Enjoying Car Travel With A Cat: Best Tips For A Safe And Comfortable Road Trip!

29 March 2022

With a little planning and the right gear, traveling with your feline friend can be a safe and enjoyable adventure for both of you.

cat standing on a road outside with car parked in the background

Cat travel with a cat? Whether you’re going on vacation, moving with your cat(s) across the country, or just headed to the veterinarian, it’s possible to create a positive car travel experience for your kitty. Read our tips and you’ll be ready for your road trip with your cat!

Getting your cat ready for a road trip

Spending hours in the car with a stressed out, howling cat in the backseat is no fun for anyone. But if you take the time to gradually acclimate your cat to riding in the car, a road trip can actually be a wonderful experience. Just think – you won’t have to pay for a cat sitter, your kitty won’t miss you while you’re gone, and the two of you will bond over a shared adventure.

Before heading out, check that your cat’s ID tags are securely affixed to their collar and that they include your current contact information. Consider having your cat microchipped by your veterinarian, and make sure your original contact information is up to date with the microchip registry. Contact your veterinarian to confirm that your beloved feline is current on all vaccinations.

Also, it’s a good idea to get your cat a GPS tracking device, like the Tractive GPS Cat Tracker. The small GPS tracker for cats attaches to your cat’s collar and gives you peace of mind by helping you track and follow your cat’s every step. This is useful at home – when your outdoor cat is exploring their natural territory, or in case of an indoor cat escape. But the ability to know where your cat is at all times is even more crucial when you’re on the road – a GPS tracker can be a lifesaver in this case. Because if a cat gets lost far from home, they’re less likely to find their way back to you.

Bengal cat with new Tractive GPS Tracker for cats on their collar
Pictured: Tractive GPS Cat Tracker

Choose the right cat carrier for car travel

A pet carrier is a must when traveling in the car with your cat. Everyone in the vehicle will be safer, including your cat. An unrestrained cat can be a huge distraction, interfering with your ability to steer, brake, or see out the window. Plus, your unrestrained cat could become a projectile if you experience a crash or come to a sudden stop. 

There are many types of pet carriers to choose from – hard-sided, soft-sided, opening from the side, or opening from the top. Deluxe soft-sided pet carriers have lots of pockets for stowing essential cat gear. If you plan on taking your cat on an airplane trip in the future, you might invest in an airline-approved pet carrier that you can use either in the car or on a flight. 

Select a pet carrier that gives your kitty enough room to stand up and turn around. If your car ride is more than a few hours long, choose a pet carrier that has enough room for a portable litter box to fit inside. 

How do I get my cat used to traveling in the carrier?

Help your cat learn to love the pet carrier well in advance of your trip. About a month before your journey, place the open carrier near kitty’s favorite sleeping spot and tuck some cozy blankets inside. Toss a few treats near the doorway. Over time your cat may end up using the carrier as a favorite snoozing spot. 

Once your cat seems comfortable spending time in the carrier, try closing the carrier’s door for short time periods and see how your cat handles this. (Placing a few treats inside can sweeten the deal.) Once your kitty seems OK inside the closed carrier, you may be ready for the next step: going into the car.

Where to place a cat carrier in the car

The safest place in the car for your furry friend is the back seat or on the floor behind the front passenger seat. Place the carrier in a secure location where it won’t slide around too much. Some carriers are equipped with clips for a seat belt to slide through. This provides additional security and will help your kitty feel safer during the ride. For a hard-sided plastic carrier, thread the seat belt through the handle.

Most car seats slope backward. To create a level surface for the pet carrier to rest on, roll up a towel and place it under the back edge of the carrier. 

Avoid placing the pet carrier where it will be blasted by the heater or air conditioner. You want your kitty to be as comfortable as possible. Also keep the cat carrier out of the path of an airbag if an accident should occur.

Get your cat to love the car

The first time you place the carrier in the car, don’t drive anywhere at all. Load the pet carrier into the back seat (with kitty already inside), hop into the driver’s seat, and close all the doors. (Leave a window open for ventilation if it’s hot out.) Talk gently to your cat to keep them calm. If you can have another person in the car to interact with the cat in the back seat, that will be even better. Don’t start up the car or drive anywhere on this first try – that’s the next step!

Once your kitty seems comfortable being in a non-moving vehicle a few times, turn on the car and leave it parked. Of course, open the garage door when your car is running to avoid life-threatening carbon monoxide poisoning. Keep music low and proffer treats as needed to keep kitty happy. Continue to speak gently to your cat. If your cat becomes agitated, turn off the car and head inside. You don’t want to turn this exercise into a battle. (Hint: you will lose!) Give your kitty lots of love once you’re in the house. 

Practice going on car rides

Once your feline friend is comfy hanging out in a non-moving but running vehicle, try driving a very short distance – maybe around the block at first. Having someone in the back seat to comfort and engage with your cat will help to keep your cat calm. Continue to make car rides a positive experience. As your cat gets accustomed to short rides, gradually try longer rides. Your cat will become “king of the road” before you know it! 

Make the car feel a little like home

Cats are very scent-oriented, so introducing familiar scents into the carrier and the car may help your kitty to feel more relaxed. Tuck their favorite blanket (or a piece of it) in the carrier, or toss in one of your old t-shirts – unwashed, so it smells like you. Avoid using scented air fresheners in the car. Those scents may be overpowering for your kitty’s sensitive nose.

Make a plan for each cat

If you have more than one cat, you love them both, but you know that they have distinct personalities. As you plan your trip, consider how to best accommodate each cat’s particular needs.

Most importantly, keep each cat in their own separate pet carrier for the duration of your trip. You’ll reduce stress for everyone and prevent the two kitties from fighting. It’s OK to position the carriers so the cats can see each other. 

cat sitting in grass

Plan rest stops

Both you and your cat may need a few pit stops, especially if your trip is a long one. Plan in advance where you can stop, stretch your legs, and use the restroom. Or the litter box, in your cat’s case. 

Where to make a pit stop with your cat

Highway rest areas are located along most interstates and state routes, and can be mapped out in advance. Some of these rest stops have pet exercise areas. This could be an option for your cat but ONLY if they are leash trained. If you plan on taking your cat out of the carrier, do so ONLY if kitty can be leashed while the car doors are still closed. Do not open the carrier if the cat is unleashed and the car door is open. We don’t need to describe the multiple nightmare scenarios that could ensue. 

5 Reasons To Get Your Cat A GPS Cat Tracker

If you aren’t on a road with a highway rest stop, travel plazas are a good alternative. These usually include gas stations, coffee shops, fast-food restaurants, and rest rooms. 

Carefully consider if you can leave your cat in the car while you pop into a restroom or get a quick bite to eat. If it’s warm out, your beloved pet could quickly become overheated if left inside a closed vehicle. If possible, take the entire cat carrier into the rest stop with you. Or, if you have a human travel companion, take turns staying with the cat while the other uses the facilities. 

Car ride logistics – Where to go ‘potty’

If your cat is used to doing their business outdoors and is leash-trained, use a pet exercise area at a highway rest stop. Be sure to leash up your cat BEFORE opening the car door to the outside. 

If your cat is accustomed to going in a litter box, bring along a portable litter box and a bag of cat litter

Portable cat litter boxes are an easy way to take care of your cat’s needs while on a road trip. Give your cat access to the portable litter box during a rest stop or keep it in the pet carrier. Or, if your trip is only a few hours long, offer the portable litter box once you reach your destination. 

A portable cat litter box should fit into your pet carrier and be large enough for your cat to use comfortably. Make sure the portable litter box is easy to clean, waterproof, and collapsible for easy storage. 

Choose a low-dust, odor control, disposable cat litter to fill the portable litter box – preferably the same type that you use at home. Bring along a scoop and bags to collect used litter and dispose of it in a trash container. Some cats can be very finicky about changes to their litter box situation. You might find it handy to sprinkle a litter box attractant in the portable litter box to make it more enticing for your cat. It may also help to let your cat try out the new portable litter box a few times at home, before you hit the road. 

When should you give your cat food and water on a car trip?

Many cats eat only once or twice a day, so it may not be necessary to feed your cat during a long car ride. However, kitties who are accustomed to snacking all day may need a few nibbles along the way. Intermittent snacking can also help cats who get motion sickness.

Remember that eating stimulates the digestive system, so your cat may need to potty soon after eating. This may be a good reason for feeding your cat lightly on travel day.

Water should be offered to your cat at every pit stop. Keep in mind that cats normally drink very little water, so don’t be alarmed if your cat doesn’t drink much during the trip. If you are concerned that your cat isn’t drinking enough water, offer some wet canned cat food, which has a higher moisture content than dry food.

Food and water bowls

You can purchase travel food and water bowls for kitty to enjoy during your trip. Some travel food bowls can attach to the wire door of a plastic cat carrier. Or you can purchase a collapsible bowl that you pop open at mealtime. 

Bring enough of your cat’s preferred food to last for the entire trip. Cats are famously finicky eaters, so the middle of a road trip may not be the best time to introduce a new diet if you run out of kitty’s favorite kibble. They could develop digestive issues, or they could end up refusing to eat at all.

Cat-friendly places to stay

Before you start your trip, plan out exactly where you’ll spend the night. Not all hotels are pet-friendly. Even hotels that advertise themselves as pet-friendly may only have a few pet-friendly rooms. That’s why it’s important to book your lodging well in advance.  When making your reservation, specify that you will have a cat with you and need a pet-friendly room. Find out what types of restrictions the hotel has, if any. Sneaking your pet into a non-pet-friendly hotel room isn’t a great idea – just don’t do it. 

Many major hotel chains offer pet-friendly accommodations, as do some rental properties.

Note that a pet-friendly hotel room has probably been used by lots of other pets, including dogs and other cats. It’s possible that these other pets are not on regular flea or parasite protection. Make sure your cat is protected from parasites before you leave home, in case your cat encounters unwanted pests.

If you’re staying with family or friends, remember that not everyone loves cats (hard to believe, but true). Let them know in advance that you’re bringing your kitty along, and assure them that you’ve got all the details covered for your cat’s comfort and safety.

What to do during car travel with a cat

You’ve set off on your adventure, and you only have….10 hours to go! How will you keep your cat happy on the trip? Here are some ideas:

  • Play calm music.
  • Keep the car’s temperature similar to the temperature inside your home. 
  • Place a sheet or blanket on top of the carrier to provide extra privacy and reduce the level of disturbance that your cat might experience from passing 18-wheelers, honking horns, rough weather, and bright streetlights.
  • Choose a quiet time of day to travel, with as little traffic as possible to reduce disturbances for your cat.

Cat toys

Bring some of your cat’s favorite toys along on the trip. At each rest stop, swap out the toys with different ones. Or, surprise your kitty with a brand-new toy for the trip.

What should I do if my cat gets carsick?

If you have acclimated your cat to car rides, you have a pretty good idea how your cat will handle a long trip. But life is full of surprises, and it’s possible that your cat could become extremely anxious or carsick on a long ride. Here are a few options for dealing with these situations. Note: Try these remedies out at home before you begin your road trip to determine if your cat can tolerate them.

  • Calming spray for cats: A few spritzes of a calming pheromone spray on a towel or blanket in your cat’s carrier could help your cat relax into the ride. 
  • Catnip: A little catnip sprinkled into the carrier could distract your cat for a bit and keep them entertained. You might try catnip spray, also.
  • Calming treats: Specially-formulated cat treats can help to reduce nervousness in your furry friend. 
  • Anti-anxiety jackets for cats: Also known as calming vests, these weighted jackets can help anxious pets to relax.

If your cat is prone to vomiting, urinating, or defecating during car trips, speak to your veterinarian. He or she may be able to offer medications that will make the trip more pleasant for you and your cat.

What not to do when you are riding with a cat in your car

A calm and peaceful environment will make the car ride more pleasant for everyone, including your cat. 

  • Avoid playing loud music. 
  • Don’t allow the pet carrier to slide along the seat. Your cat will feel very insecure if they can’t predict where they’ll slide to next. Keep the pet carrier buckled in place with the seat belt.
  • Don’t leave your cat alone in a hot car – ever!
  • Avoid making sharp turns or braking suddenly while your cat is in the car. Try to drive as smoothly and evenly as possible.

What to do if your cat hates car rides

If your cat has a history of disliking car travel, you may need to start at square one to acclimate them to riding in a vehicle. This can be more difficult than acclimating a cat who has no past history of car travel problems, because you must overcome the negative association that your cat has with the car. 

Start with introducing your cat to the pet carrier, then to a stationary car, then to short rides around the block as described at the beginning of this post. You may need to take it very, very slow, allowing your cat several weeks or months to get ready for a trip. But it will be worth it when you and your kitty enjoy an adventure together!

Make a safe space for your cat while you unload and unpack

Don’t let the excitement of arriving at your destination lead you to fling open the car door and accidentally let your cat out! Keep your kitty safely in the pet carrier as you unload and carry your luggage inside. 

Only when you are inside and have safely closed the building’s door should you allow your cat to exit the carrier. Set out the travel litter box and fill their travel bowls with fresh food and water. Give them time to sniff and rub against everything in their new temporary home. 

Drive safely!

This goes without saying, but car travel with a cat will be much more pleasant if you drive safely and arrive without incident. That’s the best way to start and end your amazing driving adventure with your furry friend! So, enjoy your road trip with your cat and let us know how it goes!

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