March 3, 2009 written by: Jil McIntosh in Canadian Driver
Oshawa, Ontario – We’ve all seen them: dogs happily sitting on a front passenger’s lap, wandering back and forth in the back seat, or with their heads hanging out the window. But just as we’ve learned the importance of securing children into a car, it’s time to start buckling up our pets.
Sitting up front, a dog can risk fatal injury from an airbag, even in a minor collision. In the rear, it could be thrown with enough force to seriously injure human passengers. And if the collision is severe enough to require first responders, an unsecured pet could attack the firefighter or paramedic who’s trying to save you, or run into traffic once a door is opened.
“We suggest avoiding the front seat, because of the airbags and the distraction, as we tend to reach over and pay attention to them,” said Christina Selter of Bark Buckle UP, a pet safety advocacy group based in San Diego, California.
“It’s safer to be in the back seat, or further back in an SUV or station wagon, with a travel harness that works with tethers or the human safety belt. They can sit down or move around, but they can’t fall off the seat, and they can’t get out of the vehicle. For cats and smaller dogs, they should be in a carrier that’s secured with tie-downs, because if you just sit that on the seat, it’ll fly through the car.”
Selter cites a chilling statistic: in a collision of just 56 km/h (35 mph), an unsecured dog that weighs 27 kg (60 lbs) will launch with a force of 1,224 kg (2,700 lbs). “If it hits you in the back of the neck, it would break your neck, or be launched through the windshield,” she said.
If a front airbag deploys when you have a pet on your lap, the airbag will almost certainly kill the animal. Not only that, but Selter said that the force of the bag – which deploys at around 321 km/h (200 mph) – will push the pet into your abdomen, possibly causing human internal injuries. And pet injuries don’t necessarily have to be from a collision. Just slamming on the brakes can tumble an animal off the seat, which could result in broken limbs or lacerations. A pet that gets behind the pedals can prevent you from fully applying the brakes, even as it suffers injuries from being jammed between the pedal and the floor. And it’s not unusual for a dog to be so interested in something outside the car that he jumps out through an open window.
Should your pet survive a collision, it’s not going to be inexpensive to deal with any injuries. Dr. Steve Snider, of Callbeck Animal Hospital in Oshawa, Ontario, estimates that it could easily be $1,500 to $2,000 for your vet to treat a serious fracture. “That’s a lot of money for something that’s easily prevented,” he said. “Vets see all different types of trauma – spinal fractures, broken bones, contusions of various organs like the liver, and abdominal injuries. Whatever they hit could cause crushing trauma, lacerations and fractures.”
An unrestrained pet could also make it difficult for you to obtain first aid, if the collision is serious enough. “An animal can be very protective of its owner, and may want to bite a first responder,” said Stephan Powell, District Chief of Toronto Fire Services. “In the rare instance where an animal won’t let someone in, we’d have to wait for police or animal services. It definitely makes everything more difficult. An accident scene is never pleasant, and it’s another complication in an already complicated process.”
Powell said that it’s very common for pets to dart out of a vehicle when the door is opened, and first responders may not even be aware there’s an animal in the car, especially if it’s cowering under the seat. Should the dog or cat run into traffic, it risks being hit by a car, or drivers swerving to avoid it and possibly causing another collision. And even if someone can grab the dog’s collar, the pet is still an issue. “Someone has to hold onto this animal, and it will use one more of our personnel that could be helping you or someone else in the accident,” Powell said. “If we have to tie up one person just to hold an animal, that means one person who isn’t disconnecting the battery, or not applying first aid to one of your passengers, or it may mean we’re requiring (someone else) to come out and help. We may be able to rely on a police officer or EMS, but now that’s removing them from what they’re doing.” If the dog is safely tethered in the car, Powell said, it isn’t necessary to assign someone to hold it.
Most pet stores sell several varieties of tethers. A trip to PetSmart revealed travel harnesses from $30 to $40, carrier tethers for $30, and seat leashes from $20 to $23. All of them secure the animal to the human safety belt. Snider warned that seat leashes must never be attached to a collar, which could cause choking. They must be used only with a harness, and it shouldn’t be a light-duty model that’s meant for walking the dog. “I would use the harnesses made for that purpose,” he said. “They have the correct, really wide straps that even out the pressure in case of an accident, to avoid internal injuries.”
Many people use pet barriers, but Selter doesn’t recommend a barrier that isn’t specifically made for the vehicle. These model-specific barriers are usually available at dealerships. While she said that Bark Buckle UP hasn’t tested every “one-size-fits-all” on the market, the group has examined many of them and has yet to find one that holds properly. “You can push on most barriers and pop them out with just the strength of your hands,” she said. “Velcro or suction cups won’t hold a 60-pound dog.” Some aftermarket barriers require that you strap them to the assist handles over the rear doors, but Selter warns that these handles haven’t been tested to hold the force that would be exerted in a collision. And even if the dog is behind a barrier, tethering to a harness is still essential. “The barrier keeps him from flying through the car, but a firefighter may open that hatch in a collision,” she said. “They jump out and run, and that’s when they get hit by another car.”
The best advice, the experts say, is to always consider the worst-case scenario when preparing your pet for a car ride. If you absolutely must put your dog in the back of a pickup truck – not an ideal situation in any case – then make sure he’s tethered, and snugly enough that he can’t jump over the side and be dragged. If you put a pet carrier in the back of your SUV, secure it to the cargo tie-downs so it can’t be thrown around in a collision.
As the weather gets warmer, remember that pets can suffer hyperthermia quickly, and it isn’t enough to leave the windows down slightly. A study by McMaster University, funded by GM of Canada, found that within 20 minutes, the temperature of a previously air-conditioned small car on a 35C day (95F) exceeded 50C (122F) within 20 minutes, and soared to 65.5C (150F) within 40 minutes. Leaving the window slightly open did little to prevent the car reaching a dangerous temperature. Even an outside temperature of 20C can result in a vehicle becoming hot enough to injure or kill a pet. And if you do leave the windows open, Snider warned that a dog could bite if a well-meaning passerby reaches in to pet it. “A lot of dogs inside any confined area become extremely aggressive,” he said. “They have this territorial issue that comes over. People can reach in the window and get bitten. They may be totally sweet dogs outside the car, but they turn into Cujo because they’re stressed. And some dogs have separation anxiety. If a dog is left alone, some of them will tear the car apart. I’ve had clients where the dog’s chewed a hole in the seat.”
The experts concur: when it comes to cars, pets should be treated like children, properly secured and never left alone. If your pet must come with you, plan both for his safety, and for yours. And if it’s at all possible, the safest thing is to leave him at home.
For more information, visit Bark Buckle UP or http://www.canadiandriver.com/2009/03/03/feature-pet-safety-in-cars.htm?page=all
Jil McIntosh is a freelance writer, a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) and Assistant Editor for CanadianDriver.com