As Mitt Romney discovered during the last presidential election, bringing the family pet on a holiday car trip should not be taken lightly. In 1983, Romney took his pooch Seamus for a 10-hour trip in a specially constructed roof carrier atop his Chevy Caprice station wagon. The open-air trip to the Romney summer home in Ontario left Seamus unaffected.
But animal rights groups were not as gentle on Romney in 2012 for a practice that was relatively commonplace 30 years earlier. In the era when Romney made his version of Mr. Deeds Takes A Holiday, families travelling with their pets fit them in, behind and on top of their vehicles. Dogs sitting in the bed of a pickup or hanging their slobbering tongues out windows were commonplace. Our own family dog, Danny the Dalmatian, rode unharnessed in the back seat of our family station wagon (in a seat that faced backward).
As Romney discovered, a casual approach to securing your pet in transit is no longer going to pass the kibble test. Legions of animal lovers are watching – and reporting your every move. Bringing the family pet on the road removes the need for kennels or begging friends to babysit your beast. But it comes with other costs.
While you're unlikely to be trapped like Stephen King inside your vehicle by an enraged 200-pound St. Bernard named Cujo, you'd better get a harness or crate that pleases your pet. A proper restraining device for Baxter or Fluffy is a product of trial and error. "Don't slap one on him/her and expect they will be happy," says Dr. Amanda Glew of the Timberlea Veterinary Clinic in Kirkland, Que. "A dog can panic with a restraint device on and hurt itself. Try for the first time when they are young, if possible. If your dog has been used to roaming free in the vehicle and all of the sudden is tied down, gradual introduction might be called for."
Because pets come in sizes ranging from teacup varieties to mastiffs tipping the scale at more than 90 kilograms, there is no one-size-fits-all device to make them comfortable. But they should offer restraint in the case of collision. For this reason, barriers that keep pets away from the driver's seat but do not restrain the animal in a crash are not recommended.
After choosing a restraining device, getting your best Chevy Chase road trip going is as simple as putting the key in the ignition and heading off on the open road. Well, not exactly. Pets will likely sleep part of the trip, but when they wake up, it's play time or lunch. A favourite toy can pass some time in the cramped quarters of the car or van. But then Rover gets ravenous. If you're using a dog-feeding device without a steady base, giving your pet water or food while the car is in motion can be messy. (Or if you're feeding and driving, an invitation to a distracted driving fine.)
Ice cubes are the best way to hydrate your pet and save the upholstery, says Glew. Reliable liquid dispensers can be improvised from kitchen ware or purchased at pet shops or online. My favourite is a collapsible plastic bowl that can be expanded, filled with water and then folded up when Spot is sated. Bring food in containers that don't require can openers or refrigeration.
While you're at it, get an absorbent towel or blanket to put underneath the seat in case there's food spillage, a drool epidemic or car sickness. I'm still trying to get filthy paw prints out of my seats after a muddy pee break. Wet wipes are recommended for messes, as are chew toys or rawhides to pass the time.
Finally, before an extended trip, plan your pit stops and where you'll stay overnight. Rest areas are good to stretch the legs of dog and owner. But come nightfall, you can't leave your dog in the car. Finding a hotel or motel that accepts dogs without a punitive fee is challenging. Some chains simply refuse dogs (big dogs are especially discouraged) or charge a cleaning fee of $150 a night. Checking out likely hotels on a website before you set out is recommended.
Your best bet on a U.S. trip is the La Quinta chain, which allows dogs to stay for free or a minimal fee. La Quinta hotels are a great resource as fellow travellers with dogs meet to exchange information and solace about dogging it on the Interstate system.
Finally, don't forget that your pet might be at its most vulnerable when you're out of the car taking videos of the World's Largest Ball of Twine. "It will always be hotter in a sealed car than you think," says Glew. "And in winter, it can be much colder than you think. Please be careful leaving a dog in car any time of year."
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