How to Travel with a Cat
I recently took a month long trip to San Diego. Diving, the travel time from Seattle totals about 19 hours, and that doesn’t include breaks, gas stops, and sleeping. Typically, I break it up over the course of two nights/3 days. I brought my cat along for the ride.
Out of curiosity I checked online to see what advice was already available and found there certainly is a plethora of places to find some great information on how to travel with a cat. The thing I found disappointing was that they all pretty much ascribed to the same conclusion: to crate your cat. While that really is the best advice in general, especially for those embarking on a long trip with a cat for the first time, I was a little dismayed that I did not find much in the way of alternatives for those of us who are a little more experienced with our feline companions.
Something to consider is that most states have laws and regulations that cats must be restrained in some fashion as well, or they may fall under distracted driving laws, along with loose dogs in a car. A great post I found on that topic in specific can be found HERE.
What I hope to give you here is some additional tips on traveling with your cat based on what has worked for me and some other things to think about such as how to choose a proper crate or carrier, how to crate train them, and how to harness train your cat. These are all useful whether for short or long distances.
Choosing the Crate or Carrier
No matter your goal, you should start here, with your cat in a crate or carrier. It is the safest way to get your cat used to the car and the sooner you start the better. Just like dogs, if you can train them while they are kittens, it makes it much easier when they are adults.
When choosing the crate, take the size of your cat and the distance in consideration.
Long Drives, over 4 hours:
- Get a hard crate that is big enough for your cat to stand, turn around, and be able to stretch out a little bit. You can even get something large enough for a small disposable litter box (optional). You also don’t want to go too big or they won’t have that cozy safe environment they need. There is a reason the like to squeeze into small dark boxes, and the crate should be relatively the same.
- Make sure it has a soft bottom. I personally like using whatever my cat likes sleeping on, something that is already theirs as it will have their scent, a favored blanket or towel for instance.
- Then it doesn’t hurt to have some comforts on hand like treats or a favorite toy. If they have a lot of trouble traveling it may be worth looking into calming products. These are usually scent based and made specifically for cats.
On your first long trip your cat may be too nervous to eat, drink, or even use the litter box. So long as you don’t see any other odd behaviors and they are bright, alert, and can get them to take a treat or at least a little interest in their food, such as at least sniffing it in the first 24 hours, they will come around. Just be sure to encourage them to use their box and at least pee. If they go too long they could end up with a UTI, which can take a while to show symptoms and that means a trip to the vet and anti-biotics.
Also, can get overly stressed out and develop crystals in their bladders. This will be nearly the same symptoms of a UTI but also may have bloody discharge in their urine. This tends to be mostly in males.
The biggest sign something could be wrong is the cat continually trying to use their box and simply not succeeding in urinating or only urinating a little bit. If you see your cat doing that get them to a vet as soon as possible as either of those conditions can lead to a blockage and a cat can die within a day if their urethra is blocked completely.
Short Drives, under 4 hours
Your standard small cat carrier is okay.
They will sleep most of the time anyway, once they calm down that is. If you must do more than 4 hours just want to be sure to give them breaks out of the crate as often as possible but try to be no longer than 4 hours depending on how they are doing. Their safety is the most important so go with the option that will keep them the secure and comfortable.
On a long drive in a relatively small crate I was able to let my cat, Bagheera, out of the crate at every pit stop, which amounted to every few hours and he would wonder around the car and then come back up to the front when I called him. I also had him leash trained so he could get out of the car too, so he did okay on a long drive in a smaller crate. My new cat, Hershey, on the other hand, just wants to hide and he crawled underneath the passenger seat to the back seat and would not come back up front. So since he just wanted to hide it was better to just get a larger crate and leave him in it for the trip since he isn’t quite as brave.
Update on that, a couple years after this was originally posted: Hershey has gotten far better where we can create a space for him to hide and keep a litter box accessible somewhere in the car and he’ll use the litter box when he needs to then goes back to his hiding spot. We just block off seats so he can’t get stuck under them.
Remember, just because something worked for one cat, it may not work for another. Each one is an unique individual.
Anywhere you look pretty much says the same thing on this topic as well: Try to leave your crate out in an area where your cat can play in it and be around it. Put some treats or toys in it so they can be comfortable and familiar with it. The sooner you start doing this and the longer it is out the easier it will go.
If that is not an option, it will be okay. Note, they often will struggle to get out at first and you just have to let them throw their fit. My cats usually cried, yowled, clawed at the opening and rolled around, all amounting to a very big tantrum.
While there is typically nothing you can do but keep your fingers out of the way, do watch to make sure they don’t pull a claw out. If they do, know that it will bleed a little and it’s a good idea to stick their paw in either corn starch or styptic powder to help prevent infection, it’s the same stuff you use if you accidentally cut the quick when trimming nails (dogs or cats). You really only need a vet if you think it is infected. The one time this happened to me I was on the way to the vet so they gave me some styptic powder since I happen to be there.
I found my cat Hershey stopped struggling when I put his towel in the crate as he was really just looking to get under it to hide. I only had a small mat in there at first and it simply wasn’t enough for him to feel hidden so he could calm down. Also, the towel definitely would have had his scent and the scent of home on it which I am sure didn’t hurt either.
Jackson Galaxy also has a line of calming scents and oils for various behaviors and situations. It is in the “Holistic Solutions” section of his product store here: store.jacksongalaxy.com.
Several sites recommend driving around on short trips, 30 minutes or less, periodically for up to a month or more before your trip, gradually taking longer and longer rides. In my experience short rides around are just not going to cut it. They don’t provide enough time for the cat to calm down and start realizing they are okay.
I have found that they calm down after an hour or two into a long trip. When they tire themselves out and resign to their situation enough to calm down and realize they are okay. Now not everyone has time to just go and drive until the cat gives in, but do what you can do. Remember, first they are unhappy about the fact of being in a crate and then the added stress of being in the car and being moved, but they are smart and they will be okay.
The earlier you can train the cat the better. Like dogs they do have a window when they are extremely adaptable and willing to accept situations more easily, while they are still young kittens. It is during that short window when it is the easiest to train them to be okay with collars, harnesses, even leash training. They can still be trained as adults, it’s just more difficult if they are over 4 years old.
This is good for two things, if you want to leash train your cat or if they are super confident cats and have become super comfortable with cars.
You need to buy a well fitting harness that gives great support. Not those that just look like a thin leash wrapped around the cat as a harness. Preferably you want one that that has chest coverage because that gives the safest support in case of accident and least likely to cause injury. Same reason why car seats for babies and children have the chest bar. When I go looking for a good harness I don’t even bother with the cat aisle, I go to the dog aisle and just look at the small and extra small harnesses. It’s best to make sure they have plenty of options to make adjustments to get a good snug fit. I actually have one that is just Velcro and it works great. So far my cat hasn’t been able to get out of it while on a leash at least.
Let them wear it around for a while. They’ll probably feel like they are off balance, but they eventually get used to it and will start walking normally again. At the very least it will be entertaining to watch them walk around. Have them wear it for some time every day if you can. After they start getting comfortable, I recommend that you start them off slow with a leash. In-door/outdoor cats will be a little easier getting them to go outside and start exploring.
At some point may be able to then transport them in the car as well, restrained if possible. IF they are not in a crate, I don’t recommend they be in the front seat. Airbags can cause serious injury for the same reason children are not supposed to be in the front seat either.
Training my cats for example:
My first cat, Bagheera, he was about 3 years old and somewhat used to moving as I had lived in a few different places while I had him, but hated to ride in the car. I tried short trips with him on a harness to see how he would do before I drove him up to Seattle and that was a no go. He definitely needed to be crated at least while my car was in motion as his main goal was to escape the car. Luckily on our trip from San Diego to Seattle that after a few hours he stopped howling, calmed down and relaxed most of the 20 hour drive to Seattle. Basically given a longer amount of time, he discovered nothing hurt him and he really no choice, so eventually he accepted it and settled down. I was even able to have him outside on a leash during gas breaks and he enjoyed exploring the car as well while on those breaks.
My current cat, Hershey, he was a little younger and calmer for his first long distance drive between Seattle and San Diego. I did the same experiment with a harness a few days before the trip and concluded he also would be much more comfortable in a carrier. Unlike Bagheera, he also preferred to stay in it while in the vehicle, or down on the floor because he felt safer. His goal was not to escape the car, but just to be safe and hide, which he could do in the carrier. So I got a larger carrier, not too large though, and just left him in the crate for the entire trip except when in the hotel room.
I hope you found this article helpful and I wish you all the luck on your travel plans.
Life, Love & Cats!