The Big Meow: Road Tripping with Your Cat

by Debra Bokur

Sep 9, 2019

Insonnia | Dreamstime.com

Travel Tips

There’s lots of useful info on the web about how to plan a road trip with a dog, but not much real guidance when it comes to car travel with cats. My husband and I were recently confronted with the non-negotiable need to get from our home in Colorado to family in coastal Maine, and had to figure out how to make the journey work with our two cats, Ollie and Sebastian.


Because we knew we’d need to be in Maine for a full year, a pet sitter was out of the question — as was air travel. We’d flown with our cats before, and driving definitely seemed like the less stressful option. When we did the calculations, Google Maps gave us an estimated drive time of 35 hours across 2,314 miles. Moment of panic: Just making the three-mile drive from our house to the vet’s office for checkups usually results in howling (the cats), crying (me) and early wine (also me).


In reality, it took us 48 hours spread across five days and four nights. And, most importantly, not only did we enjoy the trip, but after an initial rocky start, our cats soon settled in and embraced the adventure. Here’s how we handled it:


Give your pet as much safe space as possible. We allocated the entire back seat to a large mesh kennel that allowed for plenty of movement, air flow and a clear view of us in the front. Warning: Be sure there’s no possible weak link in the kennel. When testing ours at home with cats inside, the floor of it gave way when we lifted it. We reinforced all sides with secure plastic tabs. Once the cats were inside, we added mountaineering carabiner clips to the door to guarantee it would stay closed, but allowed us quick access if necessary. At night, we carried the entire kennel inside our hotel room with the cats safely ensconced, and repeated this procedure in the morning when leaving.


Bring favorite toys, cushions and blankets to create a familiar space, and allow time pre-trip for acclimation to the travel crate. We left the crate out every day with a soft cushion inside, dusted with a pheromone spray designed to calm cats. Both Ollie and Sebastian freely chose to nap inside the crate daily, with the door open.


The cat travel rule is car doors closed, car windows up. At no time should your cats be loose in a car where they can become projectiles or distract the driver, or carried in your arms into or out of hotels (or anywhere else). There’s simply too much room for a sudden escape that ends in heartbreak. Keep them securely enclosed until you’re safely in your room. And even in pet-friendly hotels, check for under-bed or other spaces that an explorer-cat could get caught in, or wiggle out of your reach when it’s time to get back on the road. If it becomes necessary to let them out of the travel crate en route while your car is stopped, first be absolutely certain your windows are up and doors are locked.


Load up on plenty of water from home. Many cats are persnickety about unfamiliar water, so we filled extra bottles to bring with us. When we finally reached Maine, we slowly added local water to the remainder of what we’d brought until they’d completely (and happily) switched over.


Plan ahead to find pet-friendly lodging along your route so you aren’t scrambling to reach a city with an appropriate room after a long day of travel.


Pack disposable litter boxes, ample kitty litter, a large plastic sheet (shower curtains work great), and a hand-held vacuum for cleanup. Spread the sheet on the hotel room floor, place the litter box on top, and tidy up before you leave.


Bring disposable bowls for feeding, and pack food your cats love. Sebastian and Ollie dined on tuna every evening of the trip. It’s something that’s usually a treat, so they were excited each mealtime and we didn’t have the added worry of them not eating.


Speaking of which — if you usually feed your cats more than once a day, limit food to the evening to avoid upset tummies on the road and to make sure they’re adequately hungry in the evening.


Anticipate motion sickness, and have medication on hand. On the way to the vet’s office years ago, I noticed our older cat, Sebastian, had his eyes half closed and was rocking back and forth while making an unfamiliar, unhappy sound. He looked and sounded just like I do on a ferryboat, and our vet diagnosed motion sickness (common in cats) and provided a prescription we use when car trips are unavoidable.


Bring a small fan that plugs into your dashboard that can be directed at the kennel to provide air movement and white noise. Both our cats snuggled directly in front of the fan for most of the trip, even though we had air conditioning running.


Play low-key music, or podcasts and audiobooks. The sound of voices may be more soothing than loud music.


Most of all, don’t rush. Cats, like all animals, are quick to pick up on the emotions of their humans. If you strive to be (as they say) cool as a cat, your feline family will likely follow suit.


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