Anxiety in cats can be challenging to deal with when traveling. I’ve had an anxious cat or two and have dealt with issues like incessant meowing and other vocalization, vomiting, hissing, clawing and aggression while traveling in the car. No one likes to see their cat going through such anxiety but it can be very hard to know what will soothe her.
In this article we’ll get to the bottom of how to reduce your cat’s anxiety while traveling. But first, it helps to understand a little about what we’re actually dealing with when we talk about cats having anxiety, or travel-related anxiety.
What is anxiety in cats?
According to Webmd:
Anxiety is the anticipation of future dangers from unknown or imagined origins that result in normal body reactions.Alex German for Webmd
The article goes on to describe the fear-based reactions that include “elimination (urination and/or passage of bowel movements), destruction, and excessive vocalization (barking, crying)”. I’ve yet to see a cat bark, but you get the point.
In short, we can all relate. Anxiety is a normal reaction that’s intended to keep us safe and vigilant to our surroundings. However, the type of anxiety in cats that’s most worrying is when it appears to happen for no discernible reason. At least, it’s not easily discernible to us, the cat guardians.
What causes cat anxiety?
Just like anxiety in people, causes of cat anxiety are many and varied. Common causes of cat anxiety can be related to illness or pain. Cat anxiety can also be triggered by exposure to something toxic or infectious. Also just like in humans, cats can suffer PTSD caused by a psychological trigger.
If you take in a rescue cat, it’s possible he may not have been socialized properly, which has been linked to anxiety in adulthood. A rescue cat may have a history of abuse or neglect, or have been rehomed several times which can cause trauma.
Less dramatic factors, such changes in a cat’s environment, can cause anxiety. Examples include moving home, a change to the routine, or a new person or animal living in the house. More info on the causes and treatments of cat anxiety are given in this Purina article.
Separation anxiety is when a cat exhibits the signs of anxiety specifically when they are separated from their owner. As we are dealing with cats and travel in this article, this is going to become especially relevant.
How do you know if your cat is an anxious traveler?
If your cat exhibits signs of anxiety when at home, you should be wary of possible anxiety down the road, so to speak. Common signs of cat anxiety are:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Excessive lethargy
- Attempting escape
- Diarrhea or not using the litter box
- Overgrooming (with attendant sores or hair loss)
- Excessive vocalization
- Hiding in a dark place
- Light panting
- Obsessive behaviors (OCD)
Bustle even has their take on cat anxiety and dives into 10 signs your cat has anxiety. If your cat is already an anxious sort, getting in car is going to be extra scary. However, with careful preparation and potential medical intervention, you can ease your anxious cat’s stress.
So without further ado, here are my 11 top tips!
1. Acclimate your cat to traveling
It all starts with careful preparation. An anxious cat hates change even more so than a healthy cat – and a healthy cat hates change. Introduce travel slowly, first with travel paraphernalia, then the actual vehicle itself. You could try to expand your cat’s horizons a bit by taking her on walks around the neighborhood. Always encourage her and reward with treats.
Your anxious cat won’t like it at first. It’ll seem cruel to take her outside when she just isn’t feeling it. But as is the case with exposure therapy, you have to be kind, but persistent. Try and keep the training to the same time each day, if possible. Cats find comfort in routine!
2. Make sure the carrier fits the bill
When dealing with an anxious cat, a smaller carrier is going to likely be more of a comfort to her. Something soft would likely feel cozier than a hard crate. Plus, it’ll allow a glimpse of the outside world without it being overwhelming. You could also add a breathable cover draped over the crate or carrier to shutter out the world. Just be aware that anxiety, especially separation anxiety, may be triggered by the cat thinking she’s alone. It may help if she has sight of you.
An anxious cat want to feel protected and safe, more so than a curious, bold cat. I have this carrier myself, and the cat loves it. It has soft sides and features zippers on two sides and removable base. This one is suitable for medium cats of up to 16lbs, but there’s also one made for larger cats here.
We live in a small apartment in San Francisco where space is at a premium, and one of my absolutely favorite features about it is that it folds up SO slim. 5 stars on Amazon out of currently around 800 reviews! That’s pretty remarkable.
Check out my more detailed article about how to choose your carrier below!
3. Get your cat used to the carrier
When I got that carrier for my cat, Friday, I left it out for him to explore in his own time without being forced into it. I left a few treats inside so he’d associate it with positive experiences (yes, you might call that bribery). Unfortunately, he got a little too used to the carrier and peed in it one day. But it was totally my own fault because I had coincidentally just moved his litter box and placed the carrier too close to where the litter box used to be!
So, don’t do that! But do leave the carrier somewhere for your cat to explore. Take the carrier out regularly. Eventually, when she’s inside it, zip it up and introduce her to the fact that it moves!
For more detailed info on crate-training your cat in preparation for car travel, check out our detailed guide below!
4. Get her used to the car
A while later, you can put her inside the car in the carrier and have her sniff around the new environment. Then, and only while the car is stationary, allow her to roam around the car freely. Never drive with a cat roaming around the car. Anxious cats (all cats, really!) love to sniff around their environment and figure out all the nooks and crannies.
Now it’s time to start with short car rides: exposure therapy! When we get used to something, we tend to find it less threatening. Repeated trips in the car will get your kitty accustomed to its motion and noise. The more you expose her to traveling in the car, the quicker she’ll be at ease with the process. She may even start to relax and enjoy it. Here’s to hoping…
5. Use natural sedatives prior to travel
The issue of pharmaceutical cat sedatives comes up a lot in regards to travel! My general advice is simply, ‘don’t do it’. I have a whole heap of articles relating to exactly why, but I always advise natural calming agents.
There are a few different ways you can go. Here are some of my favorites:
Rescue Remedy for Pets contains florals such as:
- Star of Bethlehem (great for trauma and helping to let go of the past)
- Rock Rose (for pain or terror)
- Cherry Plum (helps animals that have obsessive compulsions)
- Impatiens (as the name suggests, it’s good for impatient souls)\
- Clematis (perfect for lethargic or distracted pets).
This is an effective product and I’ve even used the human version myself. As it’s homeopathic, side effects are extremely rare if you follow the correct dosage and guidance for administering. You could rub it on your cat’s gums, ears, or paws, or add two drops to her drinking water, four times a day. You can use it regularly to help with ongoing anxiety, or just prior to travel. It’s widely available including here, and inexpensive (a little goes a long way, too!)
Another similar product is Feliway. Feliway spray contains catnip, rosemary, and geranium as the active herbs/ florals. Its effects are said to last up to 6 hours and kicks in in just 15 minutes. Reviews are mixed on this one, with some reporting that their cat went wild due to the catnip present in the product. However, it has overall excellent reviews on Amazon and it’s on my list to try out next!
Looking for more info on cat sedation – whether it’s a good idea or not? I’ve a separate and detailed post that dives into this topic – linked below!
6. Talk to your cat during the journey
During the journey, your anxious cat will feel alone and worried, scared that her normal world is very far away. A reassuring, calming voice will work wonders! If you’re driving alone, or have a lovely voice, maybe you could sing to your cat. Always talk in a soft voice and do what you can to stay calm yourself. Even if you’re stressed (maybe you’re moving house or in a crazy rush), be gentle with your cat. Cats absorb the energy of those around them. If they sense you’re anxious they’ll be anxious too!
7. Bring items that remind her of home
In a similar vein, you want to make the crate feel like a home away from home: full of pleasant, familiar things. Make sure she has her bedding or favorite toy to soothe her. You may even want to throw in an old t-shirt of yours that you haven’t washed in a while! Cats live in a whole world of smells. Something as simple as the smell of home can be incredibly comforting.
8. Tire her out before travel
On travel days, I switch up my cat’s regular playtime from late in the night to early morning (or whenever I wake up, which won’t be early morning as such). The aim is to get her as tired as possible, so use her favorite toys and give her the best cardio workout ever!
Cats love playing, so if yours doesn’t take straightaway to a toy, it might just not be the right one for her. There are so many different types of cat toys on Amazon – so take a browse and try out a few! Mine loves this feather on a string, automatic laser toy and the classic ’nip-filled ’nana.
9. Don’t feed her for a few hours before travel
As cats can feel nauseous, or have vomiting or diarrhea, it’s best to avoid food for a few hours before the trip. You know that anxious feeling when your bowels just feel like they’re going to shoot right though you? No, just me? Well, I’m pretty sure cats get that, too.
When I brought my cat home from the shelter for the first time, it was only a short 1-mile walk. However, the trauma of being displaced made him poop in the cardboard box he was in… Yeah, not pleasant to clean up, and I’m sure he was in a world of pain with those smells. I’m sure he’ll hate me for sharing the poop story plus the pee story both in this article. But hopefully it illustrates how important it is to adjust mealtimes accordingly.
10. Put on soothing music
Yes, there are CDs and YouTube channels with soothing cat music, which are easy enough to find! As you probably don’t want to be stuck listening to that though, just keep music volume low. Better yet, turn off all sounds which could be upsetting to the cat (talking to you, Justin Bieber) and just let the sounds of the highway soothe kitty.
11. Drive carefully and avoid sudden braking and sharp turns
I know this one seems obvious, but it’s worth bearing in mind how jolting it can be for a cat who genuinely thinks the world is going to end because you took a corner too fast. Obviously, you’re not going to drive recklessly. It just means make sure you allow a ton of extra time when traveling with your anxious cat. When you think you’re going to be late for your appointment or your flight, it’s natural to drive a little faster and give off anxious vibes in general.
In addition to what we’ve already outlined, you might want to make extra sure the car is at a good temperature back there. Also check the carrier is securely fastened and won’t shift in case of hard braking. You might consider placing the carrier on the floor of the back seat if your car allows for it to be wedged securely there. As it’s a lower center of gravity, it’ll help reduce movement.
For further reading, check out Hartz’s short guide here which deals with the topic of traveling with an anxious cat.
Travel with an anxious cat doesn’t have to be a nightmare – the key is preparation . An anxious travel buddy just needs more time to warm up to the idea of being any place that isn’t his favorite hiding spot. With some legwork before the trip, you can make your anxious cat feel more comfortable and less stressed, which will make for a more pleasant journey for everyone.
And there you have it! Everything you need to know about traveling with an anxious feline companion. I truly hope this guide was helpful – happy travels!
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