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Driving With Pets in the Car: What You Need to Know

Brown dog poking head out of orange car

In many ways, pets are the perfect car companions. They can’t criticise your driving, they don’t get a say in the music playlist and they (hopefully) won’t eat the last of the car sweets. All in all, with your trusty feline or canine companion in tow, you should be in for a pretty fun drive!

The thing is, though, travelling with pets in the car isn’t that straightforward. You need to make sure you follow the rules set out in the Highway Code to keep everyone safe and avoid being hit with penalties. It’s also important to acknowledge that even if you love having your pet in the car, it might not be that fun for them. Just because they love you doesn’t mean they love the open road!

We want to make sure you’re armed with all the tips and tools to make the journey enjoyable and safe for everyone involved. So, without further ado, let’s dive into everything you need to know about driving with pets in the car!

What the Highway Code says

As we’re a nation of animal lovers, it’s not really surprising that there’s a section of the Highway Code dedicated to travelling with pets. The specific rule we’re interested in for this topic is 57, which reads as follows:

“When in a vehicle make sure dogs or other animals are suitably restrained so they cannot distract you while you are driving or injure you, or themselves, if you stop quickly. A seat belt harness, pet carrier, dog cage or dog guard are ways of restraining animals in cars.”

The biggest issue, then, is making sure that your pet is nice and secure in the car. You can wave goodbye to any visions you had of your dog happily chasing its tail on the back seat as you hit 70mph on the motorway. And, for you and everyone else on the road, that’s a very good thing!

While it might seem a bit mean, you need to treat your animal like it’s a small child. This isn’t a time for fun and games—they need to be carefully restrained for the duration of the journey. Remember, you’re doing this with your beloved pet’s best interest at heart. If you’re unlucky enough be involved in some kind of car accident, your animal is much less likely to suffer injury if they are securely strapped into the vehicle.

Now that we’ve covered the official line, let’s turn to the everyday basics you can follow…

How to prepare

What kind of pet(s) are you taking in the car?

These days, ‘pets’ covers a wide range of weird and wonderful species. When it comes to driving, though, we’d stick to regular old cats and dogs—leave any snakes, llamas and budgies at home.

Even then, not all cats and dogs are suitable to take on car journeys. Each pet is different in terms of temperament and personality, so think about how your animal is likely to cope on a drive. You have to understand that, once in the car, they’re being exposed to a whole new world of smells, noises and motions. It can be a lot for your furry little friend to take! If your pet shows any sign of being anxious or sick, take things slow and decide whether it’s worth having them in the car at all.

Plan ahead

Dog on lead biting football
Image source: Luiza Sayfullina

Taking your pet with you in the car should never be a last minute choice (unless this is something you already do often). Before embarking on any significant road trip with your dog or cat, it’s worth having a few trial runs beforehand. A short drive here and there should give you a good idea of how well your pet is able to cope on the road. Plus, it gives them a chance to get used to the smell of your vehicle. This means it won’t seem too new and exciting (or intimidating, depending on their take) by the time you have a proper expedition planned.

On the morning of any long car journey, give your pet plenty of exercise (did someone say “walkies”?!) to wear them out. It will be easier for them to relax in the car as they’ll be tired and ready for a nap.

It’s also vital that you ensure your pet has had a solid meal around 2 hours before you plan to set off. Animals travel much better on an empty stomach. Make sure they’ve eaten well in advance so they have time to digest the food and, you know, do their business. You don’t want that happening on your backseat. If your journey is so long that it covers feeding time, pack them a light meal and have snacks and treats on hand.

What to bring

Checklist

On any drive you should ensure that your pet is fed, watered and comfortable—so bring whatever that requires!

Here are a few staples we recommend:

  • Lots of water and a spill-proof bowl
  • Treats and snacks
  • Blankets and toys (if you can get one of their favourites or something that smells familiar, even better!)
  • Waterproof seat covers
  • Pet first aid kit
  • Any medicine or supplements they need
  • Leads
  • Important documents and photographs of your pet (helpful if you’re on a long journey and they get lost)

In the car

Before travelling anywhere with your pet, make sure you set aside plenty of time to complete the journey. Trust us, even getting them into the car safely and soundly can be a bit of a battle the first couple of times!

Where they should sit

Old person driving car with dog on lap
How NOT to travel with your pet. Image source: Ramiro Pianarosa

Sadly, even if your dog calls shotgun, he won’t get to sit on the front passenger seat. Nope, this isn’t going to be a laid back affair—you should have some kind of seating plan in mind. You see, it’s really important that your animal does not distract you while you’re driving. We know, we know, they’re super cute to look at—but your eyes must be on the road! If checking on or interacting with your pet causes you to drive ‘without due care and attention’, you will be committing a driving offence. This could result in points on your licence and a hefty fine.

Secure your pets either in the boot or the backseat of your car. For cats and small dogs, animal welfare charities like the Dog’s Trust recommend housing your pet in a crate or cage fastened in the boot. Obviously you should provide them with blankets and pillows so that they will be comfortable for the duration of the journey.

Larger dogs can sit on the backseat, as long as you purchase a special harness that can be attached to the seat belt. Make sure it is the right fit for your pet and secured properly before you start the engine. Some people choose to put up special guards that turn the backseat into a pet pen. You should know, however, that in the event of a crash this only protects the driver and the passenger, not the pets.

Prefer driving with your pet on the seat beside you? The problem is, this puts them at great risk of injury should you be forced to make a sudden stop. If you really care about them, stick to the boot or backseat rule.

During the journey

Labrador sticking its head out of a car window
Letting dogs do this looks fun but it is actually a safety risk. Image source: Emerson Peters

On the face of it, dogs sticking their heads out of car windows is a joy to behold. Ears flapping, tongue lolling—they appear to be living their best life. Well, we’re about to rain all over that parade! Letting your dog do this is actually quite dangerous. Flying debris can get in their mouth and eyes and they risk being hit by unforeseen objects lining the road. Just think, you wouldn’t let your toddler do it, so why let your pet?

When taking a trip with your pets, you must also factor in plenty of exercise and toilet breaks. It’s simply not fair to keep them cooped up for long periods of time. Unlike human passengers, they can’t tell you what they need, so it’s up to you to keep an eye on the time and make regular pit stops. If at any point your animal appears to get distressed or is acting strangely, pull over at the next opportunity. Don’t try to work out what’s wrong while you’re still controlling the car.

And remember, if you nip out somewhere, take them with you! It’s never a good idea to leave your pets alone inside the car. A cracked window is not enough, people—particularly if it’s a hot day. Once you reach your final destination, let your pet out of the car to stretch their legs. Enjoy the fresh air and get on with your day!

Pets in the car

Taking your pets with you in the car can be a lot of fun. Particularly if you’re off on holiday, it means you have a great travel buddy and don’t have to fork out for a sitter! Just make sure you follow the rules and don’t let your pet distract you from being a good driver.

Whether you’re just nipping to the vets, or taking a full blown road trip, follow our tips so that everyone in the car is safe, secure and loving life on the road!


FAQs

cartoon open envelope on green background

1. What are the potential penalties of driving with an unrestrained pet in the car?

If you are charged with driving without due care and attention you face getting points on your licence and a fine of up to £1,000. And that’s not even the worst case scenario! Should your case be taken to court, the potential fines rocket up to £5,000 and you can earn 9 points on your licence. Repeat after us: Not. Worth. It.

2. What if I breakdown with my pet in the car?

First of all, dogs are GREAT listeners. Just kidding! They are, of course, but if you’re talking about a mechanical breakdown that requires you to pull onto the hard shoulder, the general rule is to leave pets in the car while you wait on the verge. If you feel that they are in danger or this isn’t possible, take them out on a lead. They must be under control at all times—you cannot risk your pet running into the road.

3. If I’m travelling with a passenger can’t they just restrain the dog with their seat belt?

No. Seat belts, dashboards and windscreens are not designed with animals in mind. Should the car make a sudden stop, your pet will be in real danger, especially if the airbags are triggered. Any animal that is not properly restrained in a car also poses a risk to everyone else. In the event of a crash, they will be flung with significant force from the vehicle, creating a serious hazard.

4. My pet is really small and does not like to be separated from me. Can it not just sit on my lap if I’m only going on a short drive? 

Again, no. You need to secure all pets in the car via a harness, crate or cage. It might feel like you’re being mean, but you’re actually protecting them and everyone else in the car. Accidents can happen even on small journeys. Meanwhile, if the police see you driving with an animal on your lap, they will probably pull you over.

5. Could the way I travel with my pet in the car have an impact on my pet insurance?

Yes! If an accident involving your pet is caused by your negligence (i.e., your pet was not restrained in the car) insurance companies may refuse to pay out on a claim.

By Isobel Robb

Isobel enjoys the freedom of the open road and loves driving to new places. She's here to offer helpful hints and tips to improve your motoring skills. When not keeping up to date with the latest driving info you can find her discovering new restaurants or exhausting her Netflix subscription.

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