Many owners do not seem to realise the potential risk of serious injury to themselves, other passengers and their pet if they allow an inadequately restrained dog to travel in the car with them.
No one can fail to appreciate the enormous benefit the seat belt laws have had in saving lives since becoming compulsory. Unfortunately no such well-defined requirements exist for dogs and the risks have been little published either by the authorities or the various animal welfare organisations.
What Clients Do
Observing clients arriving at the surgery provided a worrying insight to the lack of owner awareness about this issue.
Dogs arrived in all manner of styles. Sensibly ensconced in crates or the caged areas of estate cars, through to yorkies perched on a rear window shelf. A favoured few sit on owners' laps but most arrived as back seat passengers. Only a handful of owners use a harness to secure the pet.
Why We Use Seatbelts
When a car is involved in a collision it is brought to a sudden halt. Any free objects in the vehicle (person, pet or otherwise) will be thrown forward with huge force.
An oft-quoted figure is: 'During a 30mph crash, a 15lb child can produce an impact force of over 300lbs'. This means that an average sized Labrador (60lbs), when flung forwards, can impact with the force of a baby elephant, inevitably injuring itself and others in its path.
With this in mind it seems obvious that some form of safety restraint should be used for dogs. Indeed the UK Highway Code states that pets should be adequately restrained in a car but it gives minimal guidance as to what represents adequate restraint. Seat belts are designed for humans and cannot be safely used on dogs.
One of the most effective ways of achieving an adequate level of restraint is to use a car safety harness for your dog.
A suitable car harness will:
1. Prevent a dog from interfering with the driver
2. Minimise serious injury to a dog during a crash
3. Help prevent injury to other passengers
4. Prevent a dog bolting from an accident scene or interfering with rescue services.
There seems to be a perception by owners that using restraints on pets in cars is restrictive, uncomfortable and possibly unkind. Also a lack of awareness about the safety issues may make owners feel they are being over anxious and over protective by strapping in their pets. And it doesn't help that few of the major pet organisations actively advocate the use of in car restraints for pets. This contributes to a lack of familiarity with the various safety systems and possibly a concern about using a "complicated" harness.
Just as with a collar and lead all dogs can be made familiar and confident with a harness system. It's a matter of training and establishing a routine that your pet can anticipate and follow prior to travel.
There are many safety harnesses sold for use in cars with dogs. Sadly there is no kitemark system that allows owners to know if any particular harness has been independently tested and shown to be effective for its intended use. Unfortunately this means there are a number of harnesses which while limiting the dog's movement within the car are likely to fail protect the dog in the event of a significant crash.
Design Factors for Safety Harnesses
The effective canine car safety harness consists of a properly fitted, one-piece harness, with wide, padded straps. It should be securely tethered to the cars seat belt or other suitable anchor point.
1. One-piece construction - Independent safety testing at Tufts Vet School revealed the plastic buckles found on many harnesses to be the weakest link in the product. Therefore a one-piece harness is advocated.
2. Wide, padded straps - To evenly distribute the crash forces.
3. Properly fitted - If it isn't a snug fit then your dog will get injured.
4. Properly tested - Few commercially available harnesses have been independently tested. The ultimate endorsement must be to establish whether the harness you are considering has been subjected to similar crash testing as used for human seat belts and proven to be effective.
5. Anchoring - The tether that attaches the harness to either the car's seat belt for the back seat traveller or the anchor points in the back of an estate car need to be of a similar rugged design.
6. Dog Comfort - The harness must allow the dog to be able to turn around, sit, stand without become entangled. Some harnesses have swivels to facilitate this.
Various reviews of the canine safety harnesses have been undertaken some of which can be found on the Internet. There appears to be two clear leaders in the field that fulfil all the above criteria.
· Ruff Rider Roadie - This harness has been tested in the States and exceeded the standards for human seatbelts. Some users suggest that it is slightly harder to put on than other systems. Available in the UK from Company of Animals (www.companyofanimals.co.uk). The manufacturer's web site is www.ruffrider.com.
· Champion Canine Seat Belt System - A tested harness system that receives consistently good press. Unfortunately no distributor is available in the UK but their marketing director assures me they do ship orders to this country on a regular basis. Web site is www.CanineAuto.com
Other Road Safety Points Worth Noting
Don't put your dog where an airbag can deploy. Designed for humans, the speed with which airbags deploy is fearsome and can kill dogs and children alike.
Dog gates or crates/cages used in estate vehicles offer no restraint to your pet during a crash. The pet will still be thrown violently around, the use of a safety harness is still recommended.
Never attempt to restrain a dog by securing it with collar and lead. A crash will inflict serious if not fatal neck injuries on the dog.