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Paws and the laws of the road

Ah, the beginning of summer. Long sunsets and easy temperatures. The dog days? They're weeks away. Unless, of course, you're a pet owner.

Maybe you've already loaded up your golden for a trip to the beach, or crated your calico for a weekend up at the lake. Maybe you've merely taken Fido to the supermarket, or Whiskers to the veterinarian. The point is, if you own pets, they're bound to be in your car at some point. Especially during summer.

Rusty, my childhood dog, just loved car rides. He'd bound into the back seat and stick his long, collie snout out the side window to feel the breeze. We never thought twice about taking him anywhere. Certainly, we never thought about whether we were breaking any laws.

But since this is a column about driving, we pose the question. Are there rules about transporting a pet in a vehicle?

Do dogs need seat belts? Is it illegal to leave your animal in the car on a hot day? Can you be fined for driving with a cat in your lap?

What do you think?

The law says

Doggie spas. Doggie bakeries. Doggie seat belts. Yes, they make them. But legally, you don't need one for your canine -- or your cat, for that matter.

Only one state law -- Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 90, Section 22 --specifically addresses the subject of restraining animals while in a car. But that law only forbids drivers from letting dogs ride loose in the back of pickup trucks. (The fine is $50 if they're not tethered or crated.) Otherwise, as long as your pet is inside your car, no restraints are required.

You cannot, however, drive with a dog or a cat in your lap, said Sergeant Michael Maffei of the Cambridge police's traffic division.

"Absolutely not. It's impeded operation," said Maffei. "Let's say you were reading the newspaper while driving. That's impeded operation. If you were driving with your knees while putting lipstick on, it's impeded operation. If you have an animal in your lap, it's impeded operation.

"You have people who love to have their Lhasa apso in their lap as they drive, but when they have to make a sharp turn and the dog impedes them, it's trouble."

The fine? $35.

I asked Peter Gollub, director of law enforcement for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whether it was all right for a dog to poke his head out of a car window.

"Maybe," he answered. "There's a difference between an older dog who sticks his snout an inch out a partially open window, and a 1-year-old who might bounce about. You have to tailor your response to the animal at issue."

Could a dog owner be cited for animal cruelty for letting Spot hang too far out the SUV window? The chances are slim, Gollub said, but it could happen.

Likewise, you could be cited for animal cruelty if you leave your dog in a swelteringly hot car. But responding officers will weigh mitigating circumstances -- did the dog have a water bowl? Were windows left open? Was the car in the shade? How long was the animal left alone? Was the dog being watched from inside the restaurant? Etc.

Animal cruelty is a felony punishable by up to 2 1/2 years in a house of correction and a fine of up to $2,500, but the degree of negligence would have to be severe. Gollub said, though, it doesn't take much for an animal to begin to suffer in the heat; the temperature inside a car can soar 20 degrees above the outside temperature in just 10 minutes.

The MSPCA recommends that dogs and cats never be left alone in a vehicle, even if only a few minutes. If you notice a dog or cat left in an unattended vehicle for any length of time, you should call the police, Gollub said.

One addendum: Should you ever hit a dog or cat with your car, the law requires you to report the accident to the animal's owner, or, if you can't locate him or her, to the police. A simple phone call will do, and you won't get in trouble.

What drives you crazy about local drivers? Is there a traffic rule you’ve always wondered about, or a pet peeve that never fails to annoy you? Send us a message about it at We’ll check it out.