Driving in Cars With Cats: Tips for Traveling With Your Pet

Traveling with your pet this holiday season? Make it a pleasant experience (for everyone) with these tips…

Two hours in and it appears there’s a direct correlation to the number of times I’ve heard Adele’s ‘Hello’ and the number of times I’ve experienced a radio edit’s-worth of peace (at this point, approximately six…the world really loves Adele right now). I’m driving North for the holidays, and my road trip companion is…not pleased. Beyond the two hours of yowling, he’s kept himself busy by attempting to bust out, Alien-style, from the carrier meant to keep him safe and secure. This isn’t exactly your average wanderlust-finding-yourself, radical road trip, because my traveling companion is my cat, Zephyr.

Despite the palpable levels of displeasure, this isn’t our first rodeo. Zephyr has accompanied me all over the Northeast, from Boston to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia to New Hampshire, Maine to Massachusetts and back again and along the way we’ve learned a few things. About each other. About tolerance…and intolerance and the acceptance of one’s fate. And Adele.

Adele calms more than just tense family gatherings. She also croons to stressed-out cats.

One-sided conversations we’ve had so far on this drive:

“I’m sorry.”

“Please stop.”

“I know, honey pie.”

“We’ll be there soon, I promise.”

“Please stop biting your carrier.”

“My little cinnamon bun, you’ve got to stop.”

“Why are you upside down?”

“Listen! It’s Adele!”

“Do you want a treat? No? Fine.”

“Look! Birds!”

“I’m sorry.”

Plus a sorry rendition of Willie Nelson’s ‘On the Road Again’…but customized for our particular feline-centric situation…I know, I’m surprised I have friends, too.

Joking aside, traveling with your animal companion can be stressful for both parties, especially if it’s a long drive. As much as it would be nice to keep them cozy at home with a pet sitter while you’re out of town, that’s not always possible, especially during the holiday season. While I’m not an expert, years of driving in cars with cats has taught me a few things to make the experience just a little smoother for you and your furry friend…

Before you go:

Talk to your vet: Before embarking (… see what I did there?) on a long journey, schedule a check-up with their veterinarian to make sure your pet is up to date on their vaccinations and can handle the inevitable stress of a trip. This is also a great time to ask if he/she has any recommendations for making your drive a smooth one. Knowing that Zephyr has a heart condition, I’d never want to sedate him, but his vet was able to recommend Feliway wipes, which replicate a calming pheromone and are applied to the carrier before hitting the road. This was also safe to use with Bach Flower Essence Rescue Remedy for pets, an herbal tincture administered before departure that encourages calm and security. If your pet isn’t already microchipped, you’ll want to do this before your trip as well. If your pet gets separated from you or loses their collar, the microchip can be a lifeline to being reunited.

Leave the carrier and collar out: Some animals know exactly what the carrier means. Leaving it set up and within access for a few days before you leave will allow them to get reacquainted with the space and lessen the shock of being loaded up day-of. If your indoor cat doesn’t typically wear a collar, acclimate him/her to wearing one before you leave. In our house, the collar is the most detested accessory, but it’s a necessary evil when we’re on the road to keep Zeph safe.

Plan your packing: Watching you frantically pack your bags and load the car can only add to the stress of the drive for your pet. Plan ahead, pack in advance and pack slowly so as not to arise too much suspicion. Bring a few bags at a time to your car, leaving the carrier for last.

On the day of your trip:

Work with their schedule: It may not always be ideal, but planning your trip around your pet’s schedule will make the ride more comfortable for the both of you. Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way. If you’re not already privy to your pet’s habits, be sure to pay extra attention during the days leading up to your journey — this is especially important for cats and other small animals that may not have the luxury of dog parks and leash breaks. On the morning of, be sure to allot some time to play and expend some energy and feed them a small meal a few hours before you leave so their stomach has plenty of time to settle and isn’t jostled around in the car. If they’re not hungry, don’t force it, they’ll be fine. And just in case, stock a bag with some reality: paper towels, baby wipes, plastic gloves. It’s way better to be safe than really, really sorry.

It’s not an ambush: Once the car is packed, be sure to leave a special, secure space for your pet’s carrier where there is plenty of airflow but offers little to no sliding space. You may be in a rush to leave, but take the time to make your pet feel calm and happy before gently placing them in their carrier. Load the carrier last so they don’t have to wait around for you to depart.

Vince Lombardi, forever and ever, amen: If you’re traveling with a cat, the first couple of hours may be rough. They may be really rough (see: my embarrassing version of ‘On the Road Again,’ above). But, they’ll usually calm down after a bit of grumbling (or yelling). For Zeph and I, it was the Vince Lombardi travel area (and Adele) that finally offered respite. The Vince Lombardi travel area is magic. After he curled up for some snooze time, I didn’t stop again until he eventually woke up at exit 1 in Massachusetts. This corresponded nicely with some low gas prices. I wasn’t taking any chances with the possibility of waking him until he roused himself. Clearly, some cats are a bit more difficult to travel with than dogs but, if you’re on a long trip, stopping at a quiet rest area and allowing them to walk around the inside of the car will give them a break and let them stretch their legs.

Upon arrival:

Attend to them first: When you arrive to your destination, your pets should be priority. Get them set up in a small, quiet space — like a bathroom — where they can move around but won’t be overwhelmed. Set up a litter box (if your animal friend is a cat) and a towel to curl up on, and shut the door while you unpack the remainder of your things. Don’t offer food right away, as their stomach is most likely still settling. Once you’re unpacked and everything is secured, set aside an equally secluded spot for food and water. If travel is a new experience for your pets, they may be feeling scared and stressed out, so having a spot dedicated to their needs will give some security and routine. Unless you know for certain they socialize well with the other animals that may be at your home base, keep them separated for the entirety of the trip, you and they don’t need the additional stress of attempting to make friends.

Stick with routine: You may be on vacation, but be sure to stick as close as possible to their regular routine and feeding times. Feed them the same food (purchase before leaving, if necessary), and filtered water to avoid stomach upset. And set aside time to play and hang out with your animal friends so they have plenty of attention and activity.

When it’s time to leave, repeat it all over again (except the part with the vet — hopefully there will be no need to see the vet during your stay). The trip home will be just as calm (hopefully calmer) than the departure but, if it’s not, remember: There’s always Adele.

+ What are your tips for traveling with animals during the holidays? Please share in the comments!

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