Vet Talk

Crash Test Doggies

When tested, the vast majority of dog car restraints failed

December 2, 2013 (published)

Well, here’s a problem that I hadn’t really worried about...until now: pet car safety. While I understand that keeping pets safe and sound no matter where they are should be a priority, I have been guilty of just letting them hop up in the back of the car (behind the last row of seats) and then careening around the neighborhood in my little clown car with them bopping around like popcorn kernels in a popper. I play the Jonas Brothers really loud while I am doing it, too.

I never would do something egregiously, obliviously dangerous like put them in the back of an open pickup, but I thought a free dog bouncing around in the back seat was OK. Turns out, according to some, I was wrong.

Some days, I wonder if in the future we will just roll along in perfectly sterile and safe inflatable and impermeable giant bubbles filled with hand sanitizer. Singing the Jonas Brothers.

In any case, car safety for pets is now a thing and there’s no escaping it. While it hasn’t risen to the same level that human automotive safety has in recent years (I feel like the inside of my car is lined with explosive air bags just daring me to tap that bumper on the car ahead of me), it is gaining in popularity, which means it is rife for satire. Pet car safety is starting to take on the self-important, finger wagging if-you-don’t-do-this-you’re-a-bad-pet-owner stench that the raw diet crowd have perfected of late, so I thought I would lob some grenades at it.

In its present state, I think the pet-restraint industry is mostly about marketing and getting you, the pet owner, to feel guilty and buy some new stuff. While it has been said that the three most dangerous words in all of medicine are "in my experience," I have never seen a dog injured inside a car during a wreck in 17 years of ER work. Never. Nor has my wife, also an ER vet. In fact, she knows of a friend who was injured in his car when he got hit by a train, while his two unrestrained dogs emerged unscathed.

I don’t deny it happens; I am sure pets have been injured in car wrecks, but real-world conditions like parvo, dog fights, cancer and poisonings outnumber the risk of a dog being hurt inside a car by thousands to one. And no industry, other than veterinary medicine, has sprung up to make Kevlar vests for little dogs in dog parks.

I did an informal (and unscientific) survey of 12 ER veterinarians on VIN and the average number of cases seen by this group of doctors was 0.3 per year per vet. So each ER vet, who may see hundreds of hit by car, dog maul and parvo cases, sees on average less than one case per year of a dog injured inside a car. Granted, to that 0.3 of a dog who was in the wreck, if something could have been done to prevent their injuries (which were reported as minor in the majority of cases), that would be significant…but, read on, tiny reader, to find out why even that poor less-than-half-a-dog would probably still have been injured, even with a pet restraint.

So, some business guy looking to make a buck dreamed up the whole pet car safety angle and then got an ad guy to start aggressively marketing it to pet owners – "you need this," "buy this or your dog will die in a fiery wreck," etc. It’s like preventing an asteroid strike – dramatic and dangerous when it happens, but statistically improbable. It smacks of all the sparkly and useless trinkets that populate the pages of airline seatback catalogs – things you didn’t know you needed until someone with an agenda told you that you needed them, and you were less of a person without them. Good thing the barf bags are right there.

The other argument that is raised in favor of these pet car restraint systems is that they prevent the pets from becoming a missile during a wreck and injuring the human occupants. While this is an admirable goal, we’ll see in just a bit why that logic doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny.

When I started this piece, I was planning on a sober and objective analysis of the merits of pet restraint systems. I can see that it has morphed into a bit of a rant. I think I know why.

When these restraint systems were tested in a car safety lab, the vast majority failed, some catastrophically. Only one out of the 11 tested performed to specs and protected the pets. Those are impressively craptastic numbers. And I think that’s what has me madder than a wet hen – this newly minted industry, telling me that I need to restrain my dog in the car in the event of an accident (ok, ok – I’ll buy that) and then asking me to fork over upwards of $50-90 for peace of mind that doesn’t deliver when a little science is applied to it.

Obviously, I am not against pets being safe or pets being restrained in cars, as remote as the chances are that they will be injured. What I am against is someone dreaming up this answer in search of a problem and them supplying a subpar product to ‘fix’ the issue. It just seems so ersatz and incomplete. It preys on the same fears and insecurities that get little old ladies to fork over their life savings to Nigerian princes – it is (in its current state) a scam.

One product did perform admirably in tests (see the report).

So until things get better – what are we to do? With near universal agreement, the answer from my informal poll of ER veterinarians was to put cats in a carrier and dogs in a crate. They are less likely to crawl under the brake pedal, or hop into the driver’s lap and disturb them, and if there is a wreck they are less likely to fly through the air and get ejected from the car – that’s the real killer, here.

There are some benefits to them, just not the advertised ones. I can see how a restraint, even if it might fail in a crash, could also keep a dog from distracting the driver as well as a crate could. Remember Stephen King's accident? He was out walking when he was struck from behind by a driver who was trying to control his dog in the back. Other benefits that have nothing to do with car accidents are that a restraint keeps the dog from jumping out of the open car door or through a lowered window. Specific restraints can keep dogs inside the bed of a pickup truck - those loose dogs are an accident waiting to happen.

The other companies making these systems should take note. Maybe they are furiously down in their R&D labs, designing second-generation restraints that will deliver on the failed promise of the first generation. I hope so. I can’t say as I will be signing up to strap my dog in any day soon, but for those that plan on using them, they deserve something that will work when asked to, not some flimsy charade dreamed up by an ad guy in a skinny tie.


December 17, 2013

Thank you for a great topic and article. I was recently in a car accident with my doggy baby in the back seat. For weeks I contemplated manufacturing protective pet products to protect him and other pets from ever being endangered in cars. You addressed my concerns with valuable facts. As you mentioned my dog was fine too. Thank you for the article.

Kris Knight 
December 2, 2013

Good points, although raw food activists do have some VERY impressive data to back up their enthusiasm, Dr. J. Also, curious whether you know of any data re. pets KILLED in car accidents.  Those would not go through a vet clinic, most likely, right?  Just curious whether this is an issue at all, as it surely seems it might be. Also, think of all of us humans who were raised to full adulthood sans any seat belts.  The secondhand smoke in enclosed cars in the past probably did far more damage to us collectively. Crate idea very good reminder that we don't have to figure out anything beyond what's already very sensible and multiply beneficial. And then there's always........a truth in life.......shit happens.  And man, there's a lot of it these days, even with car restraints and crates!


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