Center for Pet Safety shares product safety news and advice with veterinarians

Editor's note: This is a guest column written by Lindsey A. Wolko, the founder/CEO/chairman of the Center for Pet Safety (CPS). Wolko sheds light on how CPS is addressing current pet safety issues, as well as offers safety tips that veterinarians can communicate to clients. 

By Lindsey A. Wolko, Center for Pet Safety

Vet – as a pet owner, I know this word well, and to be honest, at the same time I dread the word. Usually when I need to take my dog to the vet there is something wrong. Someone is sick or someone is hurt and they need medical care.

Today, the role of the veterinary practitioner is changing. Not only do pet owners rely on you for medical care, you are also the first line of defense when it comes to preventive care. But preventive care is more than simply administering vaccinations or prescribing heartworm medications and flea and tick treatments. You have a more powerful role as educator. Helping pet owners understand that what they do today to protect their pet will offer them a better, healthier, longer lasting relationship with their cuddly ball of fur. As a pet owner, I want nothing more than to keep my “kids” healthy and with me for as long as possible – and you are instrumental in that effort.

At the Center for Pet Safety (CPS), we’re working to assist veterinary practitioners with their understanding of pet product safety. Until now, no authority has ever looked at pet products the way that we do. The way I see it, we’re a team. We’re in the background doing the needed legwork in the lab, and you are on the front lines engaging pet owners providing them the necessary information they need. As a team, ensuring that we stay on message so pet owners know what they need to do, why they need to do it, and what alternatives they have, is critical.

As CPS works through product research, we will offer this information to AAHA in an effort to assist with your engagement with the pet owner. Gone are the days when a high school kid helps you assess the best products for your pet in the local big box stores – at CPS we’re working to provide that much needed guidance to you so that you can cover more ground during those “well puppy” visits.

First, let’s get to the specifics about the products we buy for our pets that may surprise you:

  1. The majority of pet products on the market do not have to be tested and are not tested by the manufacturer. While we love the fact that the products we purchase for our pets help improve that human-animal bond – they may not be as safe as you think.
  2. There is little to no oversight of the pet products industry and many safety claims are undefined and go unchecked. With the exception of the consumables and pharmaceuticals, manufactured pet products have no standards to meet – and manufacturers can make any claim they want to about their product to induce sales.
  3. While several manufacturers do some testing on their products – they do not all test using the same protocols. This is where we get to the heart of the marketing claims including those claiming they have “tested” their products.
  4. The Consumer Products Safety Commission does not classify pet products as consumer products – therefore they receive no scrutiny from this agency.

So, now you have a better understanding on why the Center for Pet Safety was founded – we’re working to develop pet product standards, test protocols, and performance measuring techniques all in an effort to become a nationally recognized oversight organization and define safety through science for pet owners.

As we come off of a landmark pet harness study the remainder of this article is going to share with you some of the things we’ve learned. Some of this has been shared with the public, some of it hasn’t been shared and you’ll understand why in a moment.

Distraction Prevention vs. Crash Protection

There are two types of travel harness products on the market: Distraction Prevention Harnesses and Crash Protection Harnesses. We recommend that pet owners be counseled on the difference between the two. While preventing distraction is critical to improve roadway safety, most pet owners assume that if an accident occurs a safety harness will offer crash protection. We know from our 2013 Harness Study that is simply not the case.

After spending months in a test laboratory evaluating these protection devices – we’ve seen countless failures – and it is very disheartening when these products fail at 60 lbf, 120 lbf and even 600 lbf. We’ve watched buckles snap, stitching tear, connections fail time and time again. However, when we see those select few hold up under extreme test conditions it is a joyful moment. It means that a manufacturer has paid attention. It means that we have found a product that can offer protection to pet owners and their vehicle passengers and give the best possible chance of survival to the pet. It means that we can set that bar to measure product performance. (To download the final summary report of the 2013 CPS Harness Study, Sponsored by Subaru of America – go to the Center for Pet Safety website)

But what about crates? Many pet owners believe crates offer better protection in the case of a serious accident. Well, what we haven’t readily shared is that CPS performed some preliminary crate testing in 2011. The results will shock you. They are so shocking in fact, that we have not released the video content to the public. So what do you tell pet owners? Until we can fund and complete a comprehensive containment study (looking at the overall safety of crates, carriers and barriers) here’s what we recommend based on the testing we’ve completed thus far:

For small pets (under 16 lbs) – look for a quality crash tested pet carrier and follow the manufacturer instructions for installation into the vehicle. If you cannot source a crash tested pet carrier, place the small (hard or soft-sided) carrier you have on the floor behind the driver or passenger seats during travel. If you use the seatbelt on a hard sided carrier or crate that is not structurally sound, if a serious accident occurs it will exert a crushing blow and splinter or crush the carrier.

For larger pets – crate travel is popular and many people believe that tethering their crate with a bungee style cord or elastic strap in the SUV cargo area will prevent harm to their pet if a serious accident occurs. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case. The truth is that crates, in general, offer little crash protection to pets. That being said, people still want to use them – so what guidance can you offer at this time to ensure a safer travel environment if crates are in use?

  1. Remove the plastic pan. In the case of an accident where a wire crate is in use, the plastic pan can splinter in to sharp knife-like shards. Use instead a cushioned dog bed the same dimensions of the bottom of the crate.
  2. Remove food and water bowls. We recommend that you stop and feed and water (and toilet) your pet during rest stops (every 200-250 miles or so). These bowls (or water bottles) can become dangerous projectiles in an accident and may actually harm to your pet.
  3. To help protect rear seat occupants, we recommend that the crate be placed on the opposite side of the cargo area from where rear seat passengers are seated. In our testing a 55 lb. test dog in a crate can exert enough force to destroy the crate and break the seatback.

Though the information CPS can offer regarding containment travel safety is limited at this time, it is based in fact. Until we can complete a thorough examination of these travel products, it is important to ensure pet owners are offered multiple options to ensure not only their safety but also offer the pet the best possible chance of survival should an accident occur.

As a veterinarian your role as preventive care educator is as important as your role as medical practitioner. Knowing that I can count on my AAHA vet for more than simply medical advice is a value add, you are a trusted source and a wealth of information. You are the person I rely on to help me protect my pets so that we can enjoy a long, happy, healthy life together.