Whether you and your cats are driving across town or you’re taking the dog on a much-needed road-trip vacation—he works hard!—hitting the road with your pet can be a joy or an ordeal, depending on how prepared you are. Animals in a car can get stressed, which then puts stress on you and your passengers. And pets can easily sustain injuries in a crash, even a fender bender, unless you have the right gear to protect them. To help make your trip safer, quieter, and less stressful for both you and your pets, we spent more than 20 hours doing research, interviewing animal-care experts, scouring the Internet, and performing hands-on tests to find the best products for life on the road with Fido or Fifi.
We considered safety first, so we checked the latest recommendations from the Center for Pet Safety. The CPS is the only institution that tests the claims that manufacturers make (or avoid making) about the safety of their pet products. In partnership with automaker Subaru, which sponsors the research, the CPS puts crates, kennels, and restraint harnesses through crash tests with different sizes of animal dummies to determine the safety and structural integrity of the products. Plastic crates in particular do not fare well in these tests; the plastic fractures under the forces of a crash.
We also interviewed experts in the behavior department at the Oregon Humane Society. These trainers, who work with the dogs and cats awaiting adoption at the shelter but also field questions from the community about people’s pets, drew on their real-world experiences to help us pick the products that work.
Although the products we selected cover the everyday drive and the road trip, we considered the worst-case scenario, too. We put in a call to Angela Modzelewski at the Oregon Humane Society Tactical Animal Rescue team to see if she had recommendations or safety tips, since when a dog tumbles off a hiking trail or escapes into the woods after a car accident, the members of OHSTAR are the people who pull the animal to safety. “An ID on the collar and a microchip are the most important things,” Modzelewski told us. She also recommends having an extra leash in the car in case your dog breaks (or chews) free.
You can find emergency animal kits for sale, and that’s a good place to start, but Modzelewski told us that doing it yourself is more budget friendly. The most important items to have on hand are tweezers and gauze, since in the case of injury you only have to do triage until you can get your pet to the vet; you don’t have to practice field medicine here. In addition, Modzelewski recommends keeping a strip of fabric in your kit that you can gently but firmly tie around a dog’s muzzle, because even your best friend might get snappish if she’s hurt and frightened.
Wirecutter writer Lauren Dragan, who put in years in pet care before turning to audio-gear reviewing, recommends the American Red Cross’s Pet First Aid app (available for Android and iOS) both as a great collection of advice on what to put in your emergency kit (it features a preparedness guide) and as a resource in itself. The app offers advice for many common pet-emergency situations. It also includes a list of veterinary medical providers across the US, all accredited by the AAHA, which adds a comforting layer of oversight that beats frantically Yelping for a vet in unfamiliar territory.
No matter what products you choose, both you and your pet will do better if you practice at home before your trip. Cats and dogs need some time to get comfortable with a crate or kennel, so set it up at home with toys and treats before doing the same in a hotel room. Try calming sprays or treats on a quiet afternoon to see how your pet reacts. As for strapping a dog into a harness, you’ll both appreciate getting the hang of it and making a fun, treat-filled game out of it rather than a wrestling match on the day you need to use it.
In a crash, an unrestrained animal can not only suffer from injuries but also fly forward like a missile, injuring the driver and passengers as well. That’s why you need a good restraint harness. The Center for Pet Safety tested the Sleepypod Clickit Sport and certified it as the safest in-car dog harness available, giving this model a five-star crash-test rating. Like Sleepypod’s popular Clickit Utility harness (which the CPS chose as a 2013 Top Performer), the Clickit Sport incorporates a wide, padded vest and provides three points of contact in the car to distribute the force of a sudden stop across a wider area of the dog’s body than other restraint harnesses, thereby reducing the chance of serious injury. Jennifer Shirley, a dog trainer at Oregon Humane Society and a former member of the OHSTAR team, recommends it highly. And an Amazon reviewer who used the Utility version gratefully notes that it worked in a real-life accident.
The main difference between the newer Clickit Sport and the Clickit Utility is that the Sport makes securing a dog in the car easier, as you need only to thread a car’s three-point seatbelt through the harness’s rear loops. With the Utility, you need to attach two hooks to the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) car-seat anchors in a vehicle’s rear seat. This design for the Sport also means that it will work in any car of any year; a lot of older vehicles, particularly those built before 2003, don’t have LATCH anchors. The Clickit Sport can also serve as a walking harness, and it has reflective stripes on the sides. “One of the most dangerous points during travel is getting in and out of the car in new locations,” Tanya Roberts of OHS told us. And this harness has two metal D-rings on the back for connecting a leash before releasing the seatbelt for potty stops.
While the Clickit Sport is the safest harness—with some serious certification to back up that claim—this is not a harness that you can simply throw on the dog and go. Attaching it will take both of you some practice, especially if you haven’t used a step-in harness before. The test dog we worked with has worn a half dozen different harnesses, and both human and dog took a couple of minutes to figure the Clickit Sport out the first time. Adjustment is a little tricky but very precise, which is exactly what you want in a safety-restraint harness. Once you’ve fitted the straps to the dog, the design allows you to Velcro the extra length of the straps down to the harness, a feature we wish more strappy dog accessories had.
If your small dog or cat goes everywhere with you, the Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed can go there, too. Unlike plastic crates, which haven’t fared well in CPS crash tests, the Sleepypod carrier is made of luggage-grade nylon with a hard layer around the bed. The inside is soft and padded with a zippered, dome-shaped mesh top. After several rounds of crash tests, the CPS named this carrier a 2015 Top Performer in combination with a PPRS Handilock, which Sleepypod provides free. Without the PPRS Handilock, the Velcro straps on the Mobile Pet Bed released in two of three crash tests. (When we called Sleepypod’s customer service department to ask about the Handilock, the representative told us that “it doesn’t make it safer, necessarily,” but that it keeps the Velcro intact.)
The PetEgo Jet Set Forma Frame, another nylon carrier that retails for about $140, also earned a 2015 Top Performer nod in CPS tests. But in order to make the grade, it requires the additional ISOFIX-Latch connection, which adds $100 to the total price.
While CPS has tested the Sleepypod with dummies representing cats and small dogs, Amazon reviewers have had real-world experiences in which the carrier performed as promised: “My car is totaled, I suffered whiplash injury, but my Pomeranian? He’s perfectly fine.”
For cats, our experts told us that they prefer a plastic crate, given that felines have so many angry, sharp parts that could slash through a mesh crate. But given that plastic crates fare so poorly in crash tests and that the Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed is made of ballistic nylon (with a comfy bed inside), it should contain cats more safely than a plastic crate.
Not all dogs take well to being cooped up in a moving car. And some can get pretty stressed out, which can lead to panting, barking, salivating, and even vomiting, which can ruin everybody’s trip. Something that can help is Ceva Animal Health’s Adaptil, the only calming aid that behaviorists we interviewed recommended. (Its efficacy has been demonstrated in a number of studies, too, though as with any such aid your mileage may vary. Be sure to consult your vet with questions.) It’s also the easiest to use, as it doesn’t require you to calculate a dose; other calming aids, such as Bach Rescue Remedy, do have dosing recommendations. Plus, some products have a medicinal smell that can turn off dogs, while Adaptil doesn’t smell like much of anything. As Lori Kirby at the Oregon Humane Society said to us, “You can’t screw Adaptil up.”
Adaptil is available in several forms, but the spray bottle is the most versatile and simplest, especially for travel. The company also makes a collar infused with its synthetic pheromones and a diffuser that plugs into the wall, but you can apply the spray on a collar or bandana, on the car seat, in the kennel, on the travel bed, in the room—anywhere.
Dog owners might know Adaptil by its old name, DAP, which stood for “dog appeasing pheromone.” This is the same stuff with a catchier name. It uses a scientifically proven synthetic canine hormone as the active ingredient to soothe nervous dogs. Bach Rescue Remedy is a popular homeopathic solution, but according to Wirecutter science editor Leigh Boerner, scientists have not found reliable evidence indicating that homeopathic remedies work. You also don’t have to persuade your dog to take Adaptil, as it isn’t a pill or treat such as NaturVet Quiet Moments, a treat with herbal calming ingredients; NaturVet users note that the treats have a medicinal smell that cause some dogs to refuse to consume them.
It’s no secret that cats and cars don’t mix well, but Comfort Zone Feliway can help. The highest endorsement this hormone-based calming product got came from Jenna Kirby at the Oregon Humane Society: “Feliway works for cats like Adaptil works for dogs,” Kirby told us. The two products are from the same parent company, Ceva, though of course they use different hormones to achieve the same effect.
Cats are notoriously picky, which can make treats like NaturVet Quiet Moments a tough sell. Cats are also terrible pill-takers in general (some Wirecutter staffers have successfully used Feline Greenies Pill Pockets treats to mask the flavor of medication), so giving them a sedating drug can end in a human bloodbath—not to mention the fact that you need to get the cat in the car to obtain the drug from the vet in the first place. The Feliway spray eliminates the violence, since you simply spray it on a comfy bed in the cat’s carrier before putting them inside.
The Oregon Humane Society behavior experts all recommended leaving the carrier open in the house with the Feliway-prepped bed inside and the door open so that the cat can feel safe and comfortable in the carrier before you add the stress of a car ride. The experts also agreed that cats are, in general, terrible to travel with.
In our test with a car-hating cat, we sprayed a fleece bed with Feliway inside the carrier 20 minutes before taking a ride to the vet. He still meowed in protest as we drove, but he had far calmer body language than usual, and he was calmer at the vet and after the trip. Wirecutter editor-in-chief Jacqui Cheng also uses Feliway on a regular basis to calm her aging and combative cats, with noticeable effects (if you can believe it, she keeps a spreadsheet).
Even if a pet doesn’t get stressed in the car, the constant motion can cause your cat or dog to feel queasy. For addressing motion sickness, the experts we interviewed agreed that the ingredients in Happy Traveler Soft Chews from Ark Naturals would work better than other remedies, including the simple home remedy of a piece of ginger candy. Other chewables, such as NaturVet Quiet Moments, have a strong flavor that prompt some pets to refuse them. Happy Traveler chews calm more than just an animal’s nausea; they also reduce stress in cats and dogs. Anything that makes pulling over to clean up puke less likely is a plus. You can also use these chews safely with sprays of Adaptil or Feliway.
The experts we spoke to also agreed that these chews work best for long trips, as they are pretty potent; a dog may be lethargic after a short drive. No matter how long the trip is, the experts recommend giving the chews to your pet before getting in the car to give the active ingredients time to work. Trying the chews out before taking a trip, to see how they affect your pet, can also be helpful.
Even in the way-back portion of a hatchback, wagon, minivan, or SUV, dogs will find a way to make a furry, wet mess of the carpet. When we tested floor mats and liners that protect car carpets, the custom-fit WeatherTech liners came out on top. It turns out that the very features that make WeatherTech liners the best choice for most cars in general are the same features that make them the best for traveling with pets.
Yes, they’re pricey. But in contrast to inexpensive flat floor mats, these liners have raised edges around the entire perimeter that keep liquids from spilling out onto the carpet. Another plus is that these liners are precision-fit to your vehicle and have a notably grippy bottom. This design not only prevents spills and pet accidents from seeping into the carpet but also keeps your pet from pawing up the corner of the mat and making a mess. In addition, we like the channel pattern of these liners, which should be easy and nonabrasive on your pet’s paws, unlike some of the more aggro patterns, like those of Rugged Ridge liners. And WeatherTech’s liners are easy to remove, so you can take the cargo liner out and hose it down when, inevitably, your dog makes a mess in the back of the car.
Whether you have fabric-covered or leather seats, the last thing you want is messy paws grinding dirt and mud into them or, worse, sharp claws digging in. A high-quality seat cover not only keeps the seats in good shape but also goes a long way toward keeping your car’s resale value up. The 4Knines Seat Cover has a nubby, rubber pattern on the bottom that keeps it in place, even when the dog jumps into the backseat and even on leather seats, according to Amazon reviewers. The quilted fabric is waterproof (and according to our test, mudproof), and the company uses safer dyes that don’t offgas horrible smells after you install the cover.
Installation, including the optional hammock flaps that connect to the front headrests and keep the dog from tumbling into the footwells behind the front seats, takes less than five minutes. While most car seat covers have slots for using seatbelts, the 4Knines cover also has Velcro-covered slots that provide access to a car’s LATCH anchors should you need to use a child’s car seat. In addition, it has flaps that cover the side of the seats—right where dogs put their muddy paws as they hop in.
As for competitors, Amazon reviewers say they’ve found the NAC&ZAC Hammock Pet Seat Cover to be a bit slippery since the grippy layer and the top layer aren’t quilted together as they are in the 4Knines cover. Less expensive covers, such as the BarksBar cover or the AmazonBasics waterproof cover, lack the side flaps.
Sure, you could carry all of your pet’s gear in a plastic bag, but a good organizer helps keep things handy without your doing a lot of fishing around. The Solvit HomeAway Pet Travel Organizer Kit is like a toddler’s diaper bag built for dogs. It comes with two soft-sided, collapsible food and water bowls, which are the standard for any travel kit. It also has a bag for dry food and an unbreakable, BPA-free water bottle.
The killer feature that puts this bag above the rest is the zippered front pocket that holds rolls of plastic poop bags. You can feed the bags through a grommet in this pocket for easy, quick cleanup on the go. The bag has another front pocket, as well, plus two side mesh pockets and a big mesh rear pocket for toys, towels, a small blanket, meds, or whatever else your pet needs. This kit seems to have been designed by people who have taken animals somewhere and thought, “I wish I had brought …”
Amazon reviewers love how versatile the Solvit HomeAway kit is, with room for human stuff in the extra pockets. Some people say that they use a front zippered pocket for a cell phone or a copy of vaccination records (extra points for preparation), or that they put a water bottle for themselves in a side mesh pocket. The only common complaint is that the collapsible bowls are a bit flimsy, which is what we’ve found with most travel bowls of this type, especially when we’ve used them with water.
KONG’s classic rubber toys can keep a pet entertained, engaged, and quiet in the car or in a hotel room. All you have to do is put food that your dog or cat likes inside the toy and hand it over. Guide Dogs for the Blind recommends a stuffed KONG for keeping a dog busy in a crate. No parts to pull off and swallow, no fluffy stuffing to inhale—and they’re virtually indestructible. And if you leave your KONG behind in the hotel room, or if it rolls out of the car at a rest stop, you can easily find a replacement at any pet store, large or small. Check out the black rubber Extreme version for dedicated chewers (another Guide Dogs for the Blind recommendation) or the softer purple rubber version for senior dogs’ achy jaws and teeth.
You have no need to buy the KONG-branded stuffings for these toys: Anything you can stuff in there is fair game, including wet pet food, dog or cat treats, or even dog-safe human foods like peanut butter and chopped apples. This is a useful toy for helping animals forget they’re in a crate or a strange room. Make the game last longer by freezing the wet-food-filled KONG overnight before getting in the car. It can even work as a fetch toy in a pinch.
The Humane Society of the United States recommends KONG toys to “keep a puppy or dog busy for hours. Only by chewing diligently can your dog get to the treats, and then only in small bits.” Hard Nylabone toys also boast recommendations from the Humane Society and Guide Dogs for the Blind, but they can’t do double duty as interactive toys as KONG toys can. Also, on the Psychology Today website, Stanley Coren writes about a study published in the journal Animal Cognition that finds that “dogs quickly lose interest in toys with hard unyielding surfaces,” which includes Nylabones and the like.
A folding wire crate will serve a dog owner well for years, and MidWest makes some of the most popular crates available. At less than a hundred bucks, the MidWest iCrate is the best-selling crate on Amazon. Unlike other wire crates, it has rounded corners to keep your pet safe in case of an escape attempt, and the corners won’t snag your clothes. It has two doors, one on the end and one at the side, so you can set it up anywhere, no tools necessary.
The iCrate has a plastic tray for the floor, which you should cover with your dog’s favorite blanket or bed for comfort. It also has a divider that you can hook into place so that you can buy one big crate for your puppy and increase his living space inside the crate as he grows. You’ll encounter fancier soft-sided crates, such as the Orvis Folding Nylon Travel Dog Crate, which costs about $130 depending on size. But if your dog is likely to claw or bite through a crate, this more expensive crate will not do the job.
Note that the CPS tested wire crates and found them seriously lacking in vehicle crashes, saying, “Wire crates should be considered as distraction prevention tools and will not provide significant protection in the case of an accident.” The crate in the CPS test collapsed and did not protect or retain the dummy dog. So, when in the car, always use a restraint harness for a large dog.
Animals need to drink plenty of water on the road, but that can become a messy event. The Anti-Spill Water Hole from Pet Supply Imports is the bowl that Oregon Humane Society trainer Jennifer Shirley keeps on hand for her own dogs. According to Amazon reviewers, the wide, overhanging lip keeps enthusiastic lappers from splashing water on hotel carpets or inside their kennels—even inside an RV on the move.
We picked this model over popular soft-sided collapsible bowls because, for one, it won’t collapse or fold in while an animal is drinking out of it. This bowl is also waterproof; we’ve found during informal testing that some folding water bowls are waterproof only for a while, as leaving water out for the pet all day or overnight can cause the water to seep through the material. Amazon reviewers also like that the lip keeps their long-eared dogs’ ears from dipping into the water and then dripping all over the room.
You can run across some super-cute folding, collapsible travel litter boxes out there, but we found that Kitty’s WonderBox disposable litter boxes make the most sense for people traveling with cats. You can reuse one several times before tossing it, so these already inexpensive litter boxes are even more economical.
Cats have enough issues with litter boxes, and Amazon reviewers have found that folding litter boxes such as the Cat1st portable litter box are too small for bigger cats. Kitty’s WonderBox comes in a variety of sizes for any cat, and the smaller boxes can even work well inside a large kennel. Also, foldable litter boxes require hand cleaning, which we would rather not do at a rest stop or in a hotel-room sink. Disposing of the entire box when its useful period is over (up to a month) seems better.
After putting in 30 hours of research and testing, picking up dog waste both real and simulated, and interviewing professional dog walkers and dog transporters, we think AmazonBasics Dog Waste Bags are the best dog poop bags for most people. They meet all the most important criteria for a good poop bag. They’re strong, thick enough to be reassuring and not let you feel what you’re picking up too closely—but they’re also thin enough to be easy to open and separate from the roll. They also do a great job concealing the sight and smell of your pup’s poop, and they’re very reasonably priced. We appreciate the large number of bags available in a single shipment, which cuts down on refill orders and also allows you to stash rolls in several places around your home.
Another rule that Lauren Dragan learned while driving celebrities’ pets all over Los Angeles freeways: “Always have baby wipes on long trips. They will save your life.” They’re perfect for everything from cleaning muddy paws to wiping up pet accidents. Of course, they’re also ideal for freshening up your face and hands after road food, washing your hands after peeing in the bushes when you can’t find a bathroom (or are afraid to use the one at the super-sketchy rest stop), or cleaning up after pumping gas or changing a tire. (And yes, they double as toilet paper in a pinch.) The Seventh Generation wipes we recommend in our emergency-preparedness gear guide are great for traveling too.
(Photos by Kristen Hall-Geisler.)