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How to prepare your cat for stress-free travel

Last updated December 16th, 2017

Whether you’re moving house or moving to a new country across the Atlantic, traveling with cats can be stressful. I know, I’ve moved twice to different countries and brought my two fur babies with me each time. This article will focus on preparing your cats for their trip to make it as stress-free for them as it should be for you…..

traveling with cats

Preparing your cat for the big move

Preparing cats for traveling can be daunting and stressful for both cat guardians and their furry friends. For an animal that is very much attached to its environment and extremely sensitive to unfamiliar sounds and smells, traveling with cats, whether it’s over long or short distances, is still a big deal. We all know about the resistance when trying to get them into the dreaded cat carrier, the howling all the way to the vet, the look of absolute horror in their eyes as they look at you pleading to free them from their imminent misery!

Below I will share some tips and tricks on how to prepare your cat not to fear the carrier and make their trips as smooth sailing as possible. It helps to start training them when they’re young but cats of any age can get used to traveling with less fear. As you know cats play out a ritual of ownership and assert this behavior by rubbing against their favorite chair, windowsill, and human. This is important cat behavior as they establish their territory and sense of comfort and ownership of the space in which they live. So of course, trying to force them into a tiny space out of the blue in a foreign container is not going to go down well. It’s for this reason we need to desensitize our cats to the carrier way before they are due for a trip to the vet or moving house or even moving to another country like I have!

Even if you don’t have to travel anywhere it’s a good idea to start the desensitization process as soon as you have adopted your cat. But it’s never too late to start with a golden oldie. I use clicker training for just about anything I want my cats to do.  The idea is to reward them with a click and treat each time they do the desired behavior. This trains them to associate good things with what they just did and they repeat said behavior at every click. I have used clicker training to get them to keep using their cat tree instead of the furniture, with great success. View the video here.

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Start with click and treat training

Clicker training is a wonderful way to train your cat to correct unwanted behavior and to reinforce certain desirable behavior rewarding to both cat owner and cat. It’s also a great bonding experience for you and your cat when engaging in a goal-driven, fun activity. Cats don’t inherently want to please you, instead, they’re hardwired to do what makes sense in their world. But most cats are food motivated and that is why clicker training works for cats too and is a fantastic cat training tool. Years ago I started using the Karen Pryor clicker training started kit which comes with a practical training guide and clicker and I was hooked or rather, my cats were!

Take out the cat carrier and leave it in a prominent place where your cat normally enjoys lounging or playing. Put his favorite blanket inside the carrier. Make sure that whatever you place in the cat carrier is unwashed so it still bears the communal scent of the house and not of washing detergent. You may add some catnip if your cat can’t resist it, but a toy or piece of familiar clothing such as a T-shirt which bears a human scent or that of his favorite cuddle buddy works just fine. If kitty refuses to come near it, don’t force the issue, just leave him to explore and sniff if that is all he wants to do. If after a day he is still not interested in the carrier, sit next to it and coax him in with some cat treats. Once he enters the carrier, give one click with the clicker and immediately give a treat. Repeat the clicks and treats each time when and only when he enters the carrier.


Some cats are not motivated by treats (huh, is that possible!) and prefer a game of “Hide and Stalk” or Jack-In-The-Box. Take advantage of the well-known fact that cats love boxes, also known as ‘cat traps’. So keep that box that you bought your TV or microwave in. If it’s big enough, place the open carrier in the box and wait. Guaranteed, you are going to have a curious kitty investigating the box and hence, the carrier. If you don’t have a box big enough to fit the carrier, treat the carrier as a box and play a box game, make one up using their toys! Mr. Jack loves nothing more than a game of pounce with feather toys! Play hunting type games near the carrier for five-minute sessions each day for about 5 days. Be sure to coax the cat to use the carrier as the ‘stalking and pouncing cave’. Many cats love to hide in enclosed spaces like boxes while stalking their ‘prey’ outside the box. So treat the carrier like a box, a fun place from which to hide from view, to stalk and pounce. Soon they will learn it’s not punishment but is the same thing as a box. Our cats end up sleeping in there even after we have returned from the vet because they just think it’s normal. Of course, once they feel comfortable sleeping and ‘owning’ the carrier you may put it away, but at least you know when it’s vet time, they will associate sleep and play time with the carrier, and not with fear.

The trip to the vet

Most cats do not do well with trips to the vet. Why is it that they sense in advance that it’s vet time and then they are nowhere to be found? Do they know the word “vet”?  Sometimes I wonder. Important to note is that a few nights before the appointment, get the carrier out and either leave it for them to play in or sleep in or, depending on your cat’s responsiveness to it, do the desensitization process again. Well, now that your cat is hopefully used to the carrier, you know, that fun box of ‘hide and stalk’, they should get into the carrier without any hassles.  Once you have kitty all safely in the carrier, it’s a good idea to strap the seat belt over the carrier to keep it from moving about in the car.  If the drive is longer than 20 minutes, bring some wet wipes and doggy poop bags with just in case. My Bengal cat gets car sick sometimes and wet wipes have come in handy. I also like putting on their cat harness on the trips to the vet as this ensures extra caution and safety when taking them out of the carrier onto the vet table. It is sometimes difficult to restrain a cat who is frightened and nervous on the vet’s table and a leash and harness is a great way to keep a cat under control. Of course, this should only be used if your cat is already used to wearing a harness.

Road trip anyone?

Once your cat has become accustomed to riding in a car he might just surprise you with wanting to accompany you on adventures and road trips! We have done quite a few road trips with our older cat to different cat shows and they he was a happy camper. But it’s important to be able to rely on pet-friendly accommodation, after all, they’re family too. At the Red Roof Inn, pets stay free so cost is one less thing to think about when planning your pawsome adventure with your kitty travel buddy.

Traveling to another country with your cats

Tips and important notes
  1. Find out about your destination country’s quarantine laws.
  2. Contact an animal travel services agency
  3. Enquire about carrier size restrictions and pet health requirements
  4. Vaccinations need to be up to date
  5. Enquire about vet check (this is normally done 10 days before they fly)
  6. Have your cat microchipped
Getting the right cat carrier is important. It has to fit the specifications of the airline company and be IATA approved. Carriers need to be big enough for your cat to sit up straight without the ears touching the top and turn around with ease. Researching the best cat carriers was the hardest part as there are so many. I chose a large airline approved pet travel carrier that would be big enough for my two cats to share and big enough for them to comfortably turn around and stand without feeling cramped. Depending on which airline you use and the destination, there is normally a stopover to refresh. My two cats flew on KLM and had a stopover in Amsterdam at their very pet-friendly animal hotel at the airport. Three weeks before the move I recommend mixing a few drops of rescue remedy (a Bach flower essence) in their drinking water to ease anxiety. Get them used to their new travel carriers by training them as above. On the day of the move, line the carrier with a thin blanket that still bears the comforting scent of you, their cat and their home, no detergent! An absolute must-have is to attach a water dispenser bottle to the carrier with the spout facing inside. These drip-free bottles fit conveniently onto your pet’s travel crate providing a comfortable travel experience for your cat, ensuring he stays hydrated throughout the flight.
For smaller dogs and cats traveling in the cabin with you, there are more convenience airline-approved pet carrier options designed to fit under cabin seats in front of you, like carry-on baggage.

It’s very important to find a reputable pet transport company and be sure to ask as many questions as you can think of, raising all of your concerns about how your pet will be traveling. The amazing service from Animal Travel Services, a top-notch animal transport company located in Cape Town, South Africa, made the big move to another country seem like a breeze. The staff was extremely helpful and professional, providing support all the way. Most animal transport companies have a pickup service, collecting your cats at home and transporting them to the airport, making the experience as stress-free for you as possible. When you’re moving and you already have a million things to prepare for, this service is pleasantly welcomed. I remember the sweetest sound I heard after a day and a half of traveling our separate ways, was the excited meows from their carrier as they waited for me at customs. They must have thought “Lady, this is the second time you put us through this, don’t do it again”!

Do you have a story to share about traveling with cats? Whether it was a move just across the street to a new house, an interesting trip to the vet or a big move around the world, we would love to hear your stories below.


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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