Car Talk is pleased to present two actual experts, who know what they're talking about...for a change. Dr. Sip Siperstein and trainer Melissa McCue-McGrath will take your questions on all things animal and automotive. Got a question for them? Great! Share it with Sip and Melissa. Looking for other answers? Check Car Talk's FIDO Zone.
Dear Car Talk Pet Gurus:
I have a friend who won't allow his dog into the car without using a special doggie seat belt that looks like something a contortionist designed. But he insists on it. Now, in my day, dogs would hang out in the back of a truck, taking in all the smells.... or stick their schnozzes out the window, inhaling the passing world. It all looks pretty good to me, and I hate to take away that same pleasure from my dog.
What are the risks? Am I being a moron?
-Al, Harrison, Maine
Dr. Sip: Sorry, Al, but we have to give the point to your pal, despite the pleasures your canine companion might be experiencing as you drive around.
Let me explain why by first sharing a little thing I have to say about dog restraint while driving. It was about 1994 and I was driving my Toyota Corolla wagon with my dogs, Zuzu and Lucky, in the back. Normally I had my dog divider gate up, but the back seats were down to move something large the previous day and I hadn’t put the gate back up. Not smart. The next thing I knew, the driver in front of me hit his brakes. I then hit my brakes, and...55 pounds of Zuzu hit the back of my head and landed in my lap. My glasses flew off. Zuzu and I were both dazed and confused. That’s when I discovered the dread condition I have dubbed PCS, or “Projectile Canine Syndrome.” Zuzu had it bad, and I would never drive without a well-secured dog again.
Dr. Sip: And OUCH, too. It could have been a lot worse. And it's not just dogs that we're talking about here. Cats are just as succeptible to PFS (you can figure it out)--and are perhaps even more likely to be a distraction to the driver while the car is in motion, making an accident that much more likely.
Melissa: Right! I had a near-miss with my own cat, Rohan. I was bringing her to the animal hospital to get checked out for blood in her urine. Now, I’m not a vet - that’s Sip's job - but blood in pee isn’t great.
Dr. Sip: I AM a vet, and blood in pee isn’t great.
Melissa: Rohan had already escaped out of her crate in previous trips to the vet, so I put her in the dog crate for this trip. After the appointment, I drove home on I-93 going a smidge over the recommended speed limit. I just wanted to get this miserable cat home, mainly so she would stop peeing in the car. I was halfway home when I saw a black blur jump onto the dashboard. The cat proceeded to strut across it and lay down in a sunbeam just over my steering column. Cats have a homing beacon for sunlight and danger. I tried to guide the car across four lanes of fast-moving traffic so I could wrangle this cat back into the crate. I had to do all of this as big-rigs were passing me at 65 mph, shaking my Jeep Compass, which was not calming this cat down, at all.
Dr. Sip: In my professional experience, pets rarely find near-death experiences to be calming.
Dr. Sip: But back to your question, Al. We’ve all seen those cute little dogs sitting on their owners’ laps in the front seat, face out the window, and I know Melissa and I are both thinking the same thing...
Melissa: “I’m glad that’s not a Mastiff. I’m almost out of washer fluid and drool on a windshield is the worst!”
Dr. Sip: Exactly! But even though they are really cute, they are totally unprotected from an accident or a sudden stop.
Melissa: I know! A fuzzy little muppet head out the window is really cute, but honestly, I cringe every time I see that. PLEASE don’t drive with your pets in the front seat with their heads out of the window. First, debris from the road can ping up and cause injuries to a dog’s face, eyes, ears, and nose. Additionally, the term “puppy pancake” is not something anyone wants to hear, but is something that can happen if your dog is unrestrained in a car accident. Flying through the windshield is bad enough, but the likelihood that a dog will be killed by the airbag deploying is much higher.
Dr. Sip: Puppy Pancake, Flat Fido, Squished Schnauzer. All bad. So yes, it’s important to keep your pet restrained. The good news, as mentioned above, is there are plenty of options to help restrain your dog safely!
Melissa: Wait... I thought you said Lucky was in the car too -- what happened to her?
Dr. Sip: Lucky was planted right where she’d been just before I hit the brakes. This condition, preliminarily termed “Canine Velcro Foot Phenomenon” is very rare and will require more study.
Al, we hope that answers your question. The problem, of course, is not the routine, accident-free afternoon of running errands. It's that moment when an accident happens--and, statistically, it will, at some point in your life. I've seen first-hand the tragedy of a permanently injured pet who was unrestrained. It's heart-crushing. And it's entirely avoidable.
Melissa: We need to start changing the culture on this issue for pet owners. You're right, Al-- it is something new. But, in time, we hope it will become the norm. It will save thousands of lives every year, protect human companions in the process, and result in a lot less work for my friend, Sip.
Dr. Sip: And that's one surgery bill I'd be delighted not to send.
Read Melissa and Dr. Sip's specific recommendations for safe travel with cats and dogs. These are general guidelines for safety as it relates to health and training. If you need extra help, please consult with your veterinarian or a reputably certified pet professional so your pet can get hands-on assistance for its particular needs.
Dr. Siperstein is a staff veterinarian at Berkeley Dog and Cat Hospital in Berkeley, California. Dr. Sip sees dogs, cats and exotic pets. She believes hedgehogs should have the right to drive because they should be treated as E-Quills.
Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA is a certified dog trainer. She is the co-Training Director of New England Dog Training Club in Our Fair City, Cambridge, Massachusetts.