The only thing better than taking a road trip is taking one with your dog. Whether you’re seeing the country, visiting friends or family, or driving just for the sake of it, here’s how to make sure you and your four-legged pal have a safe and fun time on the road.
Before the trip, fill any prescriptions your dog might have, including flea meds. Make sure their shots are up-to-date and that they meet the requirements of any state you’re traveling through. And while you’re at the vet, get a copy of your dog’s vaccination records to bring along. A copy of your dog license and a photo of the two of you together can also help establish ownership if you lose each other.
You should already have a human emergency kit in your car, but make sure you have pet-specific first aid as well, including gauze, non-stick bandages and dog-friendly painkillers.
“You can’t give a dog standard pain meds such as Advil or Aleve. They can be deadly,” write David Blank and Claudia Fábrega of Happy Tails Tours.
When you pack the car, make sure the harness and leash, poop bags, a collapsible bowl, and food and water are all within easy reach, and that you have enough to last the trip—even if you face unexpected delays. Extra food and water, toys, a flea comb, a brush, a dog blanket, treats and anything else you think you might need should be easy to reach without digging through everything in the trunk.
Keeping your dog safe and secure is the most important part of taking a road trip together.
“That means they need to be buckled up in a seatbelt harness or secured carrier, be microchipped (and your contact information with the registering company needs to be up to date), have current ID tags with a cell phone number, and should probably stay on leash unless they have stellar recall,” says Amy Burkert of pet travel site GoPetFriendly.com.
Burkert also recommends attaching the leash while your dog is still in their seatbelt or carrier, before you open the car doors, and only detaching it when they’re safely back inside and secure. Also, be sure to turn off the power windows and turn on the child locks.
Not sure about a harness or carrier? You wouldn't forget your own seatbelt, so don't forget your dog's.
"Small dogs are usually safest and most comfortable if they remain in a crate,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinarian and Pet Life Today advisor.
Secure the crate by strapping it to the seat or wedging it into a footwell, and leave enough clear space around it for airflow. If you have a larger dog, a smaller car, or just really don't want to travel with a crate, use a dog seatbelt and car harness.
"Crates and seat belts helps keep dogs safe in case of an accident and prevent them from escaping the car or interfering with the driver," Coates says.
If you’ve never taken your dog on a road trip before or if your dog gets anxious about the car, start by getting them used to shorter drives or even to hanging out in a parked vehicle. Meals or high-reward treats in the car can help them form positive associations, Burkert says. Just make sure to reward them when they’re calm, and not when they’re panting, yawning, lip-licking, or showing other signs of anxiety.
Exhausting your dog before and during the trip can keep them relaxed and well-behaved.
"On the day of the trip, make sure the dog has a good walk before you take off, and plan to make frequent stops for additional exercise along the way,” says Burkert.
Keeping them busy on the drive can also go a long way toward easing your dog’s tension.
"Giving the dog something to work on can be helpful—like a bully stick or a stuffed toy that's been frozen,” Burkert says.
If your dog is still anxious or gets carsick, a Thundershirt can help—as can prescribed pet medications or even over-the-counter Benadryl. Your vet can tell you what medication might work for your dog, and in what dosage, Burkert says.
Planning to have rest stops every two to three hours is key to a smooth drive with a pet.
“Frequent pit stops are the best way to keep dogs happy and calm during a road trip,” Coates says. “Plan out your route in advance so that every few hours you will be able to take your dog out for a walk to burn off some energy, get a drink of water, and take care of business.”
Deciding on your route in advance also gives you a chance to research dog-friendly hotels, campsites, or AirBnBs along the way—not to mention emergency vets, just in case. You might be able to find dog parks for off-leash playing, and dog daycare or boarding for longer stops or for when you reach your destination.
Make traveling with your dog more about the adventure than about getting there quickly. Coates even suggests using your dog as an excuse to take a lot of breaks and explore areas along your route that you wouldn’t see otherwise.
“Don’t expect to make record time on your road trip if you have your dog with you,” Coates says.