As a cat friendly caregiver, you want to ensure your cat is safe when traveling with you. You also want to relieve his fear and prevent stress, if possible. While you might only travel occasionally, you want to be prepared so traveling goes as smoothly as possible. Here are some tips to make trips a positive experience for you and your cat:

Make Your Cat’s Carrier a “Home Away From Home”

Cat in zebra carrier

Many people keep the carrier in the basement or garage, and only get it out right before a trip to the veterinarian. So, your cat probably does not like the carrier or feel it is in a safe or preferred place. Instead, make the carrier a part of your home environment. This way your cat sees it as a safe place and learns to associate positive experiences with the carrier before being transported in it. Also, consider choosing the perfect carrier can help.  Here are some ways to help your cat become more comfortable with the carrier:

  • Make the carrier a regular part of your home by keeping it out in a room where your cat spends a lot of time. Include familiar, soft bedding inside the carrier. Bedding or clothing with your scent can make him feel more secure.
  • Place treats, catnip, or toys inside the carrier to encourage your cat to enter it at home. Often, you will first see that treats are removed from the carrier during the night.
  • While your cat adjusts to the carrier, don’t coax him to go in – your cat may get suspicious.
  • You can also use a synthetic feline pheromone spray or wipe in the carrier, which may minimize anxiety associated with the carrier.
  • It may take days or weeks before your cat starts to trust the carrier. Remain calm, patient, and reward desired behaviors.
  • If you still have trouble, you may need to assess the carrier itself and find a carrier that your cat likes. Your veterinarian can help you with carrier recommendations.
  • A new carrier is sometimes important because the stress pheromones released in previous car rides may still be present. At the very least, clean the carrier thoroughly with a non-noxious cleanser, rinse well, and leave in the sun to dry for a day.

Placing an Unwilling Cat in the Carrier

Cat in zebra carrier

While it is better to take the time to acclimate or make your cat comfortable with the carrier, that may not be possible. If your cat needs to go to the veterinarian right away and he is uncooperative, here are some tips:

  • Put the carrier in a small room with few hiding places. Bring your cat into the room and close the door.
  • Move slowly and calmly. Do not chase your cat to get him into the carrier–that could frighten him.
  • If your cat will not walk into the carrier, you can gently cradle your cat and lower him into the carrier.
  • Remove the top half of your carrier while getting your cat to go into the bottom half, and then calmly replace the top. It may be necessary to wrap him in a towel to prevent outstretched legs from getting in the way.
  • Use familiar bedding inside the carrier. Consider use of synthetic feline facial pheromone (Feliway®) analog spray in the carrier at least 10 – 15 minutes prior to transport to help calm your cat.

Take a Test Drive

Once your cat is comfortable in the carrier, take your cat (with a favorite treat, toy or other item from home) for short test drives. Ensure these drives are positive experiences for your cat. You can judge whether the drive is going well by observing your cat. He should look relaxed, quiet, and possibly purr. If your cat looks tense and is yowling loudly, then this drive is not a pleasant experience for him. At first, only drive a short distance (e.g., one or two blocks). Gradually increase the distance as your cat’s anxiety decreases. We hope these drives allow your cat to become comfortable with car travel, and to minimize fear or anxiety. This teaches your cat that a ride in the carrier does not always end at the veterinary clinic.

Video on cat behavior

Avoid “The Chase”

Don’t wait until five minutes before you have to leave, and then start pursuing your kitty. This can frighten your cat and make you more likely to get bitten or scratched. Instead, if your cat is carrier trained, withhold food for a few hours, and then toss a few pieces of the cat’s favorite treat into the carrier. Your cat should walk right in. Otherwise, calmly walk into the room where your cat is sitting, close the doors, pick up your cat, and put him in the carrier just how you practiced when you acclimated your cat to the carrier.

Cover the Carrier During Travel

Once your cat is in his carrier, cover it with a towel or piece of cloth to block his view of the changing surroundings. Carry the carrier with your cat in it (only 1 cat per carrier!) with both arms like a valuable package when transporting to and from the car—this will help him feel safer. Practice holding it and see how far you can go without hitting the carrier into anything. It’s important to practice this as the noise and jostling that occurs if you hit the carrier can be stressful for your cat.

Securing Your Cat in the Car

The Center for Pet Safety recommends that carriers be seat belted into the backseat only if they have been crash tests. All others should be placed on the floor behind the driver or front passenger seat. It is dangerous to allow your cat to roam free within the automobile. If your cat is unsecured, he can be subject to severe injury in the event of an accident. Also he may interfere with your driving if he comes into contact with your hands and feet.

Coming Home From a Trip in a Multi-Cat Household

Cats are sensitive to smells. Unfamiliar smells can result in one cat no longer recognizing another cat returning into the home. When your cat returns home from the veterinarian’s office or a trip in general, he will smell different and unfamiliar to other cats in the home. Aggressive behavior can occur when one cat senses another as a stranger.

A few other suggestions to help avoid problems between cats following a trip outside the home:

  • Leave your returning cat in the carrier for a few minutes to see how all of your other cats react.
  • If all cats appear calm and peaceful, let your returning cat out of the carrier.
  • If you sense tension between your cats, or if previous homecomings have resulted in conflict, keep your returning cat in the carrier. Take him to a separate room to avoid potential injury from an upset cat. Provide food, water, and litter box in this separate room for a minimum of 24 hours while this cat regains the more familiar smell of home.
  • Consider rubbing all the cats with a towel to mix their scents with that of your returning cat.
  • If there is still stress after this time, contact your veterinarian for more advice on a slower introduction or medication to help the process.
  • For future trips: – Use familiar bedding or clothing with your scent, as it retains the smell of home and helps with reintroduction.
  • A synthetic feline pheromone (Feliway®) may help provide the sense of familiarity.

Contributed by Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, MS, DAVBP (Feline),
and Dr. Ilona Rodan, DVM, DABVP (Feline)