Simple steps you can take to make the RV safer for your four-legged and feathered friends.
By Andrea K. Slaugh
When planning a trip and deciding what to do with the family pet, many people follow the advice given in the famous credit card ad: “Don’t leave home without it!” In fact, according to a Purina Pet Institute survey, more than 45 percent of dog owners and 16 percent of cat owners travel with their pets. RVers are no exception, as a visit to almost any campground will confirm.
But how safe is the travel environment we provide for them? Until they get used to the RV lifestyle, pets can act differently than at home “” more rambunctious, curious, or just plain anxious “” and, as a result, they may find trouble in unexpected places.
To uncover potential hazards that could harm your pet, let’s tour a typical RV. This information may alert you to dangers you’ve overlooked in your motorhome. If you’re shopping for another coach, this information may help you choose an animal-friendly design that won’t require major modifications.
For dogs the first problem often is the entrance itself. In some motorhomes, the distance from the bottom step to the ground is nearly 20 inches. With this setup, your animal’s front paws “” to say nothing of your own feet “” take a pounding each time they exit the coach. Over time this repeated impact will injure canine joints and lead to painful arthritis. An easy solution is to bring along a portable platform, available at many camping supply stores, to put under the final step.
Next, measure the rise from one step to the next. A distance of 7 to 9 inches is about right. Navigating anything higher will be hard for older dogs, because they lose the “spring” in their back leg muscles necessary to push up the steps. Also, pay close attention to the depth of each step. Large animals need a deep platform that provides plenty of the room for them to position their rear legs securely without twisting onto their front paws as they go up and down. Check the surface of the steps, too. Smooth steps won’t provide good traction, especially when wet. For both your own safety and that of your pet, rubber treads or rugs should be added to the steps.
Motorhomes typically are appointed with several kinds of floor coverings. Carpet offers great traction, but vinyl and tile can be as treacherous as ice for cats and dogs. This is especially true when the animal has tufts of fur on the undersides of its paws. Not only is the pet more susceptible to falls, but its back legs could slip sideways into a kind of split, ripping muscles and ligaments in the process. Older animals and those with shallow ball-and-socket joints are at high risk of injury and may not be able to get up after such a tumble. Some easy solutions to reduce these risks are to keep toe fur trimmed and to install anti-skid runners.
Bird owners, however, should reduce the amount of carpeting in their RVs. This is because carpeting is harder to clean and can’t be disinfected easily, allowing harmful bacteria to multiply. These organisms can infect the bird with life-threatening consequences.
Does your RV have floor registers? Pets can hook toenails onto the grating and injure themselves when they try to jerk free. To avoid this problem, always keep your pet’s nails trimmed to the correct length. In addition, cover the grates when you’re not heating the coach, or block off the animal’s access to them. If you keep your pet in a cage, make sure it is kept away from registers so it does not overheat.
Next stop: the kitchen. If your kitty’s a jumper, make sure you have and use burner covers for your stove. Most people are diligent about safety while cooking, but forget that stovetops don’t cool off quickly.
Analyze your galley storage space. Where will you keep small items such as pocket change and daily medications? For your cat’s safety, avoid leaving anything hazardous on the countertop. Pennies minted after 1982, for example, can cause zinc poisoning if swallowed. Seemingly harmless human medications can prove fatal for pets. One example is acetaminophen, which is dangerous to felines because they don’t have the necessary liver enzyme to detoxify it. If you leave your pill bottles on the counter as a reminder to take your meds, consider using empty containers. Open “real” bottles over a sink. That way, if any pills spill from the bottle or your hand, your pet won’t gobble them up before you retrieve them.
Does your galley include an island countertop? These workstations may have a cordless vacuum recharging in a side electrical outlet. This may be convenient for you, but could be dangerous for your pet if it can chew the adapter plug’s cord. Many electrical cords have the same “mouth feel” as favorite balls and squeaky toys. For this reason, it’s smart to unplug any appliance you’re not using.
If your coach is equipped with one or more slideouts, check for gaps along the sides, especially near the bottom. Depending on the manufacturer, openings along the slideout can be large enough for birds or “pocket pets” such as gerbils and guinea pigs to squeeze inside. Worse, the outside seals may not fit properly, allowing daylight to enter and tiny pets to wiggle out. Cover these openings if you travel with small animals and always secure pets in cages or carriers before you extend or retract any slideout.
Make sure all cabinet doors close flush against the frame and latch securely. Otherwise, ferrets and some birds will pry them open. Check for any escape routes inside the cabinets, too. In particular, inspect the cutouts where plumbing pipes come through cabinet walls and floors. Adult ferrets can wiggle through a 1-inch-by-1-inch opening, while gerbils and hamsters can sneak through gaps half that size. If you find any open spaces, pet-proof them.
It’s also a good idea to lower countertop flip-up extensions when you’re done cooking. That way, your playful dog won’t bump into the extension and, depending on the manufacturer’s style and the angle of impact, release the locking mechanism, allowing the countertop to fall unexpectedly. This also will prevent high-energy cats and ferrets from catching their paws on the underside hardware.
In the living room, find any electrical outlets at pet level “” often they’re located next to the sofa “” and install childproof outlet protectors for added safety. Examine chairs carefully, too. Opt for non-reclining ones if you travel with a ferret, because these animals have been injured or killed around such furniture.
Windows merit special attention. Most of us have sliders, which won’t stop a determined cat or dog from poking through when they are left open. It’s a good idea to close and lock any pet-accessible window when you’re not in the room to supervise the animal. Window screens may or may not be strong enough to stop a determined dog from getting out of the coach. As an alternative, you can install plastic exterior covers, which provide ventilation but help keep active pets inside.
Carefully examine shade and curtain cords. Double-stranded varieties can easily twist around an animal’s neck and strangle it. Some manufacturers use beaded strands, which are even more dangerous. Not only can they strangle, but if chewed from the cord, the loose beads can choke a curious pet. Try covering dangerous cords with slotted tubular protective sleeves.
Fringe on pillows, afghans, and area rugs are also potential choking hazards. Better to replace them with accent pieces that are not fringed.
Bird owners need to pay special attention to the amount of glass and mirrors used throughout the coach. While these decorative accoutrements give the illusion of more space, they can confuse birds when you let them out of their cages. As a result, they can fly right into a window or mirror and suffer broken beaks, concussions, and other life-threatening injuries. You can cover up small amounts of reflective material, but some high-end coaches sport mirrored ceilings. Depending on the decorative scheme, concealing this much area could become an overwhelming daily chore. For that reason you might want to select traditional wood decor.
In the hallway, completely close any track-style closets or room dividers. One unfortunate cat hooked its front paw on such a door, struggled unsuccessfully to free itself, and bled to death in the owner’s absence.
Make sure your animal can’t get into the clothes hamper or laundry basket. Cats and ferrets seem especially drawn to these fluffy piles. If you have a washer in your motorhome, never dump clothing into the machine without first verifying your pet’s whereabouts. You might even want to post a reminder nearby so you don’t forget.
In the bathroom, scrutinize the cabinets as carefully as those in the kitchen. Make certain that doors close securely and there is no “wiggle room” near the plumbing. If you have space, store your wastebasket inside the vanity cupboard. This is important, because discarded dental floss and other personal hygiene items have all been swallowed by somebody’s pet at one time or another. That’s not the only mischief animals can find here, though. Ferrets can lift toilet seats and disappear inside. As a veterinary assistant I helped care for a bloodhound that ate an entire bath towel! (He lived to chew on towels again, but just barely.) Depending on your pet, you might want to keep the bathroom door closed at all times.
If you allow pets in the bedroom, take the same precautions here as you did elsewhere: Pet-proof electrical outlets, window cords, mirrors, and other decorative accents. Lower any desktop flip-up extensions when you’re not around. Many motorhomers install a carpeted, cat-friendly perch below one of the side windows. To prevent the animal’s escape, keep this window closed or install exterior covers for safety.
Finally, if you’re physically able to do so “” or if you have children or grandchildren you can press into service “” examine your motorhome from floor level. That way, you can see how everything looks from your pet’s perspective and uncover hazards you might otherwise miss.
Preventing an accident or injury is easier and cheaper than correcting its aftermath. Often, all that’s needed are a few minor adjustments or simple changes in your daily routine. I hope this walk-through has given you some ideas about how to make your motorhome safer for your pet, so all your travel memories will be happy ones.