Archive for the ‘Safety’ Category

I recently acquired the newest model of the Variocage, one of the very few, if not the only, crash tested dog transportation options available. Until just about a year or so ago, Variocages had to be imported from Europe, but now they are available through several online retailers in the US: 4×4 North America, Clean Run, and Mighty Mite Dog Gear.

The Variocage has been crash tested in Europe at 50km/h with a 45kg canine “dummy”. It is designed to absorb forces in a rear-end accident through the use of telescoping panels and bars that form the Variocage’s own “crumple zone” while still maintaining structural integrity. Crash test video can be seen here:

I purchased my Variocage from 4×4 North America ( And, just for my readers and facebook fans, you can receive a 10% discount by using the code Menapode (including the capital M) at checkout on the 4×4 North America site.

Now, onto the details!


The photo above is of the Double XX Large Variocage in my 2011 RAV4. This is the largest size they make and the dimensions as it is currently assembled are: 41.73″ wide, 37″ deep, and 28.14″ tall. The width and height are fixed, but the depth is adjustable from 31.89″ to 40.55″. This size weighs approximately 85lbs.

With the current length and the slope of the back side of the Variocage, I can still use my back seats comfortably, unlike with the 36″ SUV crates I was using previously that required the seat backs to be set at an uncomfortable position. I have about an inch of clearance on each side of the Variocage currently, so there is some shifting after moving the vehicle, but that could be easily remedied with the tie down straps included with the Variocage.

I’m not 100% sure that I could slide the Variocage out of my vehicle fully assembled, but I was able to do so when it was half-assembled during the initial install. The primary issue for my vehicle is the hatch itself, NOT the hatch opening. The Variocage is also quite heavy, so I installed it knowing that I would not be taking it in and out of my vehicle frequently.

I have also installed the provided divider for my Variocage as I need to transport multiple dogs. This divider is solid and installed with several screws – it does not just slide in and out as some dog box dividers I’ve seen in the past. There is a small lip on the bottom of the divider that would not be comfortable for a dog to step on, but a bathmat in the Variocage makes that a non-issue. With the divider installed, each side is approximately 19″ wide, with the depth dependent on the overall Variocage’s adjustment.

I received the Variocage partially unassembled.  Assembly was mostly a matter of putting larger pieces together – you don’t just get a box full of bars and metal, but rather full sides and doors that need to be mounted to a frame. I decided to assemble the Variocage in my vehicle since I was unsure whether it would fit past the hatch fully assembled. The manufacturer warns against this, but my 5’1″ self was able to do it alone and with a minimum of annoyance in about 2 hours, including the complete removal of the half assembled Variocage *twice* when I thought I had it in backward, corrected it, and then realized that it had been sitting correctly the first time!

The most frustrating part of the whole assembly process was keeping everything aligned while I screwed things together – a second person would have been VERY helpful at that point. All parts and tools were provided with the Variocage itself. The instructions are visual, which was a bit confusing at times, but the assembly video on the 4×4 North America website proved useful for clarification.

The Variocage did also come with a rubber mat cut to fit the bottom that I chose not to use since one of my dogs is a crate digger and I wanted her half of the Variocage empty. We use bathmats on one side and a towel on her half now.

After using the Variocage for about 2 months, I can say that I’m VERY happy with the design, durability, and overall ease of use in addition to knowing that my dogs are in the safest crate option available.

The crate has a slight slant to the front and a more extensive one in the back to accommodate seat backs. This makes fitting it in a vehicle much more pleasant that square crates.

The Variocage is NOT designed to be free floating in a vehicle – having it resting behind a seat is integral to the safety features, and the crate will not deform the back of a seat it rests against at tested speeds.

The slant does make the Variocage look much smaller than it actually is – my 40lb dogs both fit with plenty of room to spare and I can comfortably crate my two smaller dogs (33lbs and 24lbs) together in one side.


The bar spacing on the front and sides depends on the size of Variocage purchased. On mine, the spacing is wide, but none of my dogs are at risk of getting a head stuck as the spacing is not that wide.

The back panel is a grid instead of bars now and includes an “escape hatch” in case the rear door is unusable after an accident. This escape hatch is not designed for regular use as a door – it is a bit unwieldy to open and a whole panel is removed to function as the “door”.

The bottom tray is two pieces of metal that slide to adjust for the desired depth of the Variocage. They sit flush to each other and I have no worries about toes or fur being caught while in use. The edges of the tray slope up, containing hair, spilled water from bowls, sand, etc. nicely.

During use, the Variocage does occasionally have some rattle, but less than the SUV crates did, and certainly much less than the airline or wire crates I’ve set on my back seat before.

The Variocage is made up of metal panels and bars with metal screws. The only plastic is on the end caps for the bars and the knobs for the escape hatch and adjustment points. This is a substantial crate and I know I will have it for many, many years to come.

My malinois is a crate digger. She digs each time she’s put into the vehicle, so the tray has taken a lot of abuse from her – there are visible discolorations in the finish, but the surface of the tray is still smooth. In fact, because there is so little give in the metal tray, her digging has lessened because it’s not nearly as much fun as in a crate with a plastic tray!


I’ve not had to adjust any parts of the Variocage since installation – everything has stayed just where I left it, despite many miles on the road and many hours containing dogs!

Ease of Use

Nothing is difficult about using the Variocage. The doors have latches that can’t be reached by dogs, the doors have hydraulic bars to hold them open and make closing super simple (I have closed them with an elbow several times!), and the lip on the bottom is low, so my dogs have never had an issue getting in or out, even at high speeds!

The Variocage even has individually locking doors, so that I can secure my dogs yet still leave my hatch open for ventilation and the side bars hold my crate water buckets perfectly!

Each door has a small space for paperwork that works marvelously for my In Case of Emergency packets, too!

I would highly recommend the Variocage for anyone looking for a safe way to carry dogs in the back of a vehicle. It is not designed to be used sideways or front facing, or against other crates, which does limit its use for some, but many dog people crate their dogs in cargo areas that may or may not be crumple zones, and it is certainly well designed for that application.

The initial price IS steep, but consider that this may be the last crate you need to buy for your vehicle and the price per mile or even per year, is much more palatable, especially given the safety you will be providing your animals while traveling.

Any questions? Need more photos? Leave me a note in the comments!

I emailed CPS this afternoon to ask a few questions and they’ve replied with some great new info I thought Four Paw Drive readers would appreciate. My questions are bolded, their answers follow.

Will you be testing other restraint methods (i.e. crates, dog transport boxes, cargo dividers, pet car seats, etc.)? If so, any idea of the timeline for those? 

Yes, we are working on all classes of travel products – as funding permits.  We are currently expanding on the pilot study.  We are test planning for a more comprehensive harness study and completing the crate study.  We are working to become a nationally recognized oversight organization for the pet product industry.

How much does it cost to run a study like this pilot one you just released data from?

The cost of each study depends on the amount of products tested and the type of tests performed.  Our founder spent well over $10,000.00 on the pilot study alone.  Dynamic tests are typically well over $1000.00 – $1500.00 each, and when you add the development and construction costs of the specially designed, weighted and instrumented crash test dog, the testing expenses add up quickly.  Hence the importance of funding to further our mission.

Consumers typically think that the pet product manufacturers would assist with funding studies like these, however, that is simply not the case.  CPS is independent of the pet product industry and cannot accept funding from them – since it could be construed as and indication of bias.  CPS is looking to pet product consumers, special interest foundations, animal welfare, travel safety organizations and consumer safety organizations to help fund the mission.  CPS is in a critical fundraising mode and will be launching some funding campaigns in the near future. 

(There’s a new Crash Test Doggies campaign on Indiegogo that started today for example.)

Can pet owners help in other ways in addition to donations? If so, how?  

Absolutely!  CPS welcomes the help in getting the word out about the mission.  Tweet, Facebook and Share!  The more people talking about our work, the more funding we’ll get and the more research we can complete.  If you own a pet, and believe in the CPS cause – you’re a part of this mission.  We will be working to engage volunteers in the near future.

They’ve also offered to set up a phone meeting between myself and the founder if I’d like to learn more and ask more questions, so loyal readers, what would you like to know about CPS and their work?!

A new organization, The Center for Pet Safety, has released data and videos from its pilot study on pet vehicle restraints today. The results are far from encouraging unfortunately. Of the four harnesses they tested, in both dynamic and static tests, not a single one restrained the canine crash dummy without injury. Three of the four tested harnesses are manufactured by companies that claim their products ARE tested in some way, too!

The CPS did not release the names of the companies whose restraints were tested and they do a good job of obscuring identifiable parts of the harnesses during the tests recorded on video, but of course there is certainly speculation about which harnesses are involved in the study.

Watching the four videos on CPS’s website about the pilot study does underline some common failure points:

  • If a dog is secured with clips or clasps, those often break first. In one video, the clip remained in place, but the D ring attaching it to the harness broke free almost immediately.
  • The front design of the harness is important to prevent neck and chest injuries. One harness almost decapitated the dummy when it slid upward during the crash simulation!
  • Adjustment points can allow the fit to shift during a crash. Another harness tightened across the dummy’s chest during the simulation, possibly causing additional injuries.
  • The amount of slack in the tether system used can allow too much forward motion. Several harnesses allowed the dummy to come in contact with the front seat, which could mean injuries for both dog and humans in the front seat!

I have always suspected that most crash testing is designed to ensure that the dog doesn’t become a flying projectile vs. actually preventing injury to the dog as well and, unfortunately, these tests seem to confirm that suspicion.

I did contact CPS to obtain the full report, and they have given me permission to share it with my readers here at Four Paw Drive. The document can be found here:

I’m so happy to see The Center for Pet Safety working on studies of this nature, even if the results are disturbing. Perhaps having an independent assessment group will encourage various pet product manufacturers to improve their products so that they can keep both people and their pets safer in accidents.

If you agree, please consider donating to the cause! CPS is a non-profit organization and they need donations to continue studying various forms of pet restraint. To donate, please visit: – they even take vehicle donations!

Note: Several of our facebook fans have already contacted well known companies about their involvement (or lack thereof) in this study; it will be interesting to see how the companies respond to these inquiries. If you do the same, please share any details you’re able to obtain with everyone here on the blog and/or on facebook! Well informed is well prepared!

I’ve seen a number of people commenting recently that they are happy they have a larger, older model vehicle because “they just don’t make them like they used to” and that they feel safer knowing that their vehicle is bigger and heavier in the event of an accident because newer cars are so much lighter and made of softer materials (plastics vs steel for example). Are they correct? Will a heavier, tank like vehicle really keep you safer in a wreck?

Pretty stark, don’t you think?! My engineer husband described it this way: the flexible materials and built in crumple zones in the new vehicles dissipate the force of an accident away from the human’s body much more effectively than the design and materials in older vehicles.  Hitting a heavy vehicle like the Bel Air is like hitting a wall – your body takes the full force of the accident forces because there’s nothing there to absorb the energy and slow you down before you stop suddenly!

Similar forces are at play on your dogs in an accident, but we don’t yet have crates with airbags, so the material the crate is made of, how it “fits” the dog, and how it is secured in your vehicle will greatly impact how much force is being applied when it comes to a stop. Crates that don’t give, even a little, and those that are larger than the animal needs would seem to be the most risky – they become the equivalent of a Bel Air because they allow the animal to continue moving unimpeded before coming to a sudden stop on an unforgiving surface. We don’t yet have a modern vehicle version of a dog crate, either.

Disturbing to contemplate, but important to keep in mind as you choose a vehicle and consider your restraint options.

Here’s another video, this time of a 1962 vs. a 2002 Cadillac:

Another wreck this past weekend again brought the message home that those of us who travel with dogs need to be aware of many, many factors when it comes to keeping us and our animals safe.

I’ve seen several people who have been following the story of Elicia Calhoun and her dogs and their accident in the AZ desert ask for more information about how the dogs were traveling (restraint type, arrangement, etc.) and I myself have wondered the same about other reported accidents where dogs were involved.

Given that, I would like to take this opportunity to specifically ask for anyone who has been in an accident with their dogs in their vehicle to share details, no matter how minor the accident was, so that Four Paw Drive can help others learn what works and what doesn’t, and in the process help each other make road travel with pets safer. Information can be emailed to the blog at

Any and ALL information will be helpful to others and I’m happy to make details shared with me anonymous if requested in order to spread this information far and wide. Let’s take tragedy and turn it into something that helps others!

Rover, the intrepid Impreza, is nearing 200,000 miles and when I realized this I decided to see how many of those miles included a dog. Boy was I surprised to learn that I travel *at least* 15,000 miles annually with a dog in the car!

I know that other dog people like myself travel even more miles each year with one or more dogs tagging along, and of course the more miles you travel, the more chances for an accident.  So, you’ve done your homework and secured your dogs just in case, but what happens if *you* are incapacitated in a wreck? What happens to your dogs?

It’s a question we often hate to think about, but it’s an important one.  In addition to keeping a card with *my* ICE information in my wallet and glovebox and an entry for the same on my phone, I ran across a brilliant idea a few years back: packets attached to each dog’s kennel with this important information included.

Here’s what mine include:

  • Copies of each dog’s vaccine records (rabies, distemper/parvo, and bordetella if applicable)
  • A letter from me authorizing vet care or boarding as needed and detailing what situations euthanasia is acceptable. This letter also includes two emergency contacts who are authorized to act on my behalf for my pets.
  • A short description of each dog
  • A list of basic care instructions should the dogs need to be boarded

The packet is assembled in a nylon “pencil case” and attached to each kennel where it is visible to anyone looking in the car.  I also have duplicates of each dog’s information in my glovebox with my ICE information, enclosed in a labelled envelope.

If anything changes (contacts, phone numbers, different care needs, new vaccines, etc.) I go through all 4 packets plus my “master packet” in the glovebox to make sure everything is still up to date.

I’m happy to send people a template of the letter and forms I include; feel free to email the blog at with the subject “ICE packet templates”.