Last time we talked about traveling with your cat and specifically about flying with your cat. Now in part two of our series, we will focus on car travel with cats and helping with cat travel stress.

Car Travel With Your Cat

Managing Cat Travel Stress

Many of us worry about traveling with our cats, especially if our kitty is particularly anxious or stress-prone.  Here are some steps we can take to minimize that stress and to make the trip as pleasant as possible.

Make Your Cat’s Carrier A “Safe Zone”

Your cat’s travel stress can be minimized if she is trained in advance to see her carrier as a “safety zone,” rather than “that horrible jail used only for stressful situations.” 

To achieve this, start early. Leave your cat’s carrier out all the time, with some comfy bedding in it and the door open. Entice her to go in by placing treats inside regularly. If leaving her carrier out long-term is not an option, consider bringing it out at least a few days ahead of time. It’s best if the carrier smells like home, rather than the attic or garage. 

Obtain unwashed, just-used clothing from your cat’s favorite person. Place that in the carrier. Our scent can be comforting to our cats but for the comfort of the human passengers, try to avoid too much BO! Alternatively, you can use a towel or small blanket that has been in your cat’s usual sleeping spot. If your cat is accident-prone, consider lining her carrier with a potty training pad, and bring extras to replace if soiled. 

Car Training

By starting with very short trips and using positive reinforcement, you can train your cat to tolerate (or even like!) car rides. Start off by placing the carrier in the car and turning it on for a few minutes. Then go ahead with very brief trips – around the block at first and then further and further. Give some treats once home for a job well done! 

A trip is NOT the occasion to first try out a cat harness.

Safe Carrier Placement In The Car

The safest spot to place a cat carrier is on the floor behind one of the front seats. DO NOT buckle the carrier with a seatbelt unless it is one that is specifically created for that (most are not).

Car Travel With Cats: Inside The Car

Keep your kitty INSIDE the carrier while in the car.  Having your cat roam the car can be dangerous for both humans and cats and increases the chances of an escape if a car door is opened.

Resources At the Ready

Have your resources ready.  Have all needed items easily accessible: food and water, medications, bowls, litter box, clean bedding (accidents can happen).  Make sure you can reach all these items without having to get out of the car!

Car travel with cats: litter box

Car Travel With Cats: Travel Litter Box

A travel litter box is a must during car travel with cats.  A great choice for a “travel” litter box for those longer trips is a plastic storage bin with a lid. When not in use, you can pop the lid back on and prevent any litter spills while in motion. (Only allow litter box use when the car is parked!)

Making The Car Trip Comfortable

Cats are sensitive creatures. Small things folks often overlook can drive your kitty crazy on the road. 

  • Keep It Down!  Most cats (and some human passengers) do not like loud music. 
  • Keep It Fresh!  A cat’s nose is much more sensitive than ours; your cat will thank you for removing scented items such as car air fresheners before the journey. 
  • Keep It Warm!  Cats tend to like warmer temperatures than most people. Adjusting air conditioning settings so that cold air isn’t blowing directly into the carrier. Temperatures vary in different parts of the car; make sure your cat isn’t sitting in a very cold or hot spot. 
  • To Cover or Not To Cover?  Some cats want to be able to see out of their carrier; others feel safer when the carrier is covered with a towel. You’ll probably get this figured out while doing your “getting your cat used to car trips” training.

Car Travel With Cats: Handling Rest Stops

Never leave your cats unattended in a car. This is especially important in the summer when the inside temperature of your car can get to dangerously high levels within minutes!  Plan on drive-through meals, or bring your own food.  If you must leave the car and you are not alone, take turns leaving so the air conditioning or heating isn’t shut off.

Kitty Potty Breaks:  On long trips, your cat might appreciate a potty break. For the safest potty breaks:

  • Always park your car and lock your doors before letting your cat out of the carrier.
  • Keep the car doors closed and locked until your kitty is back in the carrier. 
  • Don’t allow any escape attempts. Be careful: cats can move quickly if startled! 
  • Prevent your cat from hiding under a seat or other dangerous spot.  

Take A Walk?  A trip is NOT the occasion to first try out a cat harness. However, if your cat is already comfortable with a harness and leash, this is an extra method of security during pit stops. We don’t recommend taking your cat for a leashed walk at a rest stop (far too many cats go missing this way!), but if you do, be sure your cat’s harness is very secure, and be careful of any dogs present, especially if they are off-leash.

We recommend that you consult with your experienced cat vet about the best and safest medications to help make your cat more comfortable.

Cat Travel Stress

Cat Travel Stress

Medications That Can Help Ease Your Cat’s Stress

Most cats will benefit from anxiety-relieving medications for car travel with cats, flights, or even just a drive to the vet.

Manage Anxiety With Gabapentin: Gabapentin is a wonderful anti-anxiety medication for cats and dogs. It’s one of the safest medications out there. The most common side effect is mild drowsiness,  which can be a benefit when traveling. 

Drugs To Avoid:  The more “old school” medications used for pet travel are tranquilizers. Heavy sedation is not the safest way to go. Some tranquilizers lower heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. This can be risky if your cat has any underlying disease, especially heart disease. Plus, even if the cat is laying there like a lump, she could still be panicking internally.

  • Gabapentin During Your Trip:  Gabapentin is administered orally, most easily as a powder that is mixed into a small amount of food 1-2 hours before leaving home. For longer trips, doses can be repeated up to every 8 hours. You’ll find more information about gabapentin (and its use prior to vet visits) here.
  • Gabapentin Before Your Trip:  If your kitty’s anxiety comes in the Extra Large size, you may want to start giving gabapentin several days before the trip. Cats often experience an anxiety build-up triggered by trip preparations like getting out the suitcase. Minimizing your kitty’s stress during trip preparations can help keep her anxiety to a minimum during the trip.  
  • Gabapentin After Your Trip: If your kitty remains anxious at your destination (unfamiliar surroundings, other animals, or perhaps it’s just taking some time for her stress to wear off), consider giving gabapentin for a few days after the trip as well. Your feline vet can help you make the best plans for this.

Cat Travel Stress: Manage Carsickness With Maropitant

Does your cat get carsick?  Maropitant can help with that!  Maropitant is a very effective anti-nausea medication, considered by many to be more effective than most human anti-nausea drugs. Like gabapentin, maropitant is extremely safe. It is available in small tablets. It should be given 1-2 hours prior to travel and lasts for 24 hours.

Cat Vet

We recommend that you consult with your experienced cat vet about the best and safest medications to help make your cat more comfortable. Do this well before your trip; you may need some time to work out the most effective dosage for your cat at home before you go.

Pheromones Help Calm Some Cats

Pheromones are a form of chemical communication. Specific feline pheromones exert a calming effect on many cats, although not all. Synthetic versions of these calming pheromones are available in several different forms: sprays, plug-in diffusers, wipes, and collars. Pheromones do not have consistent effects in all cats, but they are safe – might help, won’t hurt!

How to use pheromones effectively to minimize your kitty’s travel anxiety trip:  

  • Spray or wipe down the inside of the carrier with the pheromone product before putting your kitty inside. 
  • Be sure to allow at least 10 minutes after treating the carrier before putting your cat in. These products come in an alcohol base which is very irritating to cats – it takes about 10 minutes for the alcohol part to evaporate.
  • Put a calming collar on your kitty. It is most effective to do this several days before the trip, to help minimize that pre-trip anxiety build-up mentioned above.

Minimizing Your Cat’s Stress At Your Destination

 Don’t let the cat out of the bag (carrier)!  (At least, not until everything is prepared!)

  • Check the surroundings to make sure that there are no escape routes. Check for any open windows and doors. Think like a cat. Look out for hiding spots that might be really difficult to coax your cat out of. (Have you ever had your cat climb into a hole in the wall and end up exploring the inside of your parents’ basement ceiling?) 
  • Set up the litter box and show your cat where it is by placing them in or near it. Some cats won’t urinate while traveling, so we recommend doing this immediately after arrival. Make sure you place her litter box in a spot where she’ll feel safe, with a good line of sight in all directions, and where no unfamiliar animals can get to it.
  • Give your cat some time to get adjusted to his new surroundings. Cats are creatures of habit, so try to keep as many things unchanged as possible, such as meal times. 
  • Give your kitty LOTS of extra love!  Change is unsettling.  Attention and petting will help reassure your kitty that all is well.

Traveling With Your Cat

Whether it’s having the right resources available or getting the right medications to ease your cat’s travel stress, car and air travel with cats requires proper planning to help it go more smoothly.