You don't need to break out in a cold sweat at the thought of taking your dog or cat for a drive across town or across the country. Your pet can travel in style and safety with a little pre-trip preparation and the right equipment.
"You'll want to start out with short trips, even a few times around the block, before leading up to longer journeys," says pet-care guru Steven May, a 35-year veteran in the animal-care field whose daily pet advice Facebook page, "The Daily Growl," has thousands of "friends."
Ideally, the best time to train a dog to ride in a car is during puppyhood, he says, but if you don't have that option, choose a collapsible "briefcase" crate. "If the crate offers a lot of visibility, place a blanket over it with just enough room for the dog to see out the front. This cuts down on motion sickness and helps keep the dog calm." A blanket on the bottom of the crate will provide traction and comfort.
"For the more experienced traveler, pet 'seat belts' work well and can be purchased at most any pet store. These will allow the dog a little more mobility in the back seat but still keep them safe," May explains. But he warns that "under no circumstances, no matter how well-behaved the dog is, should it be allowed to roam free in the car." Besides distracting the driver, little dogs have been known to get stuck under the pedals, and a sudden stop could catapult a dog into the windshield, he says.
"And while we all know how much dogs love putting their heads out the window, I recommend against it," May adds. "If the window is open enough, a dog may bolt out into the street, and there's always the possibility for eye irritants from dust or rocks kicked up from the road."
Pet carriers come in a variety of materials and styles, from wire mesh to hard plastic to those with soft sides, says Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Whatever you choose, make sure it's large enough for your pet to stand, sit, lie down and turn around in. If you're using a harness, it's important to make sure that it is specifically made for travel and can withstand the forces of a car accident," Zawistowski says.
He also recommends:
--Creating a pet travel kit that includes travel papers, food, bowl, leash, a waste scoop, plastic bags, grooming supplies, medication and a pet first-aid kit.
--Including a favorite toy or pillow to give your pet a sense of familiarity.
--Making sure your pet wears a collar with ID tags at all times.
--Avoiding feeding or giving your dog water at least an hour before the trip to cut down on motion sickness.
Cats pose a different set of transportation issues, says nationally known cat behavior expert Jackson Galaxy, host of Animal Planet's "My Cat from Hell." Galaxy, who also trains shelter workers, volunteers and veterinary students in feline psychology, says smaller "Sherpa-type" bags provide more comfort for cats. "Too much space in a carrier often makes cats feel less secure. If you're planning on taking a long trip, make sure the carrier has enough room for a water bowl/dish, as well as a litter pan."
Like dogs, cats need to become acclimated to their carrier and to traveling. "Start with short trips first, even if it's just putting them in the carrier and driving them around the block," says Galaxy. "Have them associate the carrier with good things. Feed treats in the carrier, even take the door and the top off and create a bed environment inside."
He also recommends leaving the carrier out near your feline for a couple of weeks so the cat can see it, smell it and get used to it. That way, the cat won't link it with an unpleasant experience. "Put it this way: If you knew that every time the carrier came out, it meant you were going to the vet, would you want to get in it?" says Galaxy.