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When I was in elementary school, I entered my tomcat, Midnight, into my county 4-H fair’s cat competition. Instead of winning blue, I spent the morning of the fair trying to coax him into his brand-new, never-before-used cat carrier as he hissed, growled, screamed, and scratched.
Midnight eventually made a daring escape out of the house and into the surrounding woods. He was so indignant that he didn’t come home for almost a week.
I’ve learned since then. While travel isn’t high on the list of “Things I Like” for most cats I know, it really is possible to figure out how to travel long distance with a cat—or even just to the vet’s office—without mental scars for your cat or physical scars for your arms.
So how can you travel with your cat and keep both of your sane along the way? We spoke with the experts to find the answer.
The most important cat travel tip: Plan ahead
“The best strategy is to plan ahead to make travel a better experience for a cat,” says Amanda McNabb, DVM, a veterinarian from Lynwood, Washington. That’s because, as any cat owner can attest to, most cats are very, very, very resistant to change.
When you are planning travel with a cat, start the process of acclimating your kitty as soon as possible instead of waiting until the last minute and springing it on her like a very unwelcome surprise. You know, like I did with my coulda-been-a-contender cat.
Dr. McNabb recommends that you begin by making your cat’s carrier seem like a friendly space. “Leave the carrier out for the cat to choose it to explore or nap in,” she says. Try putting toys, treats, and bedding they like inside, and you can even utilize a few spritzes of a feline pheromone spray like Feliway to help make your cat as comfortable as possible.
Be aware of motion sickness
One reason cats hate cars? They often get motion sickness, according to Dr. McNabb. A test run in the car can help you figure out if that’s a problem for your cat. According to PetMD, symptoms like drooling, distress cries, being too afraid to move, vomiting, urinating and defecating could be a sign that your cat gets motion sickness.
If motion sickness is a problem, make sure your cat’s carrier is securely fastened in the car, which can help reduce motion. You might also consider avoiding meals before travel (unless your cat has a medical condition that requires scheduled feedings).
The more you understand what your cat’s reactions might be, the better prepared you’ll be to help your cat through any anxiety or fears.
Is it OK to sedate my cat for travel?
Sedatives can cause very different reactions in cats depending on age, health, and tolerance, says Dr. McNabb. For example, certain sedatives can cause blood pressure changes. On the other hand, even over-the-counter medicines like Benadryl can cause an unpleasant amount of excitement.
But sedatives aren’t out of the question, and some seem to have positive results. “Work with your vet to make a plan for your cat’s specific needs,” she advises. “And maybe consider a test dose with your vet to gauge your cat’s response to the drug and dose.” Also—you’ll still need to plan ahead. Medications should be given an hour before your cat sets out on a stressful journey.
Finally, Dr. McNabb stresses that owners avoid sedation for any cat flying in cargo since the cat will be unsupervised and nobody can monitor it for any problems.
How to travel with a cat by car
Unless you live in a big city with a great public transit situation (more on that below), most people will have to travel with a cat by car at least occasionally for trips to the vet. So how can you make it a bit less painful?
First, make certain that the car environment is as inviting as possible. Keep a moderate temperature in the car, not too hot or too cold, and limit external noises like the radio if your cat is easily spooked.
If you’re planning on running more than a quick errand with your cat in the car, you’ll want to bring along a small litter pan. Even a pie tin with some litter in it will suffice.
Finally, Dr. McNabb maintains that it is imperative to keep your cat in a carrier or on a harness or leash at all times. “A distressed cat will have a tendency to bolt and hide,” she says. The cozy confines of a dedicated pet carrier for the car can make a difference in helping a cat stay calm.
Best Cat Carrier for Car Travel: Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed
This carrier is easy to secure with the seatbelt, which will help keep your cat safe and reduce motion sickness in the car. The styling of this carrier is also similar to many cat beds, which can help keep your cat cozy and composed.Buy Now on Amazon for $169.95
How to fly with a cat
If you’re flying with a cat, you’ll want to think about a few different things. If it’s a very long flight, make certain that you have a good harness so that you can give your cat the opportunity to stretch her legs and perhaps go potty on either end of the flight or on a layover.
Before you book your flight, you’ll want to check the airline’s pet policies. Since many airlines that do allow pets have limits on how many are allowed in the cabin at a time. A call to customer service can make sure your cat is welcome aboard.
You’ll also need to decide whether your cat will have to fly in the cabin or beneath the plane as cargo. Keeping your pet nearby under your seat so that you can check for any signs of distress is the best option.
If your cat must fly cargo, try to plan a direct flight to minimize the amount of time your pet is traveling. Also, ask about your airline’s animal incident reports to see if they have a good track record with pet safety.
Many airlines and airports require health certificates for travel, which requires a trip to your veterinarian. It’s a good opportunity to help put your own mind at rest, too, in regards to whether or not your cat is healthy enough to travel.
Finally, airlines have very specific requirements concerning what travel carriers are allowed and what size will fit beneath their seats. Be sure that your carrier fits those requirements.
Best Cat Carrier for Air Travel: Sleepypod Air In-Cabin Carrier
Not only can this carrier compress to make certain that it fits beneath the seat, but it can also expand so that you can move it into your foot space and give your kitty a bit more room to spread out. It has an ultra-padded carrying strap, a trolley pocket that makes it easy to connect to your roller bag, and seatbelt attachments that let it double as a car carrier.Buy Now on Amazon for $169.20
How to travel with a cat by bus or train
Many cities allow pets to travel with their owners on public transit, but you’ll obviously want to check with your local transit authority before showing up on the subway with a cat. Most cities will require cats to be contained in an appropriate carrier.
If you’re hoping to travel across the country with your cat, keep in mind that Greyhound doesn’t allow pets of any kind. Amtrak recently relaxed some of its pet policies, but you’ll want to double check what they are before you go.
Best Carrier for Public Transit: Prefer Pets Hideaway Backpack
This carrier is built as a backpack with excellent ventilation, so you can use both hands for your other luggage. Rollaway privacy shades help even the shyest kitties feel more comfortable.Buy Now on Amazon for $59.99
How do I find a cat-friendly hotel?
There are certain hotel chains that are well known for being pet-friendly—La Quinta, Super 8, and Best Western, to name a few—but they’re not always where you need them to be. So how can you be sure you’ll have a place to stay that allows cats?
Regardless, it’s never a bad idea to double check a hotel’s pet policies with a phone call before you arrive just to make sure there aren’t any overly tenuous rules or hidden fees that you didn’t know about.
Keep in mind that some hotels don’t allow you to leave your pets alone in a room. And if you let your cat roam free, you’ll need to be careful to make sure they use their litter box and don’t scratch furniture, lest you end up with a hefty repair bill.
Traveling internationally with your cat
Travel gets significantly more complicated if you’re trying to go abroad with your cat. It differs from country to country, but at minimum, your cat will need to:
- be microchipped
- be vaccinated against rabies
- have a health certificate and/or a pet passport
Many countries have more stringent requirements, sometimes including a mandatory quarantined waiting period. And it’s not just outside the United States—Hawaii has similar requirements. If you’re not prepared ahead of time, you may not be able to leave the airport with your cat.
Get more information on traveling with your cat to the following popular destinations:
Anything else to consider when traveling with a cat?
Dr. McNabb cautions cat owners to be aware of external factors, like vehicle temperature, access to a litter box, and regular breaks for water. “Take it at your cat’s pace as much as possible,” she says.
Even if you’re not flying, it’s worth having your pet’s medical records with you in the event that you have to make an emergency trip to the vet.
Mostly, try to keep your own stress levels as low as possible. Cats are often intuitive. If you’re relaxed, it can help your cat stay that way, too.
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