dog in car

Best cars for dogs (and their owners)

Here’s everything you need to know about buying a car that is perfectly suited to your four-legged friend.

A 2016 report from Animal Medicines Australia estimates that there are over 4.8 million dogs in Australia, or one for every five people. From 2013 to 2016, 600,000 more families took on a dog as a pet. But dogs are much more than just a pet – they are part of the family. When it’s time to roll out as a pack, you can make the journey safer and more comfortable if you buy the right car for your dog.

Features of a dog-friendly car

Want your pooch to be safe, secure and happy when travelling? Look for the following criteria when considering a new car:

  • Large boot space. If your canine pal rides in the boot, look for a car with plenty of space. The more room your dog has, the better it can maintain its body temperature and it won’t feel claustrophobic. It’ll also be able to stand up and move around without bumping into the car’s trim. Lying down, your dog will be able to stretch out its legs and get really comfy. A bigger boot also means you can carry your dog in a travel crate and is a must when you have more than one dog.
  • Boot opening. Dogs need some extra space when jumping into a car, so look for a vehicle with a large boot opening. If the boot opening is a bit tight, a bigger dog may refuse to get in.
  • Boot loading height. If your dog likes to jump into your boot unassisted, look for a car with a sensible boot height. You can determine how high your dog can leap by measuring the distance from their shoulder blades on their front legs to their paw when standing. If it’s under 35cm, your dog can really only jump 30cm vertically. Few cars will have a boot that low, so you’ll need to pick them up or let them ride in the passenger compartment, especially if your dog is older or suffers from arthritis. If the measurement is above 35cm, they should be able to handle bounds of 40cm and more. Some larger breeds can happily leap upwards of 60cm. There are commercially available dog ramps designed for breeds that aren’t too agile but are too heavy to carry.
  • Boot lip. The ridge on the lower edge of the boot opening is called the boot lip or loading lip. On some cars, there’s a significant dip on the inside, as much as 15 or 20cm. This can make getting in and out of the car a real chore for your dog. Manufacturers are wising up to this problem though, by raising the height of the boot floor to meet the boot lip. With a flush surface, it is much easier to load luggage and your dog will find it a breeze to hop in. Another added benefit of a flat boot floor is that often the void under the false floor is turned into extra storage space. That means you can still put your shopping in the boot and secure it away so any peckish dogs can’t help themselves to your food!
  • Partition grilles/pet barrier as a factory option. If you’re buying a new car, see if the car maker offers a factory dog grille. Though it may be more expensive than one that is a universal fit, they often fit better and are much stronger. Most generic aftermarket dog guards rely on pressure alone to hold them in place. The majority of manufacturer-supplied partitions are much more robust and bolt in place. This will prevent your dog from wriggling into the passenger compartment when you’re distracted and also protect them in the event of a crash.
  • Hard wearing, practical interior. Some dog owners prefer leather interiors as it is hard-wearing and easy to wipe down. If your dog travels on the rear seats, make sure that the upholstery won’t collect hair and can be readily cleaned. Plastics are hard wearing but can get scratched by sharp dog nails. You might consider fitting a seat cover to protect the interior.
  • Excellent climate control/air flow. Dogs don’t fare well in hot cars. The primary way dogs control their body temperature is by panting, so if the air is too warm, your dog will overheat. You may be surprised at the difference in temperatures between the driver’s seat, where you have air-vents wafting cool air directly at you, and the boot, where airflow is severely restricted. Consider cars that have rear AC outlets or windows that funnel cool air into the boot. Rear power windows make this much easier. If the boot has a large glass window that magnifies the sun, you could fit a shade to prevent your dog from getting heatstroke.
  • Heat-reducing car colour. Also, consider the bodywork colour. Silver and white reflect up to 60% of the sun's rays, which has been found in studies to make the cabin up to 7 degrees cooler than a black car. Similarly, a black interior will absorb heat more than a lighter coloured one, though there’s a trade-off for stains and marks showing.
  • Privacy glass. Tinted windows will also help to cut down the cabin’s temperature.
  • Visibility. Just like humans, dogs love to look out the window. This can help prevent them from getting car sick and may keep them occupied rather than staring at the inside of a boot. You’ll need to check the vision your dog will have when sitting in the boot. If the vehicle has particularly high sides and low profile windows, your dog may struggle to peek out.
  • Comfort ride and suspension. A dog will appreciate a softer riding car. Sports models and performance editions typically have very firm suspension, which is felt most in the rear. For older dogs, in particular, this won’t be a pleasant experience. You’ll know your car is comfortable if your pet can stretch out and fall asleep while the car is in motion. There’s an ideal ratio of comfort versus firmness to be achieved though. If the suspension is too soft and wallowy, the back end of the car will bounce, shaking your poor pet and potentially making them ill.
  • Dog harness. Some automotive companies, like Skoda and Volvo, sell their own dog harness as an option. Make sure your prospective car has ISOFIX lashing points. Many harnesses make use of these as a secure mounting location, although not all cars have them up front. Also, check to see if the rear cargo can be adapted for use with a harness that secures to cargo rings.
  • Extra storage. When you’re travelling with a dog, you need extra storage space. Look for a car that has plenty of storage lockers, cubbies, consoles, cargo netting and pockets. These spaces are perfect for stashing away leads, harnesses, toys, towels and dog bags.
  • Boot liner. If your hound travels around in the back of your car, look to see if the manufacturer offers a boot liner. These vinyl or CORDURA liners cover the entire boot space in a protective layer that is removable for easy cleaning. That fuzzy carpet often used to furnish the boot area isn’t very supportive for your dog and is a magnet for dog hair.
  • Window/child lock. Window locks and child locks are a nifty feature to have if you have a lively spaniel or excitable terrier that likes to look out the windows while leaning on the window or door opening mechanism.

Signs your dog doesn't like your car

If you notice any of these behaviours, it could mean that your dog isn’t comfortable with your current car.

  • Doesn’t sit down and is fidgeting a lot

You know your dog best, but if they aren’t sitting or lying down in a car, they could be uncomfortable. If they keep trying to get into a snuggly position but can’t, the car seat may be too firm or the ride too harsh. If you notice your dog sleeps a lot or is fatigued after a journey, this may be hinting at the fact they couldn’t sleep while travelling.

  • Refuses to jump in

If your dog ordinarily loves to go for a drive but is now refusing to jump in, something might be up. It could be your pet is associating this car with discomfort, trauma or a noise it doesn’t like. Some dogs are so nervous that even the sound of a power boot lid causes them to get into a stir.

  • Sickness

When your dog suddenly develops carsickness, it might be a sign that the car isn’t quite right. The suspension might be too firm, the waistline might be too high so visibility for the dog is hampered or the ride might be wallowy and making your poor dog nauseous.

Best cars for dogs

Small dogs can be so much fun! These energetic whippersnappers will fill your life with joy, and because of their diminutive size, they won’t fill your car. Still, they have the same needs as bigger dogs, apart from space. One thing to note, small and light cars we evaluated for dog friendliness didn’t score so well since they have small and cramped boots. Instead, we found the growing SUV market offered more practicalities for small dog breeds.

  • Best cars for small dogs

Car model Dog-friendly rating Details
Nissan Qashqai 4/5 Nissan’s Qashqai is well suited to the rigours of small dog ownership. First off, the boot is massive for its class, with 430-litres of storage space. That’s more than enough to easily fit two terriers or one pug and a big bag of dog toys and sundries. Nissan offers a substantial cargo barrier as an option, keeping your dog safe. Also available is a sturdy, wipe clean boot tray. The boot floor is perfectly level for dogs to leap in and it’s a great car for drivers too – with lots of advanced driving safety assists and an efficient engine line-up. Definitely one to consider, especially if you have a family and a pet. The only area the Qashqai falls down is the dual-zone climate control, meaning you’ll have to put the rear windows down to give your pet some fresh air.
Suzuki Vitara 4/5 The Suzuki Vitara was voted the best car of the year in 2017 by Drive. It’s fair to say the motoring world received the Vitara SUV positively. It rides comfortably and there are a number of factory options that dog owners will love. As options, you can get a solid cargo barrier, a flip-out boot lip protector and a boot liner. The boot is pretty big. With the seats up, you get 375 litres of space and 1,160 with the middle seats folded down. Additionally, there’s very little load lip to speak of, so your dog can happily jump in and be comfortable with room to spare. An added perk is that Suzuki designers made the parcel shelf fit underneath the boot floor when it’s not in use. You’ll also benefit from lots of interior storage bins and load tethering points if your dog travels in a crate.
Peugeot 2008 4/5 The Peugeot 2008 is another SUV you should consider. Car reviewers rate the ride and handling as decent, which will keep your pooch comfy in the back. With the rear seats up, your dog can lounge in 410 litres of boot space. With the seats flung forward, the rear cabin measures 1,400 litres. You can lower the seats simply by pressing a button, which is great if you need to do so while a lively terrier is pulling on its leash. Small dogs should be able to jump the 60cm loading height. On the options list, you have privacy glass to keep the boot space cool, a boot tray, and even a fridge for keeping dog snacks and drinks chilled. Unfortunately, there’s no factory dog guard available, but third-party manufacturers step in to fill that gap.
  • Best cars for medium-sized dogs

Car model Dog-friendly rating Details
Nissan X-Trail 4.5/5 The Nissan X-Trail is popular with car buyers, often finishing in the top 20 car models sold nationwide each month. The reason we picked this model for mid-sized dog owners? The wide and airy boot space. The flush fitting floor has no loading lip whatsoever and Nissan installs a “divide ‘n hide” flooring system that allows you to store dog stuff out of the way. This SUV also has tethering points for securing dog crates. Even entry grade ST FWD models come with a rear-view camera. Choosing a higher spec model will bring a whisper-quiet electric tailgate and a sunroof for quickly venting the cabin. There’s also a selection of 4WD-equipped models if you like to travel off the beaten track with your dog.
Kia Sportage 4.5/5 Kia’s cars have come a long way over the last decade. All new models have a seven-year, unlimited kilometres warranty which is great for peace of mind. The Sportage is a good choice since its interior and design are well executed. It also makes a great car for owners of medium-sized dog breeds, thanks to a flat floor and optional boot liner and pet barriers. To give your dog more protection on sunny summer days, you can also purchase a purpose-made set of window shades that still allow for easy window opening. In addition, the parcel shelf rolls up and stores away under the boot floor!
VW Tiguan 4.5/5 VW’s Tiguan is an attractive mid-size SUV. Opting for Comfortline models and above brings triple-zone climate control, helping to keep your dog cool in the back. On the options list is a loading sill protection plate, stopping your dog from scratching the car’s paint. You can also specify a wipe clean luggage compartment liner and a sunblind for the rear window. There isn’t a factory cargo guard listed on the options list, but there are several from aftermarket producers listed online. The Tiguan has a large, square-shaped boot, which is well suited to dogs. The boot measures 615 litres with the rear seats in place and 1,655 litres when the seats are laid down. The Tiguan is said to set the standard for ride quality in its class and the higher spec models bring a whole range of in-car entertainment and comfort features.
  • Cars suited to large dogs

Car model Dog-friendly rating Details
Volvo V90 4.5/5 The Volvo V90 wagon ticks lot of boxes for dog owners. First, the boot is basically like a roving kennel. Without the seats folded down, you have 560 litres of boot space. That’s enough for even the largest dog breeds like Newfoundlands and Great Danes. That kind of space will comfortably take two greyhounds. However, with the seats laid flat, the cabin capacity jumps to a whopping 1,526 litres. That’s enough for three large dogs and luggage as well. This is an ideal car if you want to travel with your family and your dog.

The best thing about the V90 though is the number of Volvo dog accessories. You can divide the boot space in half with a dog gate, fit a factory pet barrier, choose from several boot liners and even purchase one of only a few car manufacturers supplied dog harnesses. Plus the optional Cross Country model will take you and your pets over the rough stuff for some epic adventures. There’s plenty of internal storage and the cabin is split into four climate control zones, so you can cool down your dog even if you’re feeling cold.

Skoda Superb Wagon 4.8/5 The Skoda Superb is another wagon perfectly suited to transporting your dog. With the seats up, you have 660 litres of space at your disposal. That’s 100 litres more than the Volvo V90! With the rear seats dropped down, it’ll hold 1,950 litres, making it ideally suited as a car for multiple dog owners. The boot space is a whopping 1.52m high. Superb buyers also get three zones of climate control, so you can set the rear of the car where your dog is different to the front of the cabin. The Superb also has hidden umbrellas built into the doors, handy for wet dog walks. Finally, looking through the accessories catalogue, you’ll find dog seat belts, a selection of hard or soft boot liners and even middle seat covers that form a protective compartment for your dog. Avoid models with Alcantara seat upholstery though since the suede-like surface will attract dog hair like a magnet.
Land Rover Discovery 4.7/5 The Land Rover Discovery also scores highly for dog friendliness. First, the boot space makes the above wagons look like compact cars. On a five-seater model, with the rear seats up, you have 1,231 litres of volume to use. Seven-seater models have 1,137, making these models well suited to families of six with a dog. However, when the seats are folded flat, the Discovery becomes more like a van with 2,406-2,500 litres of space for your dog to lounge around in. It will be a bit of a jump up for your dog to get in though, with the boot sitting around 850mm from the ground. Air suspension models do have a lowering function, which should help somewhat. Dogs riding in the boot will have good visibility thanks to the low windows. A four-zone climate control system can deliver fresh, cool air directly into the boot from three air vents. There are even airbags installed in the rear. The suspension and ride are comfortable. You can purchase a whole range of boot liners and covers from Land Rover, a middle seat fridge for keeping your dog’s water cool and a soft pet partition that detaches quickly as needed.

Cooper Sitting in carShould I restrain my dog in the car?

It is a sensible idea to restrain your dog, not only for their safety but for your own. If your dog is able to roam freely around the cabin, they could be a major distraction to you. Dogs can accidentally knock the window button or door handle by accident. Also, there have been cases where dogs have ended up in the right-hand footwell, hampering the driver’s ability to brake. You should never allow your dog to ride on your lap when travelling, in the event of the airbags deploying, your dog could be seriously hurt or killed.

An unsecured dog in the rear of the car could be thrown around in a crash, so consider buying and properly fitting a dog restraint for them. If all else fails, fitting a dog guard will prevent your pet from getting seriously hurt in an accident.

Are dog restraints comfortable?

Yes and it is strongly advised you fit a harness for your dog in the car.

A properly fitted dog restraint won’t restrict your pet from moving, sitting, standing up or laying down. The safety anchor will stop your pet from jumping out of the window or getting thrown around if you have a bump. You can purchase restraints made of nylon, leather or fabric to suit your dog and dog safety belts can be secured to the seat belt or a cargo tie-down lashing point, depending on the design and construction.

You may choose to put your dog in a crate when travelling. Make sure to pick one that is appropriately sized for your dog. If the crate is too small, your dog may become stressed. RSPCA recommendations for dog transport containers include picking one that allows your dog to move around without hindrance. Ensure you secure the crate down with straps so it won’t move in a crash.

The RSPCA also says it is sufficient to have a dog unrestrained but sitting in the boot space with a cargo guard, but still recommends the use of a harness in these situations.

What is the law on restraining a dog in Australia?

The law varies from state to state whether you need to restrain your dog. Below, you’ll find the laws from each state or territory.

  • Queensland. An unsecured dog could be considered an unsecured load, with fines up to $2,356 for failing to comply with regulations. By law, you are also required to make sure your dog is secure, safe and comfortable. The punishment for breaking this law is a fine of up to $35,240 and one year in jail. If your dog rides in the passenger compartment and police spot it causing a driver to be distracted, they can issue a $500 fine and three demerit points. The RSPCA can also issue fines under the Animal Care and Protection Act 2001.
  • South Australia. No specific legal regulation exists in South Australia that requires you to restrain your dog, although there is a law in effect that prevents an animal from riding on the driver’s lap. If found contravening that law, you’ll pay $173 in fines and a $60 Victims of Crime levy. If you have a ute or double cab, there are laws stipulating the physical restraint of animals on an open tray or load bed. The law is Section 45 of the Dog and Cat Management Act. Maximum fines are $750 plus an expiation fee of $105.
  • Western Australia. It is illegal for a pet to ride on your lap in Western Australia. There are also laws forbidding a motorcycle rider to have a dog on the handlebars, or for drivers to tether the dog to a car for exercise. Farmers can carry a dog on an ATV or similar, but only for 500 metres on a road and only when safe to do so. Under Section 19 (3) (a) of the Animal Welfare Act 2002, the law states an animal must be transported in a way that causes it no unnecessary harm.
  • NSW. NSW road rules prohibit a dog travelling in a driver’s lap and motorcycle riders from having an animal in between the rider and the handlebars. The regulations also state an animal should be seated or housed in appropriate areas. Dogs must be properly restrained in open-top vehicles on public roads unless the animal is working livestock. It is unlawful to convey or carry an animal in a vehicle in a way that will unreasonably cause the animal harm or pain.
  • Victoria. Victoria has some of the highest dog ownership numbers in the country. The state has guidance in place that puts the responsibility on owners to make sure a dog is transported safely with all its needs cared for. That includes food, water, protection from heat and cold as well as a safe position in the car. The Victoria Agriculture website says it is best practice to properly restrain a dog, for the safety of the animal and human passengers. Dogs shouldn’t be allowed to travel with their head out of the window. The government recommends the use of a harness or cargo barrier.
  • Tasmania. Drivers face a $159 fine if found allowing their dog to sit on their lap, as do motorcycle riders with a pet on the handlebars. You cannot tether an animal to a car or lead the animal from the passenger seat.
  • Northern Territory. It is illegal to lead a dog or animal by tethering it to a car. The law states an animal should be seated or housed in a secure and appropriate area of the vehicle. You cannot transport a dog in an open-top vehicle unrestrained and it is recommended that animals are adequately harnessed when travelling.

In addition to the above specific road rules, the RSPCA has powers to protect animals carried in vehicles.


Picture: Shutterstock

Ben Gribbin

Ben is an experienced automotive writer and life-long car enthusiast with a passion for restoring classic vehicles. He brings his many years experience working with and writing about cars to finder.com.au.

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