Road Trips and Car Travel With Your Cat

By Anne Dagner, DVM; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

We are taking a 2-day road trip to visit relatives. They've invited us to bring our cat, and we'll stay in our own bedroom suite within their home. Can cats make such a road trip?

We often think of cats as “place-oriented” beings who would rather stay in their own space than move out of their comfort zone. In reality, cats can be lively travel companions if we take the time to create a positive experience for them. However, it is important to think through several important logistical issues to make travel as smooth and easy for them (and for us) as possible.

A successful road trip with a cat begins long before the day of travel. The best time to teach a cat to travel easily is when she is still a kitten. However, even for an adult cat, the sequence of learning to travel is essentially the same.

Teach your cat that her carrier is a great, everyday place to hang out. Have the carrier open and available at all times to make it as inviting as possible. Feeding your cat in her carrier can create a positive association. Practice entry and exit from the carrier to make it as routine as possible, as this will be important during travel. Feliway® pheromone wipes or spray can be used in the carrier to lower anxiety.

"It is important for your cat to be appropriately restrained during travel."

Once your cat is used to her carrier, place her inside, close it, and walk around the house with her. Be sure to reward her with a treat when she exits. Remember, the carrier must be a happy space. Once she is comfortable with an in-house walkabout, move her to the travel vehicle. Start the vehicle, run the engine for a bit, then take her back into the house. Once this sequence has occurred a few times, take a quick drive around the block, then back home, into the house, out of her carrier, and a treat for her good behavior!

It is important for your cat to be appropriately restrained during travel. It is safer for here and safer for you! Plan to leave your cat in her carrier for the full drive, or make sure to have a harness on her and attach a leash if you must get her out of the carrier during your trip.

For a 2-day drive, confirm that your cat is welcome at the accommodations you have chosen for the night. It is not worth sneaking her in!

Are there details I should consider when packing?

Gather your cat’s medical documents, including vaccination certificates, recent lab-work, her rabies vaccination tag, as well as any medications she takes. Take her regular food. Consider packaging her meals in individual containers for ease of feeding. Using her own familiar food and water dishes will contribute to her comfort – be sure they are unbreakable. Also, take along some water from home. Water in different parts of the country sometimes contains different minerals and may contribute to stomach upset or loose stool.

Take along a small supply of the litter she is used to. You may want to use a plastic dish pan as your travel litter box. Do not forget a litter scoop and some plastic bags for litter disposal both on the way and during your stay with relatives.

Make sure your cat wears identification during travel and consider a microchip for permanent ID if she does not already have one. She should wear a well-fitted harness from which she cannot escape. Also, consider making a temporary ID tag with the address and phone number at your final destination - just in case!

What else will help my cat be comfortable on this trip?

  • On the day of travel, withhold breakfast from your cat. Traveling on an empty stomach minimizes the risk of nausea and vomiting. Feed a small meal when you arrive at your evening destination.
  • Offer water at any rest stops you make during the drive. 
  • Line the carrier with an absorbent “puppy potty pad” in case your cat needs to urinate or defecate during travel. 
  • Carry extra pads as well as a couple of zip-lock food bags, some paper towels, and a few disposable gloves for any necessary cleanup and containment of a mess.
  • If you have space for a large dog kennel for travel, you can place a small litter pan right in the carrier for bathroom use during travel. It is always safest to have your cat confined during driving. The only limits to her accommodation are the space in the vehicle and your imagination.
  • Never leave your cat alone in the car. The interior temperature can rise to a dangerous level within a very short time, causing heat stroke. It is simply not a risk worth taking.

Should I ask my veterinarian for a cat sedative for travel?

Most of the time, cats travel quite well with no need for any medication. Some cats, on the other hand, do experience stress when traveling. Consult your veterinarian to create the best travel plan for your cat if she does not travel well. Strategies to de-stress cat road trips include:

  • A Thundershirt® swaddles the cat like and infant is swaddled, and can reduce anxiety.
  • A pheromone calming collar can help reduce anxiety.
  • Medication prescribed by your veterinarian: Buprenorphine (brand names: Buprenex®, Simbadol®), gabapentin (brand name Neurontin®), and alprazolam (brand names Xanax® and Niravam®) are sometimes used to reduce travel anxiety. Test the medication at home as a “dry run” ahead of your trip so you know how your cat reacts.

With some advance planning, attention to detail, and consultation with your veterinarian, road-tripping with your cat can be a great experience.

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