Basic Safety for Traveling With Cats in a Car
Traveling with cats requires basic preparations for safe and comfortable travel — for you and your cats. Cat travel factors include the length of the trip, size of the cats, the number and personality of our cats. Car travel with cats is like traveling with children. Our knowledge and attitude has changed in the 21st Century putting safety first.
Quick Jumps to Content
Never let your cat roam freely in the car.
First, your cat is a distraction.
Whether he’s just lying on the seat beside you or wandering around, you will be distracted. It is like having a child loose in the car.
When I was young, one of our cats loved to sit on the car radio dashboard speaker. Apparently, the warm sun coming through the windshield and the vibration of the speaker were soothing. She tended to fall peacefully asleep — right up until the driver braked suddenly and 12-pounds of cat found herself sailing towards the backseat! Fortunately, she was never seriously hurt. Anyone she grabbed in flight with her claws was not so lucky.
And speaking of braking, never let your cat roam freely in the car because…
Second, your cat can become a driving hazard.
More than one of our cats tried sitting under the brake pedal. Possibly because they were nervous and it was a hidden from view. Needless to say, this did not work well if the driver had to brake suddenly and hard. Cats can also demand attention, clawing or bumping our legs, arms and hands. Free roaming cats can block the driver’s view, dislodge rear-view mirrors, and get tangled up with or caught on equipment like seatbelts.
Road Lessons from a Cat Named Boo
My best traveling cat, a blue Persian named Boo, discovered the dangers of roaming after being flattened when a loose dog broke shot onto the street. Fortunately, both Boo and the dog were unharmed, but Boo never went near the driver’s floor again. (I’d like to say it was because we learned our lesson and kept him in a pet carrier, but it was still the 60’s. We were slower on the uptake.) Boo was exceptional in many ways, not least because he actually liked traveling in cars. He made many cross-country trips. Occasionally he popped up his head and stared as if asking, “Are we there yet?”
But most cats do not like traveling in cars. From your cat’s perspective it is a sudden abduction into a strange transportation vehicle with the world whizzing by at high-speed. And frequently it ends in a white room where the cat is probed, poked and has fluids extracted. Close encounters of the scary kind.
Accident reports are filled with stories of cats either distracting or interfering with the driver.
Which brings me to —
Cats should be in pet or cat carriers.
Imagine a child the size of your cat. You would put the child in a car seat, right? Think of a pet carrier as a car seat for your cat. And just as you would strap the car seat securely, restrain your cat carrier with a seatbelt around the carrier. Some carriers have special strap holders for seat belts but not all of these are effective. So make certain your carrier has a seatbelt crossing in front and securely holding the carrier in place.
For more on pet or cat carriers, check out Choosing the Best Cat Carrier.
Cat carriers (and their occupants) belong in the back seat.
Just as we put car seats in the back to secure our children, put your cat carrier in the back seat as well. Front seat air bags may deploy with considerable velocity and impact. Even in a cat carrier or cage your cat can be injured.
I was convinced when a woman showed me photos of a plastic pet crate shattered by deployed air bag. The cat inside was bruised but the worst injuries came when the cat scrambled through the jagged plastic. Fortunately, he didn’t escape the car before he was caught and taken to a nearby animal hospital. But then the woman sent an actual chill down my spine. She said, “Thank goodness he wasn’t in a soft-sided cat carrier or he could have been crushed.”
My cats are now chauffeured from the safety of the back seat. Of course, they like it best when I bring along an entourage.
When traveling with cats, consider bringing along some help.
While I’m often having to travel or move alone with cats, it helps to have another human along. An “assistant” is especially useful over long distances. A human companion reduces driver distraction and fatigue. Another person can handle common distractions such as the meowed question “Are we there yet?” Or break up the Don’t-make-me-have-to-stop-this-car-and-come-back-there squabbles with multiple cats. Or ensure the Houdini-cat hasn’t succeeded in escape. Not to mention provide the necessary extra support bathroom and food breaks because —
Never leave your cats alone in the car for more than 10-minutes maximum — especially in warm weather.
According to the Humane Society, it takes just 10-minutes for the temperature inside your car — with windows cracked open — to reach 102° F (84° C) on an 85° F (67° C) day.
It takes less than an hour (less than 30-minutes according to the Weather Channel) for the interior temperature of your car to reach 116° F (67° C) with an exterior temperature of a balmy 72° F (54°C).
And our cats have fur coats! Your cat could suffer irreversible internal damage or even die.
If you MUST, absolutely must, leave your cat alone in the car, set the timer on your watch or phone for 5-minutes. Make certain you do not lose track of time.
Plan for bathroom and food breaks.
We all need bathroom breaks or to grab a bite on the road.Ideally, you will have another human to help. Consider bringing a cooler or using drive-throughs for meals and drinks and rest stops for bathroom breaks. You are less likely to lose track of time or be delayed at a rest stop than a restaurant. I keep plenty of energy bars, trail mix and other quick, easy, road snacks at hand. Just in case I can’t find a drive-through I like.
In addition, an unattended pet, especially in a car packed for distance travel, could signal an invitation to thieves.
Never carry your animals in an unventilated vehicle.
I like to think it goes without saying. Unfortunately, more than one “experienced professionals” transported pets in enclosed trucks only to arrive with several dead from the heat or asphyxiation. (And no, I don’t mean urban myth stories. People actually tell me these stories of careless cruelty expecting a sympathetic reaction.)
Give yourself— and your cats — a frequent break.
Car travel with cats is far more grueling than simple driving. Even if you are a seasoned road warrior who can do a 24-hour drive-through, take frequent breaks. Research has shown it’s healthier and safer for drivers to break every 2 hours. And it is easier on our cats.
Many cats cannot, or will not, eat, drink or go to the litter box in a moving vehicle. Some cats can’t even sleep in a moving vehicle. Other cats suffer from motion sickness. In addition, the stimulation of the world flashing by as they hurtle along with no clue as to how or why can produce extreme stress.
Reassure your cats by talking to them soothingly after you have stopped the car.
Some cats like music, but be kind. Save rocking out to ear-damaging volumes or harsh guitars for when you are alone. I use audio books when I travel which seems to be soothing to me and my cats. (Though I discovered trying to learn bird calls while traveling only confused my cats who kept trying to find the birds singing in the car!)
If you want to open the carrier to check on your cats, make absolutely certain that they remain confined.
This means keeping the car doors closed and the windows cracked no more than an inch (2.5 cm). And remain vigilant, especially if your cat appears likely to make a break for it. Hundreds of cats are reported lost each year during road trips because they escaped the car or RV in a panic.
If your cat does appear aggressive or overly excited, do NOT open the carrier.
Talk softly, calmly to your cat. Look into your cat’s eyes and blink very slowly.This is cat body language for calm.
If your cat is hiding, leave the cat alone.
Grabbing, pulling, clutching, even stroking your cat only reinforces the fear of traveling. Your cat will eventually calm down by having fewer bad experiences while traveling in a car.
A cat sedatives can sound appealing, however, to borrow from a certain First Lady, I prefer to just say no to drugs. Consult with your veterinarian about your specific animal, but unless she strongly recommends cat tranquilizers for your cat I — and the Humane Society — don’t recommend them.
I’ve only used cat tranquilizers to transport cats cross-country twice. The first was a large male who tended to freak out and attempt to eat his way out of his wire crate. While the cat tranquilizers did put him in a near comatose stupor, I was a nervous wreck for the entire trip. I constantly stopped to check that he really was still alive. He lay in one unnatural position for hours with his eyes closed, barely breathing.
Cat Sedative Cautionary Tales
The second time I used a cat sedative I was carrying two cats on a 24-hour drive-through trip to the West Coast. One was Mrs. Pedicaris, nervous escape artist and Thomas, a constant crier. I consulted a vet who gave me some cat tranquilizers. I gave each animal the prescribed dose and tucked them in their separate cat cages.
Thirty minutes later, flying along I-10, Mrs. Perdicaris became totally hysterical. She gnawed and dug at her carrier until her paws and mouth were bloodied. Meanwhile, the sweetie Thomas was drooling, staggering around his cage and crying non-stop in a slurred voice.
Three hours later…
We were in the desolate part of West Texas with no truck stops, let alone towns, for miles. We were all a mess. I was crying and repeating “I’m sorry” over and over. Mrs. Perdicaris looked like she’d joined Fight Club with eyes dilated wide as she hissed and growled. Thomas was throwing up and incontinent. The car reeked.
Once I found a place to stop for the night, I cleaned us up all up, provided extra hiding materials, and called to tell my friends I’d be arriving a day late. Even with the overnight stop, it was two days before the cats returned to normal.
When I told our new vet about the experience, she told me that she wasn’t entirely surprised. Cats can respond very differently to medications. Mrs. Perdicaris had an opposite response to the drug, becoming hyper-agitated. Thomas, meanwhile, was confused, naseaous and terrified as he lost control of his body, particularly in an unfamiliar environment.
I vowed never again.
I have heard of people who used cat tranquilizers with good results so I discussed this with a couple of vets. Here are the recommended steps on how to sedate a cat for travel:
Test the medication before the big trip.
Talk with your vet and ask for a test dose several days — or weeks — before the trip. (You don’t want to make my mistake and test on the road.)
Test in an unfamiliar environment or setting.
You want the test to be in similar conditions to when you are planning to use the drug, not when the cat is comfortably at home. You may want to medicate the animal, wait a few minutes and then do a test drive to gauge the reaction of both the animal — and you. How comfortable are you both with the situation?
Have a back-up travel plan should the cat respond badly.
Consider driving with someone who can help including taking driving spells. Or plan on extra rest breaks and possible overnight stops along the way. You also should have a plan for getting your cat to an emergency animal clinic on the road if necessary.
“Oh, but I only use natural remedies.” Just because a product claims to use “natural” ingredients does not guarantee its efficacy or its safety. Remember arsenic, mercury and lead are all natural ingredients and were used in “holistic” remedies for centuries killing thousands if not millions.
Products that are unregulated and have no scientific evidence of their effectiveness or side-effects can be deadly to your cats (and you, but that’s a topic for another website). There are many natural substances, like onions and garlic, that are surprisingly bad for our cats.
And there are many things that we find very pleasant that actually irritate our cats such as lavender oil and citrus scents. Don’t assume just because something worked as advertised on one cat, all cats will respond the same way.
Catnip did nothing for our tortoise shell rescue, Bella Dona, but we awoke one more to find a pound of chamomile from the health food store strewn across the living roof floor with Bella Dona rolling in it in ecstasy. After that we made her special chamomile, instead of catnip, toys.
Vet recommendations if you are thinking of using a natural sedative or homeopathic treatment on your cat:
Research the treatment — and company — carefully.
Do not rely on information from just the natural foods and pet care sites. Remember, many of these sites and businesses put profit ahead of your cat’s health care. Many people are like “Dr.” Oz and have no training, education or even experience. Cats are highly susceptible to toxins and usually attempt to hide symptoms of illness until it is too late.
Talk with your veterinarian about the product or treatment.
Many vets now integrate holistic and alternative treatments such as acupuncture in their practices. If your vet does not use homeopathic (felineopathic?) products, look for one in your general area and consult with her before attempting to sedate your cat with any natural sedative.
Do a small test well ahead of your travel plans.
- Make certain you can reach your vet for emergency care if necessary.
- Keep any cat you sedate under supervision.
- Watch for behavioral changes as well as signs of illness or side effects.
- Check the litter box and make certain your cat does not suffer any bowel or bladder changes.
For traveling with your cat long distances, choose the right litter and litter box.
Litter on the road is a problem. Litter dust in a confined space is not only nasty, it is dangerous for your cat and you. Even i you use the cheapest stuff at home, consider a low- or no-dust litter for the road. Also, consider a disposable litter box with high sides or top-entry to keep the litter in the box and out of the air. For more detailed suggestions, check out Litter on the Road: Choosing the Right Cat Litter & Litter Box.
Food for thought — and easier digestion.
Do not feed your cats for 4-6 hours before car travel. Depending upon the length of the road trip and the temperament of the cat, you may want to use food that is easier to digest and reduces poop odor. And if your cat eats a special diet or food, you need a meal plan for the road trips. Small towns may not have specialty pet or cat supply stores. Or the store may not carry your brand of cat food.
Never introduce new food while traveling with cats. Okay, in an emergency you have no choice. But ideally introduce new foods gradually several days or weeks before the car travel. For more information and tips, check out Cat Food for Traveling With Cats.
Consider how your cat responds to unexpected events or situations at home.
If you have a fraidy-cat who runs and hides, make certain there is an enclosed hiding place available. My Princess Lily was 17-pounds of muscle but put her in a cat carrier and she just wanted to hide her massive head under a blanket and pretend it wasn’t happening. She traveled with her pet crate covered or with an enclosed cat bed.
If you have cat who becomes aggressive when frightened, consider a separate cat carrier or travel kennel.
Be certain add some familiar toys or soft objects. Poor Niles was 18-pounds male muscle, but when 7-pound Princess Adeline went ballistic on her first long-distance trip, Niles ended up cowering in the corner for six hours. Princess Adeline needed a private cat carrier.
Some cats like the comfort of their clowder or playmates.
In which case a larger cat kennel cage that allows multiple cats to travel together may be the solution. (See Choosing the Best Pet or Cat Carrier for options and ideas.) Princess Lilly panicked when traveling alone, but calmed quickly when Princess Nell was in the cat cage.
Most cats don’t like change. Like children, each cat is unique in personality and behavior. Try to accommodate them all.
There is evidence of a color link to certain behaviors. This is why most of the cats and kittens used a brand celebrities are red tabbies or red tabby bi-colors. Red tabbies, also called gingers, marmalades or orange tabbies, are notoriously mellow cats. Adjust your cat travel to your cat’s preferences.
Call ahead and confirm.
Do not just rely on what the website states. Check each of the specific hotels, motels or other lodging you intend to use that you are allowed to bring your cats into your room. Ideally, get the confirmation in writing such as an email. Have a back-up plan should you hit a snag upon arrival.
If you are planning to bring your cat into your hotel room, inspect the room thoroughly BEFORE releasing him from his carrier.
Look for any open windows or small holes that might allow him to escape or become caught trying to escape. Check for any possible hazards like cleaning chemicals in the toilet, mousetraps under a bed, exposed electrical wires, dangling curtain cords and so forth.
Remember, your cat will be stressed, even if she appears perfectly calm and mellow. Look out for potential hiding places your cat might find or use. Check for unbelievably small gaps between headboards and the wall, or spaces under or in sofas and chairs. Some cats will find small tears or gaps under the box spring — and make it a lot bigger! Think like a cat. A scared cat.
Make certain your cat has been treated for fleas and ticks before starting on the road.
I recommend a good systemic treatment, like Revolution or Advantage. Kill any fleas, ticks, larva or eggs your cat may inadvertently pick up from previous guests in the room.
Consider your neighbors.
If your cat is a yowler, develop a plan to deal with potential problems. For example, choose a guest cottage instead of a motel, or upgrade to a hotel with better soundproofing.
However, having said that, I confess. Unless the temperature is going to be above 65° F (18° C) I leave my cats in their “kitty condo” overnight and sleep in the car with them.
Take care when moving your cats to and from the car and room.
My recommended system:
- Transfer your cats from the travel kennel cage to their soft-sided cat carriers or cat harnesses with leash. I leave the car doors closed and windows cracked less than 2 inches.
- Set the cat carriers or harnessed cats in the bathroom with the door closed.
- Move the entire cat kennel cage assembly into the room (preferably a quiet corner).
- Move the cats back into the oversized kennel cage.
- Cover it with a blanket (or the bedspread) for a few hours.
- Leave the TV off, if your cats are scared or stressed. Choose some soothing music instead. (Meditation music of natural sounds including bird calls or rain seems to work well.)
- To hit the road again, reverse the transfer procedure.
(This is why I usually try to sleep in the car when on the road with the cats. It also saves some money.)
Remember, our goal is to make the travel as safe and as comfortable as possible for our cats — and ourselves.
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