Traveling by Car with Your Cat

Story at-a-glance -

  • Most cats don't like to travel even short distances, so unless you have a compelling reason for bringing your cat on a road trip, we recommend you leave her home, safe in her own environment with a caretaker or frequent visits from a pet sitter.
  • If you do find it necessary to travel with your kitty by car, the safest way to do it is to purchase a carrier and get your cat used to it well before you leave on your trip.
  • Once kitty is reasonably comfortable in her crate at home, the next step is to take her on short "test drives" to get her used to being in the carrier in your vehicle.
  • Other important tips for traveling with your cat include making sure he's wearing an up-to-date ID tag, preparing both a travel kit and first aid kit for your pet, and bringing along a litter box and scooping/cleaning supplies.
  • Despite your best efforts, chances are your kitty will hate car trips (since most do). Fortunately, there are several natural remedies available that can be beneficial in reducing the stress kitties feel while traveling.

By Dr. Becker

Traveling with a pet can be very stressful, especially if the pet is a cat. In fact, unless you have a very compelling reason for bringing kitty along on your road trip, I don’t recommend you do it. Unless your cat happens to like car rides – and actually, there are a few cats that do – my suggestion would be to leave him in his own environment, which is at home.

Leaving your kitty at home with a caring and responsible pet sitter is the best thing you can do. The next best option would be to leave him with a competent friend or family member, and, of course, there’s always a boarding facility that focuses on cats as your last option. Of course, if you’re moving from one location to another, your pet must move with you. In that case, you’ll need to prepare ahead of time for the challenges of traveling with a feline.

Carriers: The Safest Way to Travel with Cats

It’s always safest to keep your kitty in a well-ventilated carrier when he’s in your vehicle. It may seem like cruel and unusual punishment, but not when you consider that most cats just don’t travel well. They wind up cowering on the floorboards of moving vehicles. Or they find a way to get stuck up inside one of the seats. Or they move frantically from the front seat to the back seat, back and forth, back and forth. So as you can see, traveling with kitty in a carrier is the lesser of evils.

And even though most cats fight being put into a carrier, once they’re in it and in unfamiliar surroundings – let’s say your vehicle or a hotel room– they’re actually quite happy to be in a secure, small environment. Try to view the carrier as your pet’s safe, cozy spot during travel rather than a jail cell.

Choosing a Carrier

There are many carriers to choose from. You can buy carriers made of wired mesh, hard plastic, and, in the case of soft-sided carriers, fabric.

Whatever type you choose, it needs to be large enough for your kitty to stand, sit, lay down, and turn around in. If you have more than one cat traveling with you, you can opt to select a carrier that’s roomy enough for both of them. But if your kitties aren’t best friends, I recommend you get a carrier for each of them.

I also recommend you buy the carrier well in advance and get your cat as comfortable with it as possible at home.

Put the carrier in your cat’s favorite room and leave the door open. Entice her to go into the carrier on her own with food treats, toys, and comfy bedding. You can even try feeding her in there to help her view the carrier as a non-threatening space.

Once your cat isn’t afraid to be in the carrier, zip her in and relocate carrier and cat to another room.

Getting Kitty Used to the Carrier in the Car

When your cat gets used to being inside the carrier and moving around the house, it’s time to take her for some short drives. Secure the carrier in your vehicle so it won’t move around while you’re traveling.

Some cats get car sick, others don’t like the sound or feel of the wind when car windows are down. Some kitties also do better not seeing the world pass by in a frightening blur around them. You might want to secure the carrier on the floor of your vehicle or if you have an SUV, in the back storage area to limit your cat’s exposure to some of the sights, sounds and smells that can occur while traveling. Partially covering a wire carrier with a light towel can also help kitties feel more secure in the car.

If your vehicle happens to be a pick-up truck with an open back bed, obviously, don’t put your cat back there. It’s sad that I even have to mention it, but actually, I’ve had kitties arrive at my clinic in the beds of pick-up trucks and everyone is horrified -- except the cat’s owner. Never put a living creature in the back of a pick-up truck.

It’s important to make more than just one trip around the block with your cat. You need to take several short, preliminary drives leading up to your trip so you can make adjustments in your car for the carrier if needed.

Check your kitty’s reaction to make sure he’s adjusting well to the trips.

One of my clients has traveled and moved multiple times with two kitties, and after some trial and error, she’s found that one kitty does best on the passenger side floorboard, and the other kitty does well on the seat beside her. She positions both of the carriers where the cats can see her.

While she’s driving, she sings to the cats, and because they are close, she can also reach into the carriers and give them an occasional reassuring scratch on the ear to let them know she’s there and everything’s fine. She’s able to look at them and they’re able to look at each other.

I do recommend that while you’re traveling, you leave the radio very low. I don’t recommend a lot of loud, thumping music. Calm, quiet music can be somewhat soothing. Remember not to aim air conditioning or heat vents directly at the carrier.

Gradually increase the length of your test drives to get your cat used to the sensation of being in a carrier inside a moving vehicle.

Important Travel Tips

  • Make sure your cat is wearing a collar with a current ID tag. If your cat is microchipped, make sure the information is current in the microchip company’s database.
  • It’s important when you travel to put together a travel kit for your pet. Include appropriate paperwork. Your veterinarian can advise you, if you’re traveling out of the country, what documents you will need. Your kit should include food, fresh bottled water, bowls, treats, a harness and leash, and any supplements or medications your kitty is taking.
  • Needless to say, a first aid kit for emergencies is a good idea. You can include a comb, some toys, and, of course, bedding. It’s also an excellent idea to include some recent pictures of your cat from various angles that would show any unique markings or any unique characteristics about her in the event – God forbid – that she gets away from you while traveling.
  • If you plan to feed her fresh or raw homemade food during the trip, obviously you need to pack an ice chest or some way to keep the food frozen. If you opt to switch to canned food for your journey, it’s important you make the dietary transition a week or so before you plan to leave, so you don’t encounter any unexpected bouts of diarrhea during your trip.
  • Have clean up supplies on hand. Sometimes, there are potty accidents or vomit episodes that need cleaning up.
  • Most kitties won’t use their litter box in a moving vehicle. If you make stops along the way, you can try to entice him to use the box at rest areas. It’s important to have a litter box available when you make stops, but it also means that you’ll need a litter scoop and some plastic bags for used litter if your cat does decide to take advantage of the litter box.
  • You need to make sure to never open the cat carrier while there are any car doors or windows, even a sunroof, open. It’s a precaution you should follow religiously at all times when traveling with your cat.
  • I don’t recommend you try and feed your kitty while the car is moving. Most cats will not eat when there’s any type of motion. In fact, the best recommendation is a light meal a few hours before departure. If you’re traveling some distance and will be staying at a hotel in the evening, feed a second meal once your kitty has settled down in your room for the night. In the morning, feed kitty some breakfast a couple hours before you actually get back on the road.
  • Obviously, you should never leave your cat unattended in a car that’s not running. It can become very hot or very cold in a matter of minutes.

Extra Help for Stressed-Out Cats

Despite your best efforts to make your cat comfortable on a road trip, the truth is most kitties are totally stressed out during travel and despise the entire experience.

There are a few natural products I have found very beneficial in helping to calm a frightened and very stressed-out cat:

Some cat owners planning to travel with their pet ask for kitty sedatives from their veterinarian. But in my experience, they’re actually counterproductive for cats, so I’m not a fan of giving a kitty any type of Quaalude for sedation during road trips. I’ve found homeopathic Aconitum provides far better results calming cats during travel.