Does your Chihuahua pace frantically around your feet when he hears the metal-on-metal jingle of your car keys?
Most Chihuahuas will literally jump at the opportunity to ride in a car, and with an average weight of just 3-6 pounds, they are the perfect size for road trips. Before allowing your Chihuahua to hitch a ride, though, there are a few things you should know to create a safe and positive experience.
Why Chihuahuas Love Car Rides
Let's first take a closer look at why Chihuahuas enjoy car rides.
- It exposes them to new people and animals. Other than the occasional house guest or postal delivery worker, the average Chihuahua doesn't see many new faces. This lack of socialization often leads to behavioral problems like separation anxiety later down the road. By taking your Chihuahua for car rides on a regular basis, though, you can prevent these problems.
- They can smell every little scent in the air. With approximately 220 million olfactory receptors in their nose, a Chihuahua's sense of smell is approximately 1,000-10,000,000 stronger than ours. When riding in a car, this allows our canine companions to smell every little scent in the air, including food, flowers, grass, rain, and even the hormones of other animals.
- It triggers their prey-chasing instinct. Riding in a car triggers the Chihuahua's natural prey-chasing instinct -- the same instinct that his wolf ancestors developed thousands of years ago. From a Chihuahua's perspective in the backseat, it looks like everything around them is moving, which stimulates his instinct to chase prey.
- It's an activity Chihuahuas share with their owner. Riding in a car isn't a solo activity for Chihuahuas; it's an activity they can share with their owner.
Don't Allow Your Chihuahua to Roam Free
Most people are aware of the dangers of texting while driving, but did you know that driving with an unrestrained dog also increases the risk of an accident?
According to a survey conducted by the American Automobile Association (AAA) and Kurgo, 84% of respondents take their dog on road trips but do not use a restraint, while 29% admit to being distracted by their dog while they drive. Common reasons for not using a restraint include "My dog is calm," "I never considered it," and "I'm just taking my dog on short trips."
Regardless of your Chihuahua's disposition and how far you are driving, you shouldn't allow your canine companion to roam free in the car for the following reasons:
- Driving with an unrestrained Chihuahua is a distraction. Without a restraint, your Chihuahua can distract you by jumping in your lap, licking your face, or simply getting into things he shouldn't be -- and taking your eyes off the road for just two seconds increases the risk of an accident by 24x, according to a distracted driver study published in the Journal of Transportation Safety and Security.
- Your Chihuahua may bump the gear shift. If your Chihuahua accidentally bumps the gear shift while you are driving, it can send your car's transmission into neutral, park or reverse.
- An unrestrained Chihuahua can obstruct your gas and brake pedals. Being the world's smallest dog, a Chihuahua can easily wiggle his way onto the floorboard, preventing you from reaching the gas or brake pedals.
- An unrestrained dog is a flying projectile during an accident. A 5-pound Chihuahua in a crash at 30 mph will exert approximately 150 pounds of pressure, turning him into a flying projectile that can injure him, you or other passengers in the vehicle.
- Your Chihuahua can escape after an accident. Hopefully this never happens, but your Chihuahua can run away after an accident if he isn't restrained.
- Your Chihuahua can interfere with first responders after an accident. Even if he doesn't run away, your Chihuahua can still interfere with first responders after an accident if he isn't restrained.
- You might get ticketed. Allowing your Chihuahua to roam free in your car could land you in trouble with the law. In Hawaii, for instance, it's against the law to drive while holding a pet in your lap. In New Jersey, motorists who improperly transport animals could face up to $1,000 in fines, and in extreme cases, animal cruelty charges. Even if you live in a state that doesn't have a law prohibiting driving with an unrestrained dog, this activity may still fall under general distracted driving laws.
Choosing a Restraint
There are several ways to restrain your Chihuahua in the car, including the use of a crate, seat beat harness, barrier and booster seat.
Confining your Chihuahua to a crate is a safe and effective way to restrain him while you drive. After coercing your Chihuahua into the crate, place the crate in the back seat (never the front seat) and fasten it to the seat. You can do this by threading the seat belt through the crate, or by using a special strap like the Kurgo Carrier Keeper. Either way, you need to secure the crate so it doesn't move around.
When choosing a crate, make sure it's just large enough for your Chihuahua to stand up and turn around, but not so large that he'll slide around as the car moves.
Keep in mind that most dog crates sold at pet stores are made of cheap plastic or aluminum materials, neither of which handle well under the stress of a crash. To reduce the risk of serious injury to your Chihuahua during an accident, consider investing in a stronger and more durable travel crate. The Center for Pet Safety and Subaru of America recently conducted a study to determine the "crashworthiness" of pet travel crates, which you can find here.
#2) Seat Belt Harness
A second restraint option is a special harness that attaches either directly to the seat belt or a tether connecting to the seat belt. You place your Chihuahua into the harness and then connect the harness to the seat belt. Seat belt harnesses still provide some wiggle room, though it's not enough for your Chihuahua to escape or otherwise cause an accident.
A good seat belt harness should feature strong webbing material and a heavy-duty buckle (not plastic or nylon). The harness should also wrap around your Chihuahua's body to evenly distribute the force of impact.
Like crates, many seat belt harnesses are made with cheap materials that can break during a crash. The Center for Pet Safety conducted a crash test study of several popular seat belt harnesses for pets, which you can find here.
Typically used in SUVs, wagons and hatchback vehicles, a barrier is a third option to consider. It creates a partition between the front and rear sections of the vehicle so you can confine your Chihuahua to the back.
There are two main types of pet barriers for cars:
- Metal: Made of either steel or aluminum, metal pet barriers fasten to the floor and ceiling with pressure mounts.
- Mesh Fabric: Made of a lighter and weaker synthetic fabric, mesh barriers fasten to the floor and ceiling with straps.
Although it will keep your Chihuahua out of your lap while you drive, a barrier alone offers minimal protection from injury during a crash. If you plan on using a barrier, either restrain your Chihuahua in a crate or tether in place him with a harness.
#4) Booster Seat
A booster seat is a box-shaped travel accessory that provides a comfortable sitting area for your Chihuahua. They typically feature a soft interior lining, as well as straps or an opening for the seat belt to secure it in place.
Booster seats offer little-to-no protection from injury, unless the Chihuahua is also anchored in place. Only use a booster seat if both it and your Chihuahua are safely anchored in place. Some models like the Kurgo Skybox Dog Booster Seat feature a separate tether to secure the dog. If your booster seat doesn't have this attachment, purchase a separate seat belt harness to use with it.
How to Prevent Motion Sickness
Some Chihuahuas experience motion sickness when riding in cars just like we do. According to a Pfizer Animal Health study, 17% of all dogs (7.2 million) suffered from motion sickness (kinetosis).
The biological mechanism behind motion sickness remains unknown, though some experts theorize that it could be attributed to conflicting sensory signals in the brain. When riding in a car, a dog's eyes tell him that he's stationary while everything around him is moving. His inner ear, however, senses motion. Perhaps these mixed signals trigger a response by the dog's vestibular system, making him sick.
Symptoms of motion sickness in dogs include:
- Licking lips
- Reluctance to enter car
Because true motion sickness is triggered by motion, no conventional method is 100% effective at preventing it. If your car is moving, his senses will be affected, which can lead to motion sickness.
Rolling you car windows down may offer some relief by allowing your Chihuahua to smell the outside air. Stopping periodically and allowing your Chihuahua to walk around can help as well. You can also reduce the risk of vomiting by not feeding for your Chihuahua for at least two hours before the trip.
Medication is another option to consider if your Chihuahua frequently experiences motion sickness when riding in cars. Over-the-counter antihistamines like diphenhydramine and dimenhydrinate may offer relief but can be sedating. Currently, the only drug approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent motion sickness in dogs is Cernia, which is not sedating. Nonetheless, it too caries the risk of side effects, including lethargy, decreased appetite, diarrhea, drooling, and allergic reactions in rare cases. Talk with your veterinarian to learn more about the treatment options for motion sickness.
Motion sickness typically occurs more frequently in puppies than adult dogs, so your Chihuahua may grow out of it.
How to Prevent Car Ride Anxiety
While most Chihuahuas jump at the opportunity to go for a car ride, others aren't so enthusiastic. According to a survey of more than 2,000 dog owners conducted by ThinderShirt, 5% of all dogs suffer from car ride anxiety.
If your Chihuahua suffers from car ride anxiety, it can make otherwise routine and necessary trips to the veterinarian or groomer difficult. Instead of entering the car on his own free will, your Chihuahua may seek cover under the bed, forcing you to play an unwanted game of hide-and-go-seek. And once you finally get him in the car, he may exhibit symptoms such as panting, drooling, restlessness, shaking and vomiting.
Here are some tips to ease your Chihuahua's car ride anxiety:
- Let your Chihuahua sit in the car while it's parked. Using treats, coerce your Chihuahua into the car while it's parked and sit with him for 5-10 minutes every day. Without the added stimuli of actually traveling, your Chihuahua will become more relaxed and comfortable in the car.
- Don't force your Chihuahua into his crate or seat. This will only amplify his car travel anxiety while making it ten times harder to fix. Instead, place a treat down where you want your Chihuahua to sit. This will also give you the opportunity to restrain him while he's relaxed.
- Provide your Chihuahua with familiar objects. To create a sense of familiarity, place one of your Chihuahua's favorite toys and a blanket in his seat.
- Drive short distances first. Acclimate your Chihuahua to car travel by driving short distances first and gradually increasing the distance of your trips thereafter.
- Make car travel a positive experience. The key to easing your Chihuahua's car ride anxiety is to promote a positive experience. If you scold your Chihuahua for barking or having an accident in the car -- something that's bound to happen sooner or later -- he'll associate this negativity with car rides. On the other hand, if you reward your Chihuahua with a treat before and after the trip, he'll view car travel as a positive experience.
- Make frequent stops. When driving long distances, stop every 2-3 hours so your Chihuahua can stretch his legs, drink water, and do his business.
Do you take your Chihuahua for car rides? Let us know in the comments section below!