Before You Go — Essentials

Don’t let your cats end up as strays or worse. Be prepared for emergencies on the road — and at home! Check out these simple ways to give yourself some peace of mind and your cats a chance of making it home.

At all times you need to be prepared to identify and recover your cat should she be lost or stolen. Even if you’re convinced that your cat will never be outside, certainly not for a long time, things happen. An emergency such a fire, natural disaster, car crash in transit or even an accident like an open door or window can happen any time and anywhere. Follow the Scout motto and be prepared.

My Princess Charlotte is a feral catch-and-release rescue who won’t step over the threshold now that she’s become an indoor cat. Curiosity, however, very nearly killed the cat when she ventured out an open patio door to explore the deck of a friend’s house during a visit. She apparently mistook the partially covered deck as an extension of the living room. The patio door was closed and Princess Charlotte found herself trapped on the outside with neighborhood dogs, deer, raccoons and horses sending her into a panic. It was three terrifying days for us both before hunger overcame fear and she slipped out of wherever she’d been hiding to be seen and rescued again. Fortunately, I was prepared. She was microchipped, I had good photos of her and could quickly create and dispatch flyers to al the local vets and animal shelters. I also had her trained to come for treats on a specific whistles and calls. We had a happy ending when she was spotted outside — but it took three days to find and get her back that were traumatic for both of us!

Train your cat young and early to travel easily.

The best way to have a pleasant travel experience with your cat is to make him comfortable with traveling. Ideally, you can start with bringing you cat home. If you are getting a kitten, take your kitten on brief trips at the beginning, preferably before 9 weeks of age. Some cats take to travel when exposed early and some will never enjoy, but merely learn to tolerate it. Also, this might be a good time to start harness and leash training your kitten. Training sessions with cats and kittens for anything, such as grooming or tricks, should be short and include favorite treats to start. Cats have limited tolerance for training and really on work for the food. Negative reinforcement, that is punishment, does NOT work with cats. Cats also have the bad habit of associating one bad experience with every experience, so try to make the training as peaceful and positive as possible.

If you don’t start working with your cats until they are grown, expect to need more patience and fortitude. Think of traveling from your cat’s perspective. It bears a striking resemblance to alien abduction, especially if the only place your cat goes regularly is to the vet’s to be poked and prodded.

Train your cat to come when you whistle or call.

The simplest way to train your cat to come when you call or whistle is to do it every day when you put down canned food or a daily treat. I kid you not. All of our cats have learned to come to the whistling of the first eight bars of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. There’s also the back up call of “Here kitty, kitty.” Do they always come when called? Not if they’re panicked or distracted, but it does get their attention and has proved invaluable in recovering more than one who strayed outside.

When we moved to Washington state, our house sat at the dead end of a single-lane road of six houses surrounded by a small woods, orchard and pasture. I allowed my four urban rescues to slowly acclimate to going outside for brief periods of the day (never at night) and my neighbor thought my whistling each evening hysterically funny — until he saw all four cats race back to the house from the woods and field!

Microchip and/or use a collar and I.D. tag

I can’t emphasize enough the value of microchipping your cat and keeping the contact information up-to-date. I knew that if Princess Charlotte was found by anyone else and taken to a vet or a shelter, her microchip ensured the either I, or her vet, would be contacted.

Alternatively, or in addition, keep a breakaway collar and with accurate contact information on it — either as a tag or on the collar — on your cat. When people see the collar, they know immediately that your cat is a beloved pet and the contact information tells them how to reunite you.

When traveling, especially long distances, make certain the collar has information on how to contact you while you are in transit, or at the very least, a contact number of someone who knows your travel plans and can reach you on your journey. Fortunately, most people have a mobile phone these days, though we don’t always have reception. If you are concerned about cell coverage on your trip, include a second contact number for someone else like your vet.

Also, consider using a permanent laundry marker-type pen and put your mobile number on the inside of the collar. Keeps your phone number more private, yet vets or animal services will find it.

What about a harness or non-breakaway collar?

If you’ve got a very nervous, panicked or potentially aggressive cat, I highly advocate for an escape-proof harness — with leash handy — whenever the cat might have an opportunity of escaping, say moving the cat from a large travel crate to a smaller cat carrier for transport from car to indoors. But I hesitate to encourage a non-breakaway collar because cats are notorious for hiding in confined spaces, like bushes or under cars, when scared and are at risk of catching the collar on branches and other outstretched, exposed hazards. On the other hand, I understand that you will probably go through a lot of collars, especially if your cat, like my Princess Adeline, quickly learns how to remove the breakaway collars.

Princess Adeline often traveled in a harness designed for ferrets (which she closely resembled in size and form). She’d mastered slipping out of every brand of regular harness and collar but was not a good traveler. And yes, I was very glad I’d put her in harness and attached leash on the day a large, friendly dog rushed up while I was trying to move her from the large travel crate to the house. I froze for a moment in surprise and she took advantage to launch herself with all claws from my arms. Fortunately, I had the leash wrapped firmly around my hand and was able to reel her back in (albeit with a few more scratches when she attached herself to my chest).

After that we switched permanently to the small pet crate or cat carrier to transfer our cats from the house to the car and vice versa.

Have good photos of your cat at hand.

If your cat gets lost or stolen you will need to post good pictures of your cat online and in flyers. The photos should provide a full body image as well as anything that might be consider distinguishable such as unusual markings, coloring or cropped ear.

For example, not all “tuxedo” cats (i.e., predominantly black with white chest and paws) are alike and the ability to note Princess Nell’s right, hind “stocking” was significantly higher than her left allowed me to convince someone she wasn’t a stolen cat. On the other hand, the only way to identify Princess Adeline, who was uniformly blue gray, was her unusually small size and a chipped tooth.

You need access to the photos while traveling, in case the cat should accidentally escape en route or on arrival. I like to keep copies in at least two Cloud accounts (such as Dropbox and Apple) as well as on the smartphone (for showing off, of course) and my notebook computer. When Princess Charlotte had her unpleasant “big adventure,” I was able to create, print and distribute flyers to all of the area veterinary clinics and the shelters within six hours, as well as posting the news to online groups and accounts. This, along with the knowledge that she was microchipped, gave me some peace of mind that I was doing everything possible to get her back safely.

Have a copy of your cat’s medical records or at least the name and phone number of your vet.

Just as we should keep our emergency medical contact information at hand in case of accident, we should have our cats’ medical contact information in case of emergency. Should your cat become ill or suffer an accident while traveling, it saves critical time — and money — to know what vaccinations, medications and treatment the cat has had as well as any lab tests and results.

For example, it can save time, stress on the animal and upwards to US$200 to know that your cat has tested negative for things like Feline Leukemia and FIV, and subsequently been vaccinated. Ditto rabies and other infectious diseases. In fact, in some places it’s required that animals without evidence of vaccination must be vaccinated — at the owner’s expense! Knowing Princess Charlotte was a catch-and-release feral rescue and having the records with the notations from her previous vet recently allowed a new vet to eliminate several costly — and uncomfortable — tests, and identify the source of an infection.

Many veterinarian clinics now offer online access to your cat’s care records, but if not, ask for copies of your cat’s treatment records and keep on hand — especially when traveling or moving long distances.

Being prepared can save critical time and money as well as give you peace of mind not only when you travel, but every day.

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