Most cats don’t like travelling by car and yet it’s almost inevitable that they’ll have to get inside a vehicle at some point. Maybe it’ll be a quick one-off trip to the veterinarian’s office or it could be part of a much longer journey — cross-country, over state lines or even international borders. Knowing how to calm down a cat in the car will make your trip easier, safer and (hopefully) stress-free.
We expect a lot from our cats during those initial car rides. We bring them home from a breeder or shelter. We bundle them into an unfamiliar box, stick them in a strange moving environment and hope for the best. We want to get them from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. Once we’re home, then the carrier is often stored inside a cupboard or closet and not seen again until the next road trip which could be months or even years later.
Cats are territorial. They like being in environments that smell familiar to them. Cars are noisy, they smell strange and they move quickly. Some cats hate car rides so many owners believe that it’s kinder to keep their pets out of vehicles and cat carriers unless it’s absolutely necessary.
This isn’t the same with dogs.
We persevere with anxious or nervous dogs because we expect that we’ll have to take them in the car with us at some point. Cats are happier being left behind, sure, but it’s still worth acclimatizing them. Keeping our cats calm in the car will make journeys easier not only for the pet but for the driver and any passengers, too.
Pick a Good Cat Carrier
It all starts with having a good cat carrier. This should be a box that’s robust enough to hold your cat and strong enough to keep them safe and secure.
Hard or soft carriers are the most common. A cat’s individual personality will often dictate which type of carrier is best.
For example, you probably wouldn’t put an anxious or difficult cat in a soft carrier. This is because claws and teeth can make light work of mesh or fabric and also because smelly accidents are harder to clean out of fabric. You’re better off buying a hard carrier.
Placid cats, however, may find soft-sided carriers more comfortable and as an owner, you may find them easier to carry. They also take up much less space in the home when they’re not being used.
Looking for a stylish carrier? Sleepypod is made from luggage grade material and also doubles as a cat bed.
The carrier should be big enough so that the cat has enough space to stand up and turn around in. Resist the temptation to get a much bigger carrier, however, as cats tend to feel safer in smaller spaces. Something that’s big enough for your cat to be comfortable without being too roomy is ideal.
Introduce Your Cat to its Carrier
You can often reduce anxiety by introducing the cat to its carrier before starting your trip.
Owners often put boxes away, bringing them out only when they’re needed so it’s no wonder cats are nervous right off the bat. Try to integrate the carrier into your living space.
Bring it out a few weeks before your trip if you can. Let the cat get used to seeing it. Curiosity may get the better of them eventually and you’ll probably see them climbing in and having a good sniff. Anything that encourages the cat to explore and to add its scent to the inside is good.
Add a much-loved blanket or towel inside to start things off. You could also have a few favourite treats ready to hand out as a reward. You want your cat to have either a positive or neutral association with its carrier.
You’re not always going to have advanced notice of when you need to use the carrier. This is especially true if your cat becomes ill or is injured and needs to visit the veterinarian in a hurry. So we’d recommend taking the cat carrier out and putting it in a common area of the house periodically. If you have a kitten, then it’s important to get it used to the box before any fear or anxiety develops.
The carrier is the cat’s main point of contact inside the car so allowing a cat to explore inside will encourage feelings of safety, security and familiarity. Getting your cat to feel comfortable in their pet carrier gives you a massive headstart on helping them to cope with car journeys.
Familiar Smells in the Carrier and the Car
Cats feel calmer in places that smell familiar.
If they regularly climb into their carrier, then they’re going to feel safer and more comfortable inside. If your cat isn’t used to the carrier or the car, then there are a few things you can do to create a safe smelling environment.
Firstly, put things inside the carrier that your pet is familiar with: favourite toys, familiar bedding etc is ideal as it will already smell of them.
You can also wipe a soft cloth over the cat’s face and then wipe it around the inside of the box.
There’s also a variety of rescue remedies specifically designed to reduce anxiety in felines. One of the most well-known in Bach’s Rescue Remedy for pets which uses plant extracts to reduce pet stress and tension.
Use Medicine to Calm a Cat
Benadryl is a common way for owners to sedate their cat for travel.
Benadryl is a human anti-histamine medicine that tends to leave cats drowsy and therefore more compliant on long car trips.
It’s not approved for use in animals by the FDA but it’s generally considered safe enough to use in small doses on cats.
We’d advise caution when using Benadryl as we would with any unprescribed medication.
There are other brands available, too, but always make sure that there’s only ONE active ingredient — DIPHENHYDRAMINE.
Additional active ingredients can cause health problems.
You can find out more about using medicine to calm cats for travel by reading our previous post.
If your cat suffers from extreme distress in the car, then you can also talk to your veterinarian about prescription drugs that will sedate them.
Tire Your Cat Out Beforehand
If you’d prefer not to sedate your cat, then tiring them out through play and exercise will help make them sleepy. A cat that sleeps through a car journey isn’t going be stressed or anxious.
Reduce Food Intake Before Getting into the Car
On the day that you’re traveling, keep their meals small and light. This will help to reduce any motion sickness and it’ll also mean that they won’t need to use the litter tray so often.
Rule Out Motion Sickness
One reason that your cat might be so miserable in the car could be due to motion sickness.
Animals suffer from it, too, and it’s about as unpleasant for them as it is for us.
You may notice your cat drooling, crying or vomiting. If you suspect that your cat is suffering, then you can get motion sickness medication from your vet.
Do a Short Practice Run
Introducing your cat to the car ahead of your trip should make a big difference.
When the engine is turned off let the cat wander around the interior. Make sure the car doors and windows are secured if you have a house cat. It might be helpful to put them into a feline harness or leash, too, so that you feel in control of what you’re doing.
Cats are curious by nature and should enjoy exploring the inside of a new space. Once you think the cat is used to the new environment then you can turn the engine on to help your cat become accustomed to its sound.
Remember, however, that it’s dangerous to drive with a cat loose in the car so if you do decide to take them on a short journey then make sure they’re secured either inside a cat carrier or on the other side of a cat car barrier.
Make Sure the Air Conditioning is On in Summer and the Heater in Winter
Be mindful of the outside temperature.
Keep the air conditioning running or the heater depending on the time of year and the weather you’re traveling in.
Remember to keep any human bathroom breaks as short as possible because a car can quickly heat up and cool down when the engine is off.
If your cat starts panting in the car, then it could be anxiety or it could be a sign that they’re overheating.
Make sure cool drinking water is available, too.
Talk to Your Cat
Your cat might be unfamiliar with the carrier and the car but it knows your voice.
Many owners swear by the relaxing effect that just talking can have on pets that are nervous about traveling in cars.
You might also like to angle the carrier so that the cat can see you throughout the journey.
When you take a break from driving, too, it’s nice to place fingers through the carrier and give your cat a little bit of love and attention for reassurance.
Increase or Decrease Visual Stimuli
This piece of advice is cat-specific. Some cats feel less anxious when they’re able to see outside. This means using a carrier with plenty of visibility and it might mean putting them on the seat rather than on the floor.
Other cats, however, may become distressed by the fast-flowing outside scenery, and so it’s a good idea to cover the carrier with a towel or light blanket.
Placing the carrier on the floor of the backseat will help, too.
Play Classical Music
Some owners swear that classical music helps keep their cats calm in the car. It’s worth a try. In our experience, there’s some truth to this and music will help cover up the sound of the engine. Although, who’s to say that your cat won’t prefer rock music or talk radio? It’s equally as possible that they’ll prefer it to be quiet, too.
Remember that your cat will be more sensitive to movement than you and any passengers are. Avoid bumps on the road and drive as smoothly as possible.
Make sure that the carrier is secured properly, too, to prevent it from sliding about or bouncing against the seat.
Keeping your cat calm in the car isn’t always going to be easy.
Some of the methods above are trial-and-error.
What works for one cat won’t necessarily work for another but they’re all options worth exploring. The biggest thing you can do to help keep a cat relaxed during a journey is getting them used to their carrier. This is the foundation.
You may find that additional things need to be put into place — music choices, snacks, where you place the carrier etc but a cat with a good relationship with its carrier should feel calmer than one that doesn’t.
Remember, too, that cat’s are incredibly sensitive to the moods of their owners and if you’re nervous or anxious, then they’ll pick up on that and feel similarly uneasy.