Everything you need to know about cross-country car travel with your feline friend before you go!
We all know cats HATE car trips, right? Well, though some cats absolutely despise riding in the car, there are definitely practical steps you can take to make car travel safe, comfortable, and even fun for your feline companion. This even applies to long-time fluffy haters of the open road.
When you’re taking a long road trip such as a cross-country move, you have enough on your plate without worrying about your cat. So, a little preparation well in advance of moving day will help alleviate anxiety and stress.
Anticipating how your cat will behave when faced with being cooped up in a moving vehicle can help you understand what will help her to relax. You can use this lead time to correct any undesirable behaviors, or adverse reactions so that on the day of the drive, she’ll be in as good shape as possible.
You’re here because you want to make that long drive as comfortable as possible for kitty, but don’t know where to start. It’s likely your cat has rarely if ever been in the car for longer than the few minutes it takes to run to the vet.
The good news, according to Jason Nicholas, BVetMed, is that “if a cat is properly acclimated and conditioned to riding in a car, they will actually learn to really love it.” I know, sounds unbelievable, right? I’m so pumped to hear that there’s hope for all felines, even the ones that howl, hiss, scratch and hide when you even think “C-A-R”.
As long as your cat hasn’t had a super traumatic experience in the car, even more mature cats can be taught new car riding tricks. That fills me with hope. I know one day we’ll be taking our cat Friday (@fridaycute) on the road. With a little careful preparation and commitment, it’s never too late to prepare a cat for a long road trip.
That’s right – we’re going to learn how to hack your cat’s natural aversion to car travel! So, let’s move on with the tips for cats in cars!
A few weeks before the trip
People are often surprised that the timeline for preparing your cat for travel is really this far out. Why? Well, you will need to acclimate your cat for car travel. This is done by repeated exposure to the car and taking trips of progressively longer durations. The cat needs to learn that there are other destinations other than the dreaded vet – and be rewarded as such. It takes time for this kind of conditioning to occur. I have a guide on crate-training here.
Another reason? You’ll definitely need to pick up a few items for this trip: maybe a new carrier, litter tray, water and feeding supplies, calming agents, bedding and a leash. If something doesn’t work for your needs, or arrives damaged, you’ll need to allow time to return it and try something else.
There are other reasons too but I won’t bore you with them… the main thing is, start as early as you can. You want the day of the move to run smoothly, sure. But did you know that cats can sense and absorb our stress? I’ve definitely felt this with my cat. Often a cat that ‘travels badly’ is just scared and confused by the owner’s behavior. If the owner had managed their stress better, the cat would, too!
1. Obtain vet records
This one is easy to overlook but can save a lot of hassle further down the line. According to Jennifer McKee on Where Traveler, “Do this as far in advance as you can, but no less than three weeks before you leave.” She explains that her vet made copies of the cat’s entire health record in case of an accident, emergency or health concern during the long trip.
Pay particular attention to vaccination records, making sure you’re up to date and compliant with requirements. Rabies, for example, needs to be administered every 3 years in the US. You’ll also want to check on cat vaccine regulation by state. Not just your departure state and your destination, but also the states you’re traveling through.
2. Microchip your cats before travel
Whenever you’re taking an indoor cat out of the house, there’s a chance they can escape if they get scared. Loud noises can be extremely disconcerting to a cat, and before you know it, they’ve bolted! Even with crated and leashed cats, there is always a chance of escape when you least expect it. Cats can act unpredictably when they’re in strange situations or feel threatened. Microchipping means that should the worst happen, there’s a much greater chance of being reunited.
3. Purchase a secure travel crate or carrier
A travel crate or carrier is necessary to ensure your cat’s safety and comfort. I have detailed information about which crate is right for you coming soon – there are so many different types of crates on the market, it’s hard to know which type to choose.
More info is included there about how to get your cat used to the crate in preparation for travel day.
4. Work your way up the long distance drive
Short drives around the block are essential for building your cats’ tolerance to car travel. Not only that but it will give you a valuable insight into how she might do for longer rides. Normalizing car travel is a smart thing to do – with plenty of rewards and treats, of course.
On the day of the drive (or just before)
It helps to prepare as much as you can in advance so the morning of the big drive is as calm as possible. At least if the cat stuff is prepared, that’s one less thing to worry about.
5. Plan accommodations
Sure, you can wing it but it’s getting more common these days to use Airbnb for affordable accommodation. When booking your accommodation on the road, let the host or hotel know you’re bringing a cat. ‘Pet-friendly’ can sometimes only refer to dogs so inquire specifically about bringing your cat. You may know your cat’s an angel, but a proprietor may be a little wary. After all, cats have a reputation to live up to! Some may howl, mark territory, scratch up furniture or soil the room, so you can understand a host’s reluctance.
6. Pack comforts of home
Prepare a goody bag of familiar smells and toys. The items you already used in kitty’s crate training work well – some toys, a worn t-shirt and a few bits of kibble if your cat is very food-motivated like mine. Set up the crate and avoid forcing your cat inside it.
7. Pack the cat litter and a disposable or collapsible tray
Cats are notoriously fussy about their litter. Chances are, you’ll be using a different litter container that’s more compact for traveling. If you can, use the same litter or if you’re changing it up to something that neutralizes smells effectively, give her a chance to use it at home first. When changing something a cat is used to, it’s best to do it in small increments rather than everything new all at once!
8. Bring a spray air freshener
When your cat makes a delivery under stress in a confined space, you’ll know about it. An air freshener is absolutely vital! Don’t just rely on the in-car air freshener or cracking a window. You’ll need something a little more potent to neutralize the strong odor. Nowadays there are very effective natural, aerosol-free air fresheners (link to an awesome product on Amazon). There are also the common household brands like Febreze and Glade.
9. Work out a feeding routine
Keep meals small and light! Figure out how you’ll keep your kitty fed and watered, just as you would your own feeding times on the road! If your cat has a history of nausea or throwing up, try withholding food and water starting 8 hours before the trip. You may need an automatic feeder to ensure this, if driving first thing in the morning!
A lot of cats won’t eat, drink or use the bathroom when they’re in ‘travel mode’, and will pretty much hunker down. So, don’t be surprised if she doesn’t have her usual appetite on board.
Safety on board
10. Bring toys
Toys can bring comfort, fun and something to bite or kick against when your cat has a burst of energy! Scatter some favorite toys around the crate and bring them into the accommodations to keep them entertained at night. Your cat will likely have a lot of pent-up energy from being in the car all day long, barely moving. Come night time, they’ll be roaming, prowling and hunting. In a strange environment your cat will be on high alert with heightened instincts.
11. Use sounds that soothe
Cats have super sensitive senses! Music that sounds good to us can be loud and jarring to your feline friend. It’s best to skip music altogether to avoid unnecessary stress. Instead, use the sounds of the highway to soothe your cat to sleep.
12. Feed your cat wet food
While dry food is far less messy, wet food is a good way of keeping your cat hydrated. Cats are notorious for not drinking much, and are quite particular when it comes to water. I would recommend keeping a small amount of their usual wet food in a clip-and-close container and doling out small amounts into a collapsible dish at regular intervals. Keep meals small as your cat may be experiencing nausea.
13. Never let cats roam around when the car is moving.
Let your cat sniff around the car before setting off. Cats only feel safe once they’ve familiarized themselves with their environments. When the car is moving however the cat should be confined within a crate or kennel. A cat roaming around a car can endanger your safety and that of other road users. We’ve all heard the stories of cats getting under brake pedals, antagonizing the driver and swatting at the steering wheel. So, drive smart!
14. Take into account your cats’ natural temperament
Just like humans, all cats are different! Your cat will tell you what she needs. Some may respond well to your touch or voice. Others will just want to be left alone and may scratch, bite, hiss or growl if you try to pet them. Some cats are naturally more curious and will want to see what’s going on, some will put their head down until it’s over. Keep an eye on kitty and see what you can do to improve her situation. Anxious cat? I got you covered there, too.
15. Don’t leave your cats alone in the car
Never leave your cats in the car alone for more than a few minutes. Temperatures can change dramatically and some cats can get very distressed when their owner is not there. Plus, in some states such as Colorado, you may even get a ticket from the police – or your cats can be confiscated – if they appear to be in distress. When you stop for food, ask first if your cat can accompany you in her carrier.
16. Get a head start on understanding sedating or calming
At Cats and Travel, we do not advise sedating an animal for travel unless it is strictly necessary. Most of the time, sedation is not required. In fact, you could say it’s the lazy way out. To find out more about what to do instead of pharmaceutical sedation, check out my in-depth article about sedating cats for travel.
I’ve linked a few simple but effective all-natural remedies below that you can purchase on Amazon. They use either herbs or florals to induce a calming effect on your cat. All of these items are safe and inexpensive.
Feliway works a little differently (mimicking natural cat pheromones synthetically), but the idea is not to ‘knock your cat out’ but use remedies that work with her physiology, rather than against it.
There are many schools of thought on the topic of whether to sedate a cat for travel. Our take is below – we believe it’s dangerous to use pharmaceuticals to calm a cat for travel. Read more at the link below!
At the destination
17. Wait before letting your cat explore
Once you’ve arrived at the destination, keep your cat secured in the crate. There’ll be a lot going on and a lot to take in, so avoid everything happening at once which could overwhelm the cat.
Sally Morgan, holistic pet therapist, warns that in a new home, “The area is not familiar so even an outdoor cat will not be safe until he has had some quiet time in the new place to explore the house and then the yard.”
18. Set some furniture up
Let kitty out when it’s safe to do so and allow her time to explore on her own terms once the commotion of moving has died down. You may want to wait until you have some furniture set up which will provide places to hide. A bare house is not a friendly environment to a cat.
19. Set out your cat’s water, food and litter
Cats go into full on hunker-down mode during travel. Some of them survive the stress of car travel by ceasing all non-essential bodily functions. Now, you know all those bodily functions are going to start up pretty soon! I know when we brought my cat home from the shelter he left a little surprise in his cardboard box.
It was only a mile-long walk but it was the stress, uncertainty and fear made him behave in a way that is very out of character. So, make time to introduce your cat to the new litter and food stations, and he’ll take care of the rest in his own time. He may be interested in using them immediately, or not for several hours.
20. Be as comforting and reassuring as you can throughout!
Your cat will be faced with a lot of difficult situations during a long-distance car ride. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes when he can hear your voice and see you! Even if your cat appears to be doing just fine, sometimes that can mask a real anxiety, even terror.
So be sure to keep speaking to him, calling his name and offering comfort. If possible, plan pit stops to carefully take him out of the carrier (while all the doors are closed), to pet and cuddle him.
Riding long distances in the car can be terrifying to a cat that has no idea what’s happening. Cats aren’t natural travelers, as you no doubt know, but there are things you can do to ease their lot. They will likely need more encouragement and a greater period of acclimatization than other pets.
Just be patient, and approach the cat’s travel training as another component of your move. Monitor the cat during transit and be mindful of her needs. Cats can’t tell you what they want but they do show you.
Once they experience for themselves that there’s nothing to fear, they will calm down and enjoy the ride.
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