How to Travel With Your Cat in The Car (and Help Your Kitty Stress Less!)
Cats have their own way of saying, "No thanks, I'll stay home!" From excessive meowing to hiding at the sight of their carrier—there is something about a trip in the car that many felines often dislike.
If you're like most of us cat lovers, you might be wondering if there are any kitties on earth who actually enjoy riding in the car. With all the hiding and meowing that happens ahead of a vet visit, it's tough to even imagine a world in which cats are willing to get in the car, let alone enjoy it. But pet pros say that with enough positive associations with the car and their carrier, it's possible for cats to actually learn to like an occasional ride here and there. With a little training and some help from his favorite treat, your kitty could be on their way to co-pilot status. So buckle up, because we've teamed up with two cat behavioral experts to determine how to make those wild rides just a little more enjoyable for everyone.
Do Cats Like Car Rides?
Before we try to modify a kitty's behavior, it's important to understand it. When considering why so many cats have an averse reaction to trips in the car, think about their experience with that action. Many times, a car ride is associated with a dreaded trip to the veterinarian. This negative association—combined with the motion of the car and all the new sights, sounds, and smells that go along with it—can cause a total sensory overload for your cat. This may be why your feline friend harbors her distaste for traveling in the car, explains Shannen McNee, CCBC at The Toronto Humane Society. But it doesn't have to be this way! McNee says that a little bit of training can make a trip in the car a less stressful experience.
So, how do you train your cat to like the car, or at least tolerate a ride to the vet? LeeAnna Buis, CFTBS at Feline Behavior Solutions, says training your cat for car rides starts inside your home. "Your cat may actually be reacting to the carrier more than the car," Buis explains. With a few desensitization strategies and positive reinforcement that incorporates high-value rewards (like favorite treats or toys), the carrier can become a safe, fun space for your cat.
To help your cat love his carrier, McNee suggests a few simple steps:
- Leave the carrier out so it becomes a part of your cat's familiar environment. Make it a cozy space by placing his favorite blanket inside.
- Encourage your cat to spend time in his carrier by rewarding him with treats and feeding meals inside the carrier. Playing with your kitty inside the carrier is a great idea, too!
- Once your cat starts relaxing in his carrier, close the door for short amounts of time followed by rewarding him with a tasty treat. Gradually increase the amount of time the door is closed.
- Once he is comfortable in the carrier with the door closed, start picking the carrier up for short amounts of time. Where will your first trip be? A walk around your house with him safely inside the carrier!
When your kitty successfully associates his carrier with positive interactions and as a cozy place to take a nap, Buis recommends slowly introducing him to a car ride inside of his carrier. "Start by just sitting in the car in the driveway," Buis explains. "After a few sessions of this, start the car. Move on to letting it run for a few minutes, then backing out of the driveway and pulling back in, and so on."
Lastly, Buis says to pay special attention to reward your cat for the desired behavior. "Never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement," Buis says. If a car ride comes with lots of verbal praise and treats, your kitty will be more likely to want to repeat it another time.
Why Is My Cat Panting in the Car?
While cooling down is the most widely recognized reason for panting in animals, there are other reasons your cat may be panting while traveling in the car. One of those reasons, McNee says, is anxiety. To calm down your cat in the car, McNee has a few suggestions:
- Put some of your cat's familiar scent in the car by rubbing your cat's cheeks with socks or small cloths, then put them in the car.
- Play your cat's favorite tunes. That's right, there's actually music created specifically to calm cats (and it's quite soothing for humans, too). Composer David Teie created Music for Cats, an album of classical, species-specific music that scientific studies have shown actually reduce stress for kitties.
- Spray a calming pheromone like Feliway inside the car and carrier that mimics the natural essence that mama cats give off when their young are nursing.
How to Travel With a Cat in a Car Long Distances
When it comes to long car rides with your cat, Buis has three words of advice: practice, practice, practice. "Start well in advance of your trip with mini car rides and slowly work up to longer and longer periods in the car as your cat gets comfortable," Buis says.
McNee and Buis recommend planning each and every stop along your journey. "Call ahead to ensure the places you plan to stay are cat-friendly and plan your route to include regular water and elimination breaks," McNee recommends.
RELATED: 9 Tips for Moving With Cats
Cat Car Travel Gear You Might Need
Testing out your gear before a long-distance car ride isn't a bad idea either. Here's a few suggestions of the gear you might need for your kitty's next road trip.
1. Cat Car Carrier
Your cat's carrier should be large enough that he can stand up and reposition. "Look for carriers designed specifically to be strapped or belted-in for security," Buis recommends.
2. Cat Car Harness and Seatbelt Loop
"If your cat is harness trained for adventures and enjoys car rides, get a harness with a seatbelt loop to secure him," McNee suggests.
3. Car Seat Cover
A car seat cover is the best way to keep your car clean and free of pet hair, kitty puke, muddy paws, and anything else your cat drags in.
4. Calming Medication
"If your cat is prone to motion sickness or anxiety, talk to your vet because they may recommend medications that can help," McNee says.