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August 17, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Transporting a dog in the bed of a pickup: dangerous and illegal

Posted by Neena Pellegrini

Editor's note: The veterinarian Q&A is taking the week off. Instead, this article tackles an issue that could certainly be a hazard to a dog's health.


Putting a dog in the back of a pickup unsecured is fraught with danger for dogs and drivers -- and is illegal, although the state law is rarely enforced. Photo by Joe Harari

Call it a nightmare waiting to happen.

A pickup whizzes by with a big dog loose in the bed of the truck, its ears flapping in the wind, as the driver heads for an interstate onramp.

One sudden swerve or bump at 65 mph and the dog could be a goner. It could fly out of the truck and be flattened by traffic, or it could slam into a windshield, much like an unsecured load, killing or maiming dog and driver.

Bones could be broken, organs ruptured, skin rubbed raw, eyes blinded by debris. And that's if the dog is lucky enough to survive and its owner has pockets deep enough to pay for its treatment.

"The greatest boon to veterinary orthopedics hasn't been antibiotics, anesthesia or even surgical equipment; it's the pickup truck," Dr. Joe Harari, a veterinary surgeon in Spokane, says in an email. "Just did one today, and the owner is an orthopedic surgeon."

Putting a dog in the back of a pickup unsecured is fraught with danger for dogs and drivers -- and is illegal, although the state law is rarely enforced.

"It's enforced as troopers encounter it and have time to deal with it," Bob Calkins, of the State Patrol (WSP), says in an email.

"Anyone who loves animals hates this violation, but the reality is that speed, DUI and failure to wear seat belts are the violations that kill people. Those are WSP's priorities."

However, Calkins says if a violation is reported, dispatchers announce it over the radio so nearby troopers can make an effort to spot the truck.

"We routinely do that for reports of aggressive drivers or possible DUIs. What we wouldn't do is make a run with lights-and-sirens from the other end of the county," he says.

Some veterinarians around the state say they see as few as two or three cases a year, but others see up to four cases a month, depending on the region, time of year and weather.


Dr. Megan Lamon, right, is the head of Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital's small-animal emergency department in Snohomish.

"Injuries secondary to dogs jumping out of pickup trucks are relatively common occurrences -- common enough that I feel an inward wince every time I see an unsecured dog in the back of a pickup truck," Dr. Megan Lamon says in an email. "These types of injuries should NEVER have to happen."

According to state law (RCW 46.61.660), it is illegal to transport any animal on the running board, fenders, hood or other outside part of a vehicle without a suitable harness, cage or enclosure to protect the animal from falling or being thrown out. Violators face a $124 fine, Calkins says.

Array of injuries

Harari said most of the injuries he sees involve broken legs, spines or hips and may include internal injuries to organs like the diaphragm or urinary bladder.

Dr. Mark Fosberg, a veterinarian at Legacy Animal Medical Center in Liberty Lake, Spokane County, says in an email that he frequently sees eye injuries from insects, dust and debris, or even mildly burned paws from the hot metal in the beds of the pickups. If the driver makes a sudden stop, the dog can slam into the cab of the truck, and he's treated those dogs for concussions and jaw and tooth fractures.

"Unfortunately, broken bones are usually the least of the animal's worries," Lamon says. "The poor animals are often run over by their own owners, though sometimes they are caught under other drivers' vehicles."

Many injuries occur when untied dogs leap over the side of the truck bed, chasing another car or animal. Others can occur when dogs are improperly tied to the bed of the truck.

"We have even seen dogs being hung because the tether or tie was too long and allowed the dog to jump out of the bed of the truck," Fosberg says, or dragged along the road while still tied to the truck.

Vets say this causes one of the most common injuries.

"We call [it] 'road rash,' which does not adequately describe what the animal goes through when his skin is stripped away along the pavement," Lamon says.

"Depending on the length of time the animal is dragged, there is varying severity of road rash -- the worse being when the nail beds are stripped away of nails, the skin gone and only tissue exposed. There is nothing to 'stitch' back together," she says. "I can't imagine a more painful condition. It can take weeks for the skin to regrow, and there is always the fear of secondary infection. Moreover, gangrene can set in ... resulting in the loss of appendages."

The damage can be costly to the owner as well as the dog. Vets say the price tags for repairs run into the thousands of dollars, depending on the severity of injuries and length of treatment. And even then, they say, there are no guarantees a badly injured dog will return to full function.

Joy rides

So why do it?

Some owners claim their dogs relish the wind in their face and thrill of the ride, or there is no room in the cab for the dog.

"The drivers often tell us that they were going for a drive and wanted to take their pets with them and they really didn't think about the consequences," Fosberg says.

Owners sometimes are reluctant to admit the exact cause or nature of the injury when they bring their dogs in for treatment, and other family members or friends will often complete the story, Harari says.

Harari surgery skeleton.JPG

Dr. Joe Harari, right, is a veterinary surgeon in Spokane.

"I tell owners the risk and seriousness of injuries by far outweigh the perceived pleasure; furthermore, most of us would love to fly like Daedalus, but would end up like Icarus if we don't sit strapped in our airline seat." he says.

And Lamon says just because a dog has ridden unsecured in the back of a pickup for years without problems, it doesn't mean it is safe.

"I can truly say: Most of the injuries I've seen in these instances are from dogs that traveled for YEARS unsecured in the back of a truck. Then one day, something happened ... and all it takes is once!" she says.

The vets are hard-pressed to come up with a good reason to carry a dog in the back of a pickup under any circumstances. However, if drivers insist, they should take precautions for the safety of the dog and other drivers.

The chain/rope must be short enough that the dog can neither get over the side of the truck nor be able to stand up on the edge of the truck bed.

"The chain/rope must be a proper length. If it's not, the animal may either hang himself or, if he can reach pavement, be dragged," Lamon says.

She also suggests securing the dog in the middle of the truck bed, directly behind the cab. "He won't get the view he prefers, but he will be safe."


Dr. Brian Hunter, right, is a Spokane veterinarian.

Crates are also an option, except in the winter, but only if they are tied down securely and can't slide.

"Imagine being wet from swimming after ducks or hunting birds in the snow and then being transported in a crate in the back of an open truck," Dr. Brian Hunter, a vet at Hunter Veterinary Clinic in Spokane, says in an email. "The windchill would make that a miserable ride unless the dog was wearing a warm coat and the crate had some added protection from the wind."

Hunter has a pickup, a big dog -- and hunts -- but says he never puts the dog in the back.

"With all the injuries I've seen over the years, I'll find another, safer way to take my furry friend along."

Seattle Times reporter Susan Gilmore contributed to this post.

•   •   •

Read our past Q&As:

Veterinary Q&A: Incontinence in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Hanging tongue syndrome
Veterinary Q&A: Bad breath in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: How much is too much exercise for my dog? Part 2
Veterinary Q&A: How much exercise does my dog need? Part I
Veterinary Q&A: A killer called bloat
Veterinary Q&A: Initial care for new puppies
Veterinary Q&A: Knee problems in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Flea-control treatment
Veterinary Q&A: Bearded dragon lizards
Veterinary Q&A: Vaccinations for indoor cats
Veterinary Q&A: Lumps and bumps
Veterinary Q&A: More on aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Puppy and geriatric exams
Veterinary QA: What dogs can safely chew
Veterinary QA: Why does it cost so much to clean a dog's teeth?
Veterinary QA follow-up: More on cleaning a dog's teeth
Veterinary QA: When to spay or neuter

•   •   •

Do you have a question about pet health? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local vet in an upcoming post.

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