Cats thrive on familiarity and routine. As territorial animals, they aren’t naturally comfortable with travel. Unfortunately for them, we live in a human world and not a cat one and people tend to move around.
Travel doesn’t have to mean a cross-country road trip or an international flight. It can also mean a 15-minute drive to a veterinarian appointment or to a boarding cattery.
It’s not unrealistic to expect that an owner will have to move from A to B (and likely back again) at some point in their pet’s life.
Getting a cat comfortable with travel is mostly about creating positive or neutral associations between them, their carrier and the unfamiliar environment.
How to Get Your Cat Comfortable with Travel
- Give your cat positive associations with travel – use food, affection, and treats to calm your cat
- Get your cat used to small trips
- Help your cat become more used to his or her carrier
- Try to get your cat used to his or her harness
- Don’t feed your cat for 5 hours before traveling
Cats don’t have the imagination to think about what a road trip might look and sound like. Instead, they remember the feelings and emotions experienced on their last trip.
For example, if a cat has a stressful visit to a veterinarian, then this experience often shapes how the animal reacts and behaves the next time they have to go into the carrier.
Get Your Cat Comfortable with its Carrier
Don’t underestimate the importance of buying a suitable, comfortable and durable carrier. This unassuming box will be your cat’s home for the duration of any journey or trip and they have to feel safe and comfortable when they’re inside.
Airline regulations will restrict some of the choice. The opposite is true for car journeys: there’s an almost overwhelming selection to pick from.
Do your research.
Pick a carrier to suit your cat’s personality: soft-sided can be better for calmer cats and hard-sided for difficult or anxious ones. A cat should be able to stand up, turn around and lie down naturally inside the box. Don’t be tempted to pick one that’s too big; cats tend to feel safer in smaller spaces.
The best time to acclimatize your cat to its carrier is when it’s still a kitten. If it wasn’t possible for you to do that at the time, then start now.
Put the carrier somewhere the cat can easily explore it. Put warm bedding and familiar toys and treats inside and leave it with the door wide open.
You could also spray a synthetic pheromone like Feliway inside to create a welcoming space.
Some cats will climb straight in. Others may take a while. Once they’ve been inside and are familiar with it, then close the door after them, wait for a second or two and open it again.
Repeat this a number of times and gradually increase the amount of seconds the door is shut. Later, you can pick the carrier up and take a few steps with the cat inside before putting it down.
Keep this up until the cat is used to the movement.
This might sound time-intensive but it’s a few minutes of work each time. Get it right and the pay-off is worth the effort.
Revisit this method in the lead-up to departure.
Take Short Trips
If you’re going by car, do a short practice run first. If it’s possible and safe to do so, keep the engine off and let the cat wander freely around the interior of the vehicle.
This should be closely supervised so that the cat doesn’t get stuck anywhere.
Secure the cat inside its carrier and then turn the engine on so the cat has a sense of how it sounds. You might even like to take them on a short drive around the block.
Give them treats and lots of praise to help create and reinforce these positive associations.
Traveling by airplane? Obviously, it’s not as easy to acclimatize a cat to air travel unless you own your own aircraft.
Cynthia Drescher wrote on the Conde Nast website that she’d taught her cat to love travel by taking it out with her on short trips: on the subway, to friend’s houses, on bus rides and even when she was running errands.
These little trips gave the cat an experience beyond its own territory by replicating the sights, smells and sounds it might encounter at the airport.
What Else Can You Do to Make Traveling More Comfortable?
Each trip you take with you cat can influence its behaviour on the next one. Your next journey, for example, will affect the one after that.
If you’re flying with your cat, get them used to wearing a harness and leash as you’ll need to take them out of their carrier at security.
Some cats take a while to get used to harnesses so it’s worth leaving enough time to do it properly.
Don’t feed your cat less than 5-hours before your trip. A cat traveling on a full belly will be uncomfortable and is more prone to motion sickness.
Drive carefully. Depending on the carrier and where you’ve put it, your cat may be prone to feeling bumps in the road. Avoid sudden braking, too.
Use a towel or blanket to cover the carrier if you think the passing scenery will distress them. Equally, be prepared to take it off if you think they’d be happier with something to look at.
If you’re flying, always try to keep your cat with your in the cabin rather than in the hold.
Keep things as close to normal as you can on the day you leave. Cats like routine.
Burn off any of their excess energy by exercising them before you leave. This should help to encourage sleep, too. A snoozing cat is an ideal scenario for most owners.
Cats can be highly sensitive to an owner’s mood. If you’re anxious or stressed, then the cat is more likely to be, too.
Getting a cat to be comfortable with traveling can take a little time but the effort is worth it. Creating a positive or neutral association between a cat and its carrier, whilst safely exposing it to the smells, sounds and textures of different environments, can help reduce anxiety.
Of course, some cats adapt to travel better than others but as an owner, there’s always something you can do to help your cat feel more comfortable with traveling. It’s not just about them, either. A better trip for them means a better one for you, too.