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How to Keep Your Pet Safe in the Car: All About Dog Seat Belts, Restraints and Harnesses

dog safety in cars

Many of us are guilty of driving a car with our dogs either in the front passenger seat or in our laps. If your dog has anxiety about car rides, it’s difficult to put your pet in the back seat where you can’t comfort him during your trip. And, if your pet loves being in the car, you can’t help but want his adorably excited face right next to you. While you may think the practice is no big deal, the truth is these are dangerous habits that put your life, your pet’s life, and potentially others at risk. Of course, your dog can continue to enjoy rides with you but safely with some form of restraint. Here’s how to keep your dog safe in the car.

Related: 15 Essential Tips for How to Travel With a Dog in a Car or RV

Unsafe Ways for Dogs to Ride In Cars

We get it, you want to take your dog everywhere you go. The way your dog travels with you could put your dog, you, and others in harm’s way. An unrestrained dog in the front seat is a big no-no. If the passenger-side airbag deploys, your dog could be seriously injured. Your pet sitting or standing on your lap while you drive can obstruct your view and distract you and other drivers on the road. Allowing your pet to roam freely or hang his head out the window also poses a danger.

Some newer models of cars will automatically turn off the passenger seat airbag if it senses that someone is occupying the seat and they are under a safe weight for the airbag to deploy. You might notice when you put a bag of groceries or a heavy handbag in the front seat, a light on your dashboard indicates that the passenger side airbag is turned off. This is a government requirement that started in 2003 (according to Car and Driver magazine) to protect children and smaller adults from severe air-bag-related injuries.

So, an unrestrained dog in a front seat with the airbag automatically disabled means if you are in an accident or suddenly slam on your brakes, your dog could be thrown into your dashboard or through the windshield.

Dog safety in cars or trucks should be a priority as it is for you and your human family members when they ride in a vehicle. We know that seat belts if worn correctly, save lives, so why not secure your dog? 

Are There Seat Belt Laws For Dogs? 

Although the traditional seat belt that we use won’t protect our furry companions the same way, several states have dogs-in-cars laws

  • Connecticut: No dog-restraint law, but you may be ticketed for distracted driving if your dog is on your lap. 
  • Maine: No dog-restraint law, but you may be ticketed for distracted driving; also, dogs are not allowed to be loose in pickup truck beds, convertibles or open portions of vehicles.
  • Massachusetts: No dog-restraint law, but you may be ticketed for distracted driving if your dog is in your lap. They also require dogs to be restrained in pickup truck beds, and they have a law that prohibits “inhumane” transportation of dogs, but they don’t define “inhumane.”
  • Minnesota: No dog-restraint law, but it’s a misdemeanor if you transport a dog loose in the back of a pickup truck.
  • New Hampshire: No dog-restraint law, but the state does require dogs to be secured when riding in the back of a pickup truck.
  • Rhode Island: Perhaps the strictest of state laws that we found, Rhode Island requires dogs to be transported in enclosed vehicles and restrained in a crate, harness or pet seat belt. 

Does my state require seat belts or restraints for dogs? See Orvis’s interactive map for state-by-state information.

While most laws don’t prohibit an unrestrained dog in an enclosed vehicle, they prohibit drivers from transporting animals in open cars (convertibles, for example) or the back of pickups. Distraction laws further cover drivers with dogs on their laps. So, before you hit the road with your dog next to you or at the wheel, check your state’s laws to avoid a fine or jail time.

How to Secure A Dog In A Car

How do I secure a dog in a car? What are my options? 

Crating your pet while in the car is an excellent choice. Make sure the crate is sturdy and big enough for your dog to stand, turn around, and lie down easily. Padding could help keep your pet comfortable and protected. A crate may reduce motion sickness in dogs. Placing the crate on the floor between the front and back seat is optimal (if the crate is small enough). If your dog is a large breed, place the crate in the open storage area. Strapping a crate down can prevent it from moving around.

Never put a dog in the trunk of a car, crated or not. There is not enough air in the trunk for your dog (or any living being) to breathe. 

Should dogs wear seat belts? 

If crating isn’t an option for you, yes your dog should wear a seat belt, but not the type you wear. You can use your car’s seatbelts to protect your pet, provided you use a harness designed for restraint that attaches to your seatbelt. Dog seat-belt harnesses must be heavy-duty and capable of keeping your pet secure during an impact. 

How to use a dog seat belt? 

You attach the seatbelt to the harness with a clip. To ensure the harness is snug but not too tight, you should be able to fit two of your fingers between your dog’s neck and the harness’s collar. 

Look for a doggie car seat to make your dog’s ride enjoyable and safe. Be sure that your dog’s car seat attaches to your car’s seat belts and has a harness or specific dog seat belt attached to your dog. If your car seat has leash clamps, never hook these up to your dog’s collar as this could cause strangulation in the event of an accident.

What if my dog hates being restrained? 

Although not as secure as a crate or seat belt, a car barrier allows your pet to be unrestrained but away from the front seat area. You can place a barrier in the back seat or in an open cargo area, depending on its style which is often metal, plastic, or mesh material.

Tips for Safe Travel With A Dog in The Car

In addition to securing your pet for your trip, you can make the ride a bit more comfortable and enjoyable with these few tips:

  • Check the temperature in the car area where your pet sits. Pets can overheat in cars with outside temps in the 70s, even with the windows cracked. So turn the air on during warmer travels.
  • Bring plenty of water and food. Use a portable dog bowl any time you’re going to be on the road.
  • Take breaks during long road trips so your pet can relieve himself and stretch/walk or run for a few.
  • Never drive with your pet in the bed of a pickup truck or leave them unattended in a car.

Happy and safe travels!