Data, safety regulations lacking when it comes to pets and vehicles

Critical care clinician advises properly securing pets

Car accidents remain a major cause of human death and injury in the United States. In fact, the top three leading causes of preventable injury-related death–poisoning, motor vehicle, and falls–account for over 86% of all preventable deaths, according to the National Safety Council.

Dog in car
Dr. Elisa Mazzaferro, a staff criticalist at Cornell University Veterinary Specialists, recommends securing pets in a crate in the back of the car to keep them safe and limit distractions to the driver.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 42,939 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2022. And the estimated number of people injured on U.S. roadways increased in 2021 to 2.50 million, from 2.28 million in 2020, an increase of 9.4%. The estimated number of police-reported traffic crashes increased from 5.25 million in 2020 to 6.10 million in 2021, according to the NHTSA, a 16% increase.

What these data fail to capture is the number of pets injured or killed in car accidents every year. Neither the NHTSA nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—from which the NSC gathered its data—collect or report this information. Yet, 45% of U.S. households own dogs and 26% of households own cats out of a total U.S. population of 128 million pet-owning households in 2020, according to the 2022 AVMA Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook.

No rules, just recommendations

Owners often drive with their pets, yet when it comes to restraining pets in cars, "There's recommendations but there are no rules," says Dr. Elisa Mazzaferro, immediate past president of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (VECCS). She has been an emergency and critical care clinician since 1998.

In 2020, 3,142 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes resulting from distracted drivers, according to the NHTSA. An unrestrained animal loose in a car can be as distracting as talking on your cell phone, but there are no laws to prevent it, Dr. Mazzaferro said.

Just like human passengers, pets are at risk of death by collision or when an airbag deploys. In addition to providing safety in the event of an accident, restraining the pet in the back seat helps keep the driver from becoming distracted.

A 2010 American Automobile Association (AAA) survey found that more than 80% of drivers admit that they recognize the dangers of driving with an unrestrained pet, but only 16% use pet restraints.

Many products such as kennels, carriers, harnesses, and seatbelts are available to help restrain pets in cars, but unlike restraints for humans, there are no standards or industry tests for them.

The Center for Pet Safety is the only nonprofit organization with testing and performance requirements for these products, and test results are available online.

Dr. Mazzaferro said the safest methods of traveling with pets are using safety harnesses that can be incorporated into a safety belt as well as crates that can also be affixed to a safety belt in a sedan or put in the far back of an SUV.

Typical injuries from car accidents

As a staff criticalist at Cornell University Veterinary Specialists in Stamford, Connecticut, she's used to treating pets who become sick or injured during travel.

Dr. Mazzaferro
Dr. Mazzaferro suggests training a pet when they're young so they will be comfortable in a car when the opportunity arises. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Mazzaferro)

While it's common to see pets with their heads sticking out the car window, Dr. Mazzaferro advised against it. Debris and the force of the air blowing can cause abrasions on the animal's eyes.

According to the pet advocacy group BarkBuckleUp, a 60-pound dog in a car traveling 35 mph can turn into a 2,700-pound projectile in an accident.

"Typical injuries sustained when an animal is in a moving vehicle that has an accident can range from minor abrasions to fractured limbs and broken spine or internal bleeding," Dr. Mazzaferro said. "Many of the injuries are sustained at the time of impact when an animal is thrown in the vehicle or from the vehicle if not appropriately restrained."

A pet thrown from a car may run away, cause an accident, or be get hit by another vehicle.

Some injuries won't become apparent until days after the accident, Dr. Mazzaferro explained, so even if the animal seems uninjured, it does require initial veterinary care to rule out internal injuries.

Know before you go

The AVMA policy, "Safe transport of pets in motor vehicles," notes that transporting pets, loose or tethered, in open cargo areas of vehicles is not safe.

"Properly secured, size-appropriate kennels that are appropriately ventilated and allow climatic conditions suitable for the pet's species, breed and conditioning to be maintained are the preferred means of transport of pets when in open cargo areas of motor vehicles," the policy states.

If owners allow their pets to roam freely, and sit in their lap in the car, they're not only taking a risk for themselves and their pets but also distracting other drivers on the road.

Before a pet's first car ride, the owner should get the pet accustomed to proper car etiquette for safety, said Dr. Mazzaferro. She suggested training a pet when they're young so they will be comfortable in a car when the opportunity arises.

When prepping for a long trip, Dr. Mazzaferro helps her clients identify emergency clinics along the way and at their destination. She also recommends the owner travels with a copy of their pet's medical records and prescriptions if they have any chronic problems.

Dr. Mazzaferro also stresses to pet owners that they should never leave their pets unattended in the car because the temperature inside the vehicle can heat up quickly and be extremely dangerous.

A version of this story appears in the November 2023 print issue of JAVMA

First responders and pets

The majority of first responders don't have comprehensive training in how to handle animals, said Dr. Elisa Mazzaferro, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, even though they may likely encounter them at the scene of an accident.

Helping an injured pet can be daunting because the animal may be in pain and aggressive.

"It is important to remember that even the most friendly, well-trained animal can potentially bite when afraid or when injured," Dr. Mazzaferro said. "Humans should approach the animal with caution and put a blanket or towel gently over the animal's face and head to help prevent bite injury."

Each year at the International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Symposium (IVECCS), there is an on-site first-aid class for first responders. Firefighters, K-9 officers, and others attend a day-long presentation with emergency veterinarians and criticalists as part of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society's (VECCS) mission to promote emergency care for pets.

In addition, the VECCS and American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care (ACVECC) have the Reassessment Campaign on Veterinary Resuscitation (RECOVER) initiative, dedicated to developing veterinary CPR guidelines and providing standardized CPR training to veterinary professionals, first responders, and pet owners.

Some veterinary hospitals will also train first responders, including how to manage bleeding or unconscious animals until they can be taken to the nearest veterinarian for assessment.

Visit the AVMA website for more information about pet safety in vehicles and welfare implications dogs traveling in truck beds.