seats. Just like small children, dogs can ‘have little accidents’ and get carsick too.
Don’t wait until just before you leave home to feed them. Make sure dogs are fed two to four hours before they get in the car. Pack whatever you feel is necessary to ensure a safe and comfortably journey. This might include:
- Your dog’s favourite toys (Frisbee, chew toy, etc.)
- Food bowl and water bowl, plus all your pet’s normal foods and treats
- Ample fresh drinking water for your pet (sometimes it can be hard to find a tap on the way)
- A big towel and basic grooming tools – just in case your pooch gets wet
- Small plastic bags and a scooper to clean up your pet’s droppings
- Your pet’s collar (with tags), leashes and harnesses
- Any necessary pet medications
- If your dog eats tinned food, don’t forget the tin opener
- A pet first aid kit
Dogs are usually pretty exuberant and curious when you stop at a new place, so always use a lead when you let them out of the car into new surroundings. Dogs are particularly vulnerable to snakebite in bushy areas, so be alert for any barking that might indicate a snake encounter and try to get the dog away from the vicinity quickly.
First aid for snakebite is pretty similar for both dogs and people: either hand pressure or a pressure bandage wrapped lightly but firmly around the affected limb, immobilisation and medical attention as soon as possible.
Plenty of toilet breaks and lots of exercise make for a happy pet. And don’t be tempted to leave your dog alone in the car for any length of time. People often forget that a dog’s heavy coat makes it far more susceptible to heat stress than a person.
Even if you leave the window partially open for air and don’t think it’s all that hot, your pet can really suffer from the heat in an enclosed space like a vehicle. Temperatures can rise quickly even on a cloudy day and humidity can also be a big factor in your pet’s comfort level.
If your dog is friendly to strangers and you’ve left the windows open enough for a pet thief to get his or her hand (or a tool) in the car and open the vehicle, you may come back to find your pet has been stolen. You can’t protect your pet from people who might harass or scare it if it’s stuck in the car and you’re somewhere else.
Finding pet-friendly accommodation
If you’ve done your online research and planned your holiday road trip thoroughly, you’ll already know which places along the way welcome pets. A couple of very useful websites for comprehensive information on pet-friendly accommodation in Australia are ‘Holidaying with Dogs’ and ‘Pet Friendly Travel’. They provide listings of accommodation (B & Bs, caravan parks, hotels, holiday houses and resorts) that cater for both you and your travelling pet.
These types of accommodations are increasingly common and now number in the thousands, which makes it much easier to bring your pet when you go away on holiday. Each will have its own set of basic rules to follow, of course.
Keep in mind that some of these venues are quite popular and can get booked out very quickly during busier times of the year. Don’t leave it until the last minute to book – plan well ahead of time to avoid disappointment. There was a time not that many years ago that it was hard to find pet-friendly places to stay around Australia.
This is rapidly changing, however, and people are finding they no longer have to leave their pets behind in the care of a friend while they go on holiday. Some places allow the pet to come into the room with you, while others feature special dog accommodations.
Generally speaking, cats tend to be less enthusiastic about car trips than dogs. They don’t get the same thrill about the prospect of exploring a new park or running around chasing a ball at rest stops like dogs do!
Cats require a sturdy carrier to hold them for the duration of the journey. Having a cat loose in your car will not end well – they can get skittish and panic, running all over the vehicle and causing a major distraction to safe driving. Don’t opt for a cheap plastic carrier or cardboard box to house your cat – invest in something robust and easy to clean. Cats require a sturdy carrier to hold them for the duration of the journey.
Having a cat loose in your car will not end well – they can get skittish and panic, running all over the vehicle and causing a major distraction to safe driving. That ‘easy to clean’ part is important – cats (especially ones not used to car travel) can be prone to getting sick, urinating or defecating in their carriers during journeys, so as the saying goes, “hope for the best, plan for the worst.”
Cat carriers come in many materials: heavy-duty plastic, fibreglass, plastic-coated mesh and even wicker. The hotter the weather where you live, the more flow-through air ventilation you’re going to want when choosing the right cat carrier.
If the carrier is large enough, you may have room to include a litter tray (though cats seem far less inclined to using litter boxes in a moving vehicle than they do in the home). Another option is to simply line the bottom of the carrier with absorbent cloth and newspaper to prepare for any accidents – and have some spares at the ready as a replacement.
Check on your cat regularly and make sure it’s getting enough air flow. Just because you’ve got the fan blowing in your face in the driver’s seat doesn’t mean the cat is as cool and comfy in the back. If it vocally expresses its disgust with its confinement, talk to it calmly. It may not be happy to be stuck in a box, but if the ventilation situation is okay it probably isn’t suffering too much. Eventually, as it gets used to the motion of the vehicle, it may settle down and nod off to sleep.
If you have to leave your cat in the vehicle while you have a quick break, park in the shade and leave the windows open for plenty of fresh air. In really hot weather it’s a good idea to bring your own picnic supplies along and stop at a park to eat, so you can pull the carrier out of the car and plonk it in a nice shady spot nearby where the confined cat can get some breeze.
For the birds
Birds aren’t usually a problem in the car, provided they’re either in their normal cage (if it’s small enough to fit) or in a special carrier made specifically for travel. Pet stores and veterinarians can recommend a good bird carrier that’s a convenient size and will provide comfort and security for your feathered friend, complete with stable containers for food and water.
If you do use the bird’s regular cage for car transport, you might want to remove any swings or toys within the cage that could move around and injure the bird during a rough trip.
Don’t use a small cardboard carton with holes cut in it to transport birds by vehicle. Many birds love nothing more than using their beaks to rip holes in a flimsy cardboard box. If the bird escapes and starts flitting around the vehicle you could end up in a serious accident. Don’t use a small cardboard carton with holes cut in it to transport birds by vehicle.
Many birds love nothing more than using their beaks to rip holes in a flimsy cardboard box. If the bird escapes and starts flitting around the vehicle you could end up in a serious accident. Instead, use a sturdy, made-for-the-purpose bird carrier that can be securely fastened to the seat so it doesn’t shift around. Birds are lower-maintenance travellers than dogs or cats, provided you keep the temperature and air flow under control.