When Fido Rides Shotgun

Americans shared their homes with 377.4 million animals in 2011, according to the American Pet Products Association survey.

Cats were the most popular pet, at 86.4 million, and dogs came in a close second with 78.2 million.

But while a car ride with a cat is an exercise in tension, a dog goes along for the fun of it. A recent AAA survey found that 56 percent of dog owners had driven with companions at least once a month over the past year.

Unfortunately, most people are driving dangerously when Fido is riding shotgun. Sixty-five percent admitted engaging in distracting activities such as petting their dog (52 percent) and using their hands to restrict the dog's movement when braking (23 percent).

Despite knowing better -- 83 percent agree that driving with an unrestrained dog is dangerous -- only 16 percent use a restraining device.

The danger of an unrestrained pet is very real. According to Jennifer Huebner-Davidson, AAA National Traffic Safety program manager, an unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at 50 mph will exert roughly 500 pounds of force, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert approximately 2,400 pounds of force.

Adam Fell of Veterinary Pet Insurance says the most common types of injuries suffered by pets in car accidents are bruises and lacerations, chest and head trauma, major wounds, fractures and ruptured organs. All of these require extensive -- and expensive -- medical care.

So is my pet covered?

If the accident was your fault, your vet bills are your own problem, says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst at CarInsurance.com. A pet is considered personal property, and collision and comprehensive typically cover damage only to the vehicle.

On the other hand, if the other driver was at fault, you can make a claim against their property damage liability coverage. The bills for your car and the bills for your pet would come out of the same pot of money, so if the at-fault driver's limits aren't high enough to pay everything, you would still be on the hook.

Fortunately, a number of car insurers value your pet like a member of the family and include some coverage on their collision policies.