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How to train your cat to love road trips

Last updated January 2nd, 2018

Cat resting in car

Earl Grey Ninhsy resting after a walk at the beach. Returning from a cat show in 2003 (Galway, Ireland)

Getting your cat used to driving with you in your car doesn’t have to be like sitting through hours listening to a cacophony of howling banshees. Here is the scenario: You’re driving with your cat in the carrier. He is meowing incessantly. You’re anxious and frustrated, he’s anxious and confused. You’re trying to soothe him with sweet talk but the more you talk, the louder he gets, which leads you to become more anxious for his well-being, not to mention, distracted. Not a good combination while driving. Most of us have been there. I’ve had cats who were completely chilled during car rides, and others who have screamed blue murder all the way to the destination. But there is a way to train your cat to take car rides in his stride.
In a previous post about preparing your cat for travel I had mentioned how connected and attached cats are to their environments. This trait is really what sets our felines companions apart from their canine friends, who always seem to be comfortable in any environment as long as their owners are close by. Cats do not like being moved into new territory and they reject sudden change, and when they are plunged into a strange situation they protest profusely! The scenario played out above is usually preceded by you shoving your cat into a strange carrier and car, both of which he has not been able to touch, smell, rub against and exchange scent before his ordeal. The key to getting your fuzzball to enjoy or at the very least, tolerate car trips is to extend his territory to include your car and take ‘ownership’ of that space too!

Firstly, put one of your cat’s favorite blankets on the back seat of the car and throw in a few cat toys. Sprinkle with catnip. Start off by putting kitty in your stationary car with you, with the engine turned off. He will start to explore, sniffing everything and rubbing cheeks with the dashboard and windows. Your neighbors might think you’re nuts for sitting in the car alone with your cat, but hey, you own a couple of cats so they think you’re nuts anyway! You don’t want kitty scratching your car’s upholstery so place one of those horizontal cardboard scratching posts on the seat, ideally, a used one that has the comforting scent of home. Provide some treats at the end of the session as a reward for just hanging out with you in the car. Repeat this every day in five-minute sessions for about five days. You could also bring an object that you normally keep in your car back into the house so that there can be an exchange of scent. You can also spray Feliway on the backseat of the car to help keep your cat calm.

Hanging out on the back seat of the car

After a few days of your cat getting used to being in the car and becoming a little more comfortable with its scent, put him in his carrier and place on the back seat. If he doesn’t go in willingly, just leave the carrier door open and put a few treats in there. Coax him to go in with a gentle voice, but no force. When you are agitated or anxious your cat can feel it, so remain calm. Ignore him, sit there and check your phone, make a grocery list, act distracted. Eventually, he will get the message and climb into the carrier. I cover the training process for getting your cat to enjoy/tolerate the cat carrier in my previous post on cat travel here. When confined to the carrier some cats will start clawing through the metal grid or the slats on the side, trying to get out. Try distracting him by turning it into a game, sticking his favorite feather on a stick toy into the slats. Award with treats after he responds positively. Remember this exercise is no longer than 5 or 10 minutes at a time or however long you and your cat can hang out in the car together.

Let’s take kitty for a test ride!

Once you have a calm kitty in his carrier after a few days of training, turn on the engine, idling for a few minutes. Repeat this exercise for about three days with cat in carrier, turning the engine on to get him used to the vibration. By the second week of training, depending on how calm he is, he may be ready for just a short trip to the corner store. Remember you do not want to rush this exercise, it’s all baby steps, or rather, cat strides, towards sensitizing him to the car environment.
You can gauge your cat’s behavior during all of this to see how slow or fast you can go through the process. Each cat responds differently.

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Preparing for the Road Trip
  • A few weeks before the trip, put a few drops of Rescue Remedy in your cat’s drinking water. This helps ease anxiety and sets the stage for a calm cat.
  • A few nights before the trip, keep out the cat carrier with his blanket inside, to encourage him to sleep in there.
  • You can also put his favorite human’s T-shirt inside the carrier.
  • If you are moving, there are likely boxes everywhere. Inspect all boxes before taping close and count your cats! There are a few stories about cats who went missing on moving day, only to be found weeks later in another city in a taped box!
  • On the day of the trip, feed them well in advance, at least four to six hours before leaving the house and make sure they use the litter box. Allow them to drink water at any time.
Keep the following handy on your car trip
  • Wet wipes for little accidents. A few cats are prone to car sickness
  • Doggie bags (if you decide to bring a litter tray with)
  • Cat treats (serve sparingly)
  • Don’t forget your cat’s leash and harness, if your cat is leash trained.
Tips to remember
  • You can also keep a litter box in the trunk if you think kitty will need this on stops along the way. (optional)
  • Avoid airbag danger and do not put the carrier on the front seat. The carrier should always be on the rear seat of the car for the duration of the trip.
  • For safety’s sake, your cat should never be out of the carrier while you are driving, even if he is calm.
  • It is a good idea to attach a water bottle dispenser to the carrier for your cat to quench his thirst on long trips. Ensure that the nozzle is leak proof. No one likes a wet blanket!
  • Secure the seat belt around the carrier for extra security.

The ultimate guide to traveling with your cat is a wonderful and thorough resource all in one place covering every aspect of traveling with your cat. It includes an infographic and checklist for every stage of preparation. I can assure you, you cannot have enough checklists when you are preparing long road trips or air travel with kitty!

These are only guidelines on car travel preparation and each cat guardian knows their cats better. Be creative, do it differently. You might discover something that works better for your cat’s little quirks. My older cats have long since retired from cat shows and adventurous road trips. These days, when Sarabi, the old lady Bengal howls like a banshee, it’s only because she’s heard a can of tuna opening.

Have you done road trips with your cat or are you planning one soon? We’d love to hear your stories!


About the author

The Lady Cat

Whiskers make me smile.
Coffee is good for you.
And cats are for life.
Helping cats live enriched lives with their people.
(Yasaar Nakchbendi)

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