Choosing the Best Pet or Cat Carrier

Grey tabby sitting in open soft-sidd cat carrier

Your cat carrier should match your needs, your budget and — most importantly — your cat’s safety and comfort. So look beyond the labels on pet products and find what works for you — and your cat.

The best cat carrier is one that meets the specific needs of you, your travel lans and your cats. You want a cat carrier that reduces cat travel stress — and yours.  The key questions in choosing a pet or cat carrier are:

  • Method of travel
  • Length of travel
  • Size of your cat
  • Temperament of your cat
  • Degree of Safety for your peace of mind

Quick Summary: My Recommendations

For those in a hurry, here are my cat carrier recommendations for traveling with cats in brief.

Best Cat Carrier for Traveling By Air:

Make certain your cat carrier meets the specifications of the airline you are using. Then choose the most comfortable, safest one you can afford starting with Sleepypod Air In-Cabin Pet Carrier, Jet Black.

Best Cat Carrier for Short Trips & Emergency Preparedness:

Soft-sided cat carriers are light-weight and have give for bumpy rides. Some even fold up for easy storage.Great for average cats up to 15-pounds. But if your panics, claws, gnaws or becomes incontinent in confinement, get a good, hard-sided, plastic cat carrier or kennel cage.

Best Big Cat Carrier for Short-Trips & Emergency Preparedness:

For big cats or cats over 15-pounds, I recommend a soft-sided, medium, dog kennel cage or crate. Measure your cat’s length and height sitting and standing and select the size fits best. but not If your big cat claws, gnaws, panic, you definitely want a hard-sided, plastic dog kennel cage or crate.

Best Cat Carrier for Long-distance in a Car or RV:

If you have the space, the portable cat play pen or the soft-sided, portable cat cage are definitely my first choice for long-distance travel — unless your cats panic. My very close second choice is a folding, portable wire cat kennel cage. Get a size big enough to let your cats stand up, sit up and stretch out — even with a litter box and pet bed inside.

The folding, portable wire cat kennel cage is best when packing gear around your cats. The portable cat play pen walls will collapse if pressed. The soft-sided play pen or portable cat cage are better during a sudden stop, but not if suitcase, boxes or gear are tossed around.

For the complete guide to choosing the best cat carrier to meet your needs, keep reading!

Choosing a Cat Carrier for Flying

Each airlines have specific requirements for traveling with a cat (if they even allow it). Make certain that any in-cabin, under-seat pet or cat carrier meets the restrictions of each airplane you will be using. Some animals with “pushed in” faces (medically labeled “brachycephalic”), such as Persian cats, bulldogs or pugs, are more susceptible to oxygen deprivation and heat stroke, particularly under stress.  Susceptible animal should not fly.

Other Considerations for Choosing a Carrier

And it should go without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that your cat should be able to ride and sleep comfortably in the pet carrier.  You need a big cat carrier for large cats. Most cat carriers for air travel are rated to a maximum weight of 15-18 pounds, including Sleepypod My big 18-20 pounder would not have been comfortable scrunched down in a flight carrier.

Also, plan for inspections  at security checkpoints. How easy is it for staff to see the animal? Are there any potentially problems such as removable handles or straps, toys or watering supplies?

Avoid Shipping Your Cat in Cargo

I have to agree with the Humane Society and numerous other animal care organizations and veterinarians that we should never transport our pets in the cargo hold of planes. It is neither comfortable nor safe traveling in airplane cargo holds. Over 100 pets a year are lost, physically injured or die from air transport. This does not include the number of animals traumatized by the experience. And it is traumatic no matter how mellow your cat.

Here’s an excellent article on safe traveling with cats (or dogs) from the Humane Society with details on airline, as well as cruise ships and train, travel. You should also read Traveling With Cats By Air before buying your tickets.

Choosing the Best Pet or Cat Carrier for Car Travel (including in RVs)

The longer the travel time, the more room is needed by the animal to ride comfortably. And the more you have to consider the temperament of your cat. Car travel is strange for your pet, the world whizzing past the windows and speed disturbing. Many animals suffer from carsickness or are poor travelers. Test how your cat will react with few short test trips, preferably going somewhere other than the vet’s office.

Consider safety. As long as everything goes well, most pet carriers are fine, however, one mistake can result in impact stress on the cat carrier — and your cat.

Which brings me to the issue of budget. If you have the budget, please purchase a Top Safety-Rated Pet Carriers, such as Sleepypod, assuming your cat will fit in them. Sleepypod is not the best big cat carrier.

For the rest of us, the question is how much can we afford and how to increase our cat’s safety and comfort. Here are break downs of each type of pet or cat carrier and cat travel kennel cage.  I include some of my experiences and thoughts and  the limited amount of research and opinions to date of some vets.

Ultimately you want the best cat carrier you can afford.

Special RV or Camper Cat Travel Considerations

Cats should not roam freely in moving RVs or camper trailers. In fact, sudden stops, slides or accidents can generate even more velocity and impact because of the greater space. An even greater danger is your cat slipping (or dashing) out when doors are  opened, especially if startled.  Fortunately, the new soft-sided crates, portable cages and travel kennels (like the Necoichi Portable Cat Cage mentioned below) and cat play pens, offer an excellent way to safely — and comfortably — transport your cats. Just be sure to secure the cat travel kennel cage when moving. For more tips, check out Traveling By RV With Cats.

Common Cat Carrier Features

Like cars, cat carriers increasingly have new features and technology for safety and comfort — ours and our cats’. And as with choosing a car, we must decide which are important to us. Much depends upon the personality of our cats and the most common use of cat carrier.

Top-Loading vs Front-loading

(I feel like I’m talking about washing machines.) The choice between the two basic styles — front-loading or top-loading — is a personal one. Many of my friends, and my vets, prefer top-loading because it provides the largest, and therefore theoretically easiest, access.

I prefer the front loading because I’ve wrestled too many rescue cats who attempted to bolt before I could get the top down and fastened. I ended up either smashing delicate paws or tails. Or I played the cat rescuer version of Whack-a-Mole where I try to tuck all appendages back inside the cat carrier fast enough to get the top closed. On the other hand, top-loading pet carriers are easiest with my current clowder of rescues. If you have a more mellow cat who doesn’t instantly try to escape, the top-loaders have the advantage of convenience.

How do I get a resistant cat into my front-loading pet crate or carrier?

I set the cat carrier on end, so it now acts like a long top-loader, insert the often struggling cat tail first into the pet carrier, covering and tucking any stray paws or head in with one hand while the other closes the wire door over the narrower opening. Once the cat is in the pet crate, I slo-oooowly tip it from on end to its proper upright positioning. The cat looks a bit like Fred Astaire dancing down the walls in Royal Wedding, but it works.

For really, really difficult cats, wrap them first in a towel, creating a cat burrito, and then slip the wrapped cat into pet crate. They will unwrap themselves inside and it gives them a towel to hide under to boot.

But the trend now is top-loading pet carriers, especially in the high-end models like Sleepypod .  I presently have a soft-sided cat carrier that can be used as either a top-loader or a front-loader which makes the issue moot.

Seatbelt Straps

Another growing trend is building straps or fasteners for seatbelts into the cat carriers. Sleepypod’s performance in the pet safety car crash test is what has made it rated #1 for safety. However, I have excellent results simply fastening the seatbelt(s) around and over my carriers, even without the special attachment straps. For my largest wire cat kennel cages, I fasten the seatbelt through bars closest to the seat back of the cat travel kennel. As I mention in my review of pet carrier types below, the bigger issue is velocity and impact of the cat against the sides of the carrier and what happens to both the carrier — and the cat! Use padding and soft bedding inside any large cat carrier or cat cage.

And I assume you will strap your cat carrier in the backseat. Like carseats for kids, cat carriers belong in the backseat to avoid damage and injury from airbags in a crash.

I’ve had no problem simply strapping carriers into the back seat with my seat belts.  But I also pack so that there is something in the footwell that braces the cat carrier or cat cage. I use an upended suitcase or a couple of banker boxes or even my some soft items, like my sleeping bag and pillows.

Cardboard Box Cat Carriers

Pros: Cheap, readily available, somewhat flexible on impact

Cons: Not very secure (see below), cannot be cleaned, degrades quickly

Yes, cardboard pet carriers are still around, particularly as temporary transport at pet adoption events. But note the word “temporary.” They are designed to quickly transport a cat (or small dog) to a vehicle and, at best, from the vehicle to another building. This assumes that it isn’t pouring down rain or that the animal does not panic and shred the cardboard cat carrier in transit.

Cardboard Cat Carrier Case Study

The classic example of the problem with cardboard pet carriers was seen when my family moved from Key West to near Orlando, Florida in an epic 8-hour journey. Normally, we only needed one cat carrier at a time for trips to the vet, so my mother placed our most nervous cat in our plastic cat carrier.  She then got cardboard carriers (from the vet no less) for the other five cats. We placed all the cats in the carriers, duct taped them closed for extra security, and then placed them in the car.

By the time we had the last cat carrier in the car and ourselves in the front seat, we heard the first sound of tearing. In the backseat the talon-like claw of our largest male was slicing through the duct tape like Mack the Knife. Meanwhile, the sound of cardboard air holes being systematically shredded came from another box.  By the time we reached the Seven-Mile Bridge the only cat still contained was poor Tarquinius in the plastic cat carrier. Fortunately, the others settled down (some even in the now open boxes) and we made the journey without catastrophe (pun intended). That was the last time we ever used cardboard cat carriers.

Pudgy cat overflowing the box she's sleeping in

Make certain your cat fits in the carrier well before you pack for travel. Cats may be able to sleep anywhere, but even they suffer when their space is cramped.

Soft-sided Pet or Cat Carriers

Pros: Easier to secure; flexible; usually padded for comfort; wide price range; usually stores easily; most popular

Cons:  Not good for long-distance travel — limits the cats ability to move about or shift positions; may not be easy to clean or deodorize;  more likely to harbor fleas or other pests

Actually, the safest, most comfortable pet cat carrier available for short distance travel is the Sleepypod semi-soft-sided carrier. If you can afford it — and your cat fits comfortably in it — I highly recommend it. But keep in mind that while your cat (up to 15-17 pounds) can curl up or sit up in the Sleepypod, she can not stretch out comfortably. And this is a luxury soft-sided cat carrier designed for comfort and safety — but not a big cat carrier!

Big cat carriers or cages are best for long distance travel.

Think about how long you can stand to be scrunched up in a tight space like an economy-class airline seat or economy sedan backseat. This gives us some idea of the limits of soft-sided pet cat carriers.  Perfect for a trip to the vet or a couple of hours to grandma’s house, but not designed for long-distance, cross-country travel. Soft-sided pet or cat cages (crates) or play pens are a new alternative for soft-sided big cat or long-distance cat travel.

I recommend having a soft-sided pet cat carrier at hand not only for vet or grooming trips, but also for emergency preparedness. Soft-sided cat carriers or cages (crates) are my first choice for emergency evacuation.  They are usually lighter, reduce bouncing around when you are loading quickly, and easier to handle, especially if you must carry more than one.  I keep one soft-sided pet cat carrier for each of my cats folded up with my emergency kit. (And each is carefully labeled with contact information in permanent marker.)

Soft-sided cat carriers or cages (crates) are safer in vehicle accidents.

Most soft-sided cat carriers provide give or padding on impact. Usually the impact is the cat hitting the sides of cat carrier when the vehicle stops short (either short breaking or, heaven forbid, a car crash). Or even the bouncing from being carried. The flexibility of the fabric gives so the cat doesn’t crash against a hard surface. It still hurts, but it’s like crashing against a tent versus a hard wall. Ideally, choose a cat carrier with a bit of padding for general comfort and additional crash safety.

Put a plush throw, baby blanket, towel or other soft, thick bedding inside and up along the sides. Scaredy-cats may hide under the “blankie” while other cats will appreciate the comfort.

Soft-sided Cat Crates or Cages (Also Known as Pet or Dog Crates or Travel Kennels)

Pros: good for large or multiple cats and long-distance travel; usually lightweight for size; can be used as outdoor playpen; flexible; usually padded for comfort;  some fold or collapse up for easier storage; lots of options

Cons:  may cost a little more; may not be easy to clean or deodorize depending on material;  more likely to harbor fleas or other pests

The options in soft-sided crates have exploded in recent years thanks to their popularity among dog owners, particularly the RV and dog show crowds. Soft-sided pet cages are tied with their near cousin the portable playpen for my favorite way to move cats. Soft-sided crates have all of the advantages of soft-sided carriers — with the exception of being able to easily carry them in one-hand or over the shoulder — with all the advantages of hard-sided crates and kennels.

Hard-Plastic Cat Carriers, Cages, Pet Crates and Travel Kennels

Pros: Good for big cats or multiple cats; good for long-distance travel; can get large sizes to allow even big cats to stand, and hold litter box and other comfort gear; sturdier hard sides offer better protection and security; often easier to load recalcitrant cats; relatively inexpensive; easy to clean; 

Cons: Hard sides can hurt cat on impact in accident; plastic can shatter during accident or from age or cold; screws can be lost in travel allowing cat to escape; hysterical cats can injure themselves attempting to escape by trying to gnaw or claw through metal and plastic; some sizes difficult to secure with seatbelt 

Hard-sided cat carriers or cages, also known as pet or dog crates, are usually plastic. They are essentials in my house for cat rescue. For years, they were the best option for big cat or multicast travel. For 17+ pound monster cats, like my Princess Lily who hated going anywhere, it was the only way to safely and sanely transport her. Soft-sided cat carriers simply weren’t big enough and she always escaped while I tried to zip them. In addition, I had one big male who simply ripped open the plastic screen of the soft-sided cat carriers. And, of course, it was the easiest solution when I was traveling with more than one cat.

Cat cages (pet crates or travel kennels) come in top-, front- and side-loading varieties.

As mentioned, I prefer the front-loading, which I can tip on end for difficult cats. But the new side-loading cat travel cages are good for big cats.  Many offer multiple loading options. Having more than one access point makes cat travel care easier. However, make certain all doors and zippers are secure.

The cat cage (or dog crate) works well for long-distance travel, too.

Choose cat carrier large enough for your cat to lie down in comfortably and with room for a small litter box tucked in the back. Some cat cages or travel kennel come with a litter box included, but think about your needs. I often use a cardboard box or a small disposable litter box so I can toss it at the end of the trip. I like to start with a totally fresh litter box on long trips because odor control is hard enough. (Don’t be surprised if your nervous cat starts out sitting in the litter box.) Also, at the end of the road, I do not want to have to wash out a litter box. Plus my travel litter box is usually much smaller than the one in my house.

Larger cat cages, crates  or travel kennels allow comfortable travel for big or multiple cats.

I use pet crates and cages rated for large dogs for traveling with 2-4 of my cats together. For example, Princess Lily panicked less when she traveled with one of her housemates. She also was a Big Girl, between 18-20 pounds of muscle.  Because the larger cat cages are also taller, I create a “loft” or “bunk bed” with a cardboard box upended and holes cut in the sides to put in the pet crate.  But usually a large, comfy cat bed and towel or blanket was preferred. Well, after the cats finally got out of riding in the litter box… But that’s another story.

Plastic, hard-sided cat cages, crates or travel kennels are easier to keep clean and odor free.

Sick or nervous cats may vomit, pee or defecate in a cat carrier. (I have experienced all of these more than once.) Unlike most fabric cat carriers, hard-sided plastic cat cages are very easy to clean and rarely retain odors. I’ve had to throw out soft-sided carriers because of odors and stains, but all of my hard-sided plastic cat carriers live on to serve animal shelters and rescue groups. (A down-side of plastic carriers is that they are not very environmentally-friendly.)

Plastic, hard-sided cat cages, crates or travel kennels offer certain accident risks.

Keep in mind that should you have to stop suddenly or the road becomes extremely rough, the cat (or cats) can be tossed against the hard sides — with considerable velocity. Add some padding to the bottom and sides. Towels, a blanket or a crib bumper (purchased at a garage sale or thrift shop) placed along the lower half of the cat cage provides some protection as well as comfort.

Be aware that truly feral or panicked cats may injure themselves by gnawing or clawing at the wire door in an attempt to escape.

Some rescues bloodied their noses, mouths and paws in a blind frenzy of fear.  On the other hand, a feral rescue actually tore his way through a soft-sided cat carrier, slicing the corner of his mouth in the process. So cat travel cage hazards are not limited to hard-sided carriers. The injuries are usually superficial but disturbing to me nonetheless.

Tips for traveling with cats in hard-sided cat cages, crates or travel kennels.

Provide soft furnishings.

Place a towel or blanket in the pet carrier crate first, before loading the cat. Having a blanket or towel to place over the cat carrier to create a “cave” to help calm the animal. For long distance travel, try including a soft, enclosed cat bed. It has proved calming for recent rescues both during the trip and upon arrival. The enclosed cat bed offers a place to hide and the reassurance of something familiar.

If space is tight or you have a Houdini-cat escape artist, place the large cat cage or crate so the metal-grid door faces forward towards the back of the front seat.

Ideally, it should have no more than an inch or two to spare. Sometimes this requires placing something on the floor like a box, a backpack or rolled up sleeping bag to support the front of the  pet carrier. Brace cat carrier in place with something against the side to keep it shifting sideways Attach the seatbelt through the handle of the cat carrier. In the event of an accident, the cat carrier may still slip, but it’s secure enough for usual driving conditions.

If handle breaks or you are concerned it might break while carrying your big cat in the carrier, use a external strap handle.

These are commercial products like Strap-a-handle developed for carrying boxes. You can also create your own out of rope, but the commercial ones are pretty cheap and rated up to 40-60 pounds.

In brief,  a hard-sided plastic pet carrier or crate can be excellent, affordable choice to transport difficult, frightened cats or cats in comfort and style. Just make certain  you secure the cat carrier with seatbelt. If the cat carrier is too large for a seatbelt,  brace it so that it can’t fly around in the event of an accident, and put some soft padding inside both for the comfort and safety of your cat.

Wire Cat Travel Kennel Cages

Pros: Good for long-distance travel and moving; Can get large enough to allow even large cats or multiple cats to stand with litter box and other comfort gear; sturdier, offering better protection and security; often easier to load recalcitrant cats; open design allows for customizing with things like cat hammocks or litter box privacy screens; one with a folding option makes loading and storage easier; can usually be secured with seatbelt through the wires.

Cons: Hard sides can hurt cat on impact in accident; hysterical cats can injure themselves attempting to escape by trying to gnaw or claw through metal; some cats react badly to open views (correct by covering with blankets or placing a hooded cat bed inside); often more expensive solution

Wire kennel cages are designed to act as portable kennels for dogs, but for years I’ve found them perfect for moving my cats over distances to new homes.I used the same folding, extra-large wire kennel cage for over 15 years before giving it to animal rescue.

Like other pet crates and kennels, I can get a kennel cage designed for large dogs and place a litter box — and multiple cats — inside. Unlike other pet crates, I can find models of kennel cages that fold-up which allows me to get a larger cage into even a sedan and store it in a much smaller space. Just be certain when measuring your clearance space inside your vehicle to allow at least an extra 6-inches for unfolding the kennel cage.

The open wire design is terrific for customizing.

  • Kitty hammocks to give comfortably sleeping for multiple cats.
  • Curtains or cardboard dividers can be added.
  • Strap a cardboard box inside to create a secure litter box closet and privacy unit.
  • Or anchor a soft-sided carrier inside to provide a comfortable cave that gives more protection in the event of a sudden stop.

My kennel cage also allows me to adjust how much the cats can see. Cover the kennel cage when the cat finds the world whizzing past too scary. Or leave it uncovered for cats who like looking out at people or scenery.   You can also strap a feeding station to the sides so the cats can free-graze without food spilling out or getting ruined.

Like the hard-sided, plastic pet crate, the wire kennel cage is easy to clean and  odor resistant. (Though you may want the litter box “closet” to keep odors contained. See this article on choosing the right cat litter and litter box.) The plastic flooring usually slides out of the wire kennel cage. In addition, these cat carriers are another one-time purchase solution that can be passed on when no longer required (but with the advantage that the metal body is potentially recyclable).

The downsides of the wire kennel cage are similar to the hard-sided, plastic pet crate.

Put some padding on the floor and the sides for comfort, and to protect against any sudden stops. Invest in a sturdy cage with heavier metal bars and good, properly welded joins. Flimsy kennel cages have been known to bend or break causing injuries to the animals inside. A sturdy cage is critical when traveling with with panicked or aggressive cats. It is worth the extra US$10-30 for a better quality cage. It will last beyond a lifetime — your cat’s or yours!

Portable Pet or Cat Play Pens

Pros: Good for long-distances or RV cat travel; plenty of room for big cats or multiple cats with litter box and gear; secure; flexible, soft-sided for safety; wide price range; often can be easily stored;

Cons:  Takes up more space than a pet crate or cat kennel cage; may not be good for hysterical cats; has limited structural support; may be harder to clean or deodorize; more likely to harbor fleas or other pests unless treated

To borrow from Monty Python, and now for something completely different.

Portable pet or cat play pens optimal comfort for big cat travel or traveling with two or more cats.

  • Portable cat play pens are an excellent option if you have the room, such as an SUV, station wagon, van or RV.
  • The portable cat play pen can be folded away in a narrow space.
  • It allows your cats to safely venture outside (with the cautions below).
  • It can safely, but comfortably, confine cats.

Do not use with cats who panic, claw, gnaw or attempt to tear apart their cat carriers.

While the Pet Gear model I used proved incredibly sturdy and claw-resistant, none of my cats really went berserker. However, puppy owners report holes chewed. In addition, even if the mesh does not tear, hysterical cats could catch a tooth or claw in the mesh and injure themselves. (This is an issue with soft-sided cat carriers as well.) Be certain to do a test before using it outside or on for long-distance travel with cats.

Real Life Portable Cat Play Pen Case Study

For my move from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Upstate New York, I found myself in a pickle. I gave away my large, folding kennel cage of 20-years use because I was down to one rescue. I expected her to be my last cat. Yes, I know. I was tempting fate. Sure enough, I rescued three abandoned kittens and couldn’t find a sanctuary that wasn’t already overflowing.

After ordering a new wire kennel cage, I discovered I’d made a mistake in size and couldn’t unfold it in my new vehicle.  With time running out, I ran my local, independent pet store and bought their largest, folding cat play. With the seats down, it pretty much filled the back of my SUV. Inside was space for a full-size litter box, four pet beds and room for stretching, standing, even playing.

Preparing for the Road Trip

Two days before travel, I left the pet play pen open in the apartment with toys and treats inside. The cats thought it great fun! My oldest cat does not like tents (another story), but sat inside the play pen. None of my clowder are going to be travel cats, but they made the three-day journey with minimum complaints.  And in considerable comfort. One of my kittens did claw at the screens of my Pet Gear playpen, but it didn’t tear. However, I’d hesitate to use it with a truly hysterical animal.

I used my cat play pen at the new house to corral the cats when repair crews were working.  Particularly useful when work prevented collecting the cats in a single room. Covering it with a blanket provided more security and comfort. And cat food and litter spills were easily cleaned with a vacuum cleaner and damp cloth.

The portable, cat play pen I used for Princess Charlotte and the kittens is the Pet Gear Travel Lite. It comes in a variety of sizes. The Large would be smallest I recommend for 4-5 full grown-cats. I recommend the Medium for 2-3 full grown cats, even big cats.

Remember, our goal is to make the travel experience as safe and pleasant as possible for our cats — and us.

Happy Trails!

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