How to Keep Your Car Clean with Pets

Fido and Fluffy can be messy passengers, but a few prevention and cleanup tips can help.

Two dogs lie down in the back of a car.
Protect furry passengers—and your car.
Bonsales / Shutterstock

Going for a ride can be one of your pet’s favorite or least favorite activities, depending on where you're headed or if they just get carsick. It’s inevitable that they’ll be taking a trip in your car at some point, but they aren’t the tidiest of travelers. From fur-covered seats and muddy paw prints to accidents and odors, here’s how to prevent—and clean up—some of the most common vehicle messes associated with cats and dogs.

Dogs ride in a car inside a car seat hammock cover for dogs.

Choose the right gear to keep your pets safe and your car clean.

knelson20 / Shutterstock

Protect your pet and your interior.

When transporting your pets, the safest and cleanest way is to use a crate, carrier, other restraint system. Not only will this keep them in one spot and out of your way, especially in the event of a sudden stop or crash, it will also protect upholstery and prevent any dirt, fur, or accidents from spreading throughout the car. 

“A lot of people associate kennels with punishment, but they're really for safety and peace of mind for the pets and for the person,” says Amy Baker Schultz, founder of FurEver Family Pet Services in Portland, Ore. 

Her top recommendation is to use a crate, but there are other ways to safely secure pets. Hammocks with a tether or leash that buckles or hooks to the headrests are an additional option. These cocoon-like blankets also act as seat covers—and some even extend over the side doors—to reduce cleanup time later and prevent punctures or scratches to upholstery. You can also try coating interior fabrics with a water- or stain-resistant guard yourself or enlisting a professional.

As someone who drives around animals as her job, Baker Schultz swaps out the manufacturer’s mats for thicker and sturdier all-purpose rubber mats that are easy to remove and hose off as part of her routine car maintenance and cleaning. Just make sure they dry completely before putting them back into your car to prevent mold growth.

A cat rides inside a carrier in the backseat of a car.

Carriers can make pet accidents easier to cleanup.

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Manage car sickness.

Again, a crate is going to come in handy should your cat or dog throw up while the vehicle is moving. The vomit will likely stay inside the crate so you only have to deal with one area when you’re cleaning up.

If you know your animal is prone to getting sick from either end, Baker Schultz suggests talking with your vet to determine if a temporary remedy—like a motion sickness treatment for dogs—would be helpful in managing their nausea during car rides.

A pug inside a pet carrier in the back of an SUV.

Bring along the essentials to tidy up on the go.

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Pack the right gear.

Keep a kit of cleaning supplies in your car to take care of messes as soon as they happen. “That way you are pretty much prepared for the worst of the worst,” Baker Schultz says.

  • Towel. Wipe down wet and dirty paws, ears, and even their belly before loading your pet back into the car. This prevents muddy prints and smudges on the interior.
  • Wet wipes. These are helpful to wipe their fur as well as to pick up any other messes.
  • Water. An extra water bottle is always good to have on hand, whether you need to quench your pet’s thirst or scrub out a stubborn stain.
  • Pet hairbrush. Give your pet a quick brush before and after the car ride. This won’t completely reduce shedding, but it will minimize the amount of hair and dirt that ends up in the car.
  • Tweezers. Use these when you spot ticks or other bugs, or when your pet gets a spur or plant stuck in its fur.
  • Plastic bags. In the event of a mess or an accident, you can store it and any cleanup materials in a sanitary way. You can also use these as trash bags for used wet wipes.
  • Pet-specific carpet cleaner. You’ll want to use this right away on any spots or spills for the best chance of removing the stain.
  • A pet-safe deodorizer. This is a great addition to help you reduce the musty smell that comes with owning a pet. This can come in the form of a spray or freshener.
AAA Member vacuums out the trunk of their car.

Remove pet hair with a strong vacuum.

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Clean up.

Extra cleaning after traveling with your pet is unavoidable. But hopefully by adhering to the prevention advice and making it part of your regular routine, you’re able to reduce the amount of time you spend scrubbing, vacuuming, and freshening up your car.

Spot clean. 

Do a quick clean after a pet has been inside. That way, you avoid missing any messes because the longer they sit, the harder they are to remove.

Use pet-safe cleaners intended for each surface. 

Should you discover a problem area hours or even days later, use a spray cleaner, solution, or machine that’s specific to the type of fabric or surface you’re dealing with—cloth, vinyl, leather, carpet, or plastic. Read the manufacturer’s directions for best results.

Laura Smith, owner of All Star Cleaning Services in Northern Colorado, recommends an enzyme cleaner to remove pet-related stains. “The enzymes will literally eat the organic matter,” she says. “Just be sure to follow the recommended dwell time on the bottle.”

Restore leather. 

To fix tears in leather seats, you can use a leather/vinyl repair kit that closely matches the color of your interior. Restore dirty leather and vinyl with a leather cleaner and conditioner.

Remove pet hair. 

If you’ve vacuumed and used a lint roller but pet hair is still stuck, Baker Schutz recommends a special sponge called Gonzo Natural Magic Pet Hair Lifter to lift stubborn clumps. (AAA Members save $15 off their first Chewy purchase of $49 or more.)

Banish odors. 

Cracking the windows and circulating fresh air can help maintain any pet-related smells. But a pet-friendly deodorizer spray is going to restore that clean car smell, at least until the next time you travel with your furry friend.