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Most cats don’t like traveling by car, but it’s almost inevitable that they’ll have to get inside a vehicle at some point. It might be a one-off trip to the veterinarian’s office or part of a much longer journey — cross-country, over state lines or even international borders. Knowing how to calm a cat in the car will make your trip easier and safer.
We expect a lot from our cats during those early 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 quickly. Once we’re home, the carrier is often stored inside a cupboard or closet and not seen again until the next road trip, which could be months or years later.
Owners tend to persevere with dogs. They’ll put the work in to help a nervous dog become more comfortable and confident because dogs aren’t tied to their territory like cats. Dogs love going for long walks in new places. Cats are territorial. They like being in environments that smell familiar to them. Cars are unfamiliar spaces. They smell strange, make a lot of noise and move quickly. Not to forget that at the end of the ride, something unpleasant could be waiting for them — a veterinarian, for example! And because many cats don’t enjoy these experiences, owners understandably keep them out of the car and only take them out when it’s absolutely necessary.
Nobody wants to put their cat through unnecessary stress, but there are things you can do as an owner to help acclimatise your cat better to help make car journeys easier.
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, but many different types exist. Your cat’s personality can help dictate the best carrier type and size.
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 smelly accidents are harder to clean out of soft material than plastic. You’re better off buying a hard carrier. We have an older post that discusses the best types of carrier for scared cats.
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 not being used, as they fold down and are easier to store.
If you have two cats, getting a double carrier may be easier. Sometimes, you can zip the carriers together to make one larger area, and the cats may be comfortable traveling in the same space as their friend.
You can also buy car seats for cats, which you would then attach a leash to, but it gives the cat more visibility. If you’re looking for a more stylish carrier, then there’s the Sleepypod, made from luggage-grade material and doubles as a cat bed.
A carrier should be big enough for the cat to stand up and turn around. Resist the temptation to get a much bigger carrier, however, as cats tend to feel safer in smaller spaces, which is essential when traveling with anxious cats. Something big enough for your cat to be comfortable without being too roomy. This will depend on your cat’s size. , for example.
Introduce Your Cat to its Carrier
You can reduce anxiety by introducing the cat to its carrier before starting your trip. Owners often put boxes away, bringing them out only when needed, so it’s no wonder cats get nervous. Try to integrate the carrier into your living space.
Bring it out a few weeks before your trip. 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 to hand out as a reward. You want your cat to have a positive or neutral association with its carrier.
You won’t always 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 the carrier to visit the veterinarian quickly. So we’d recommend periodically taking the cat carrier out and putting it in a common area of the house. If you have a kitten, getting it used to the box is important before any fear or anxiety develops. The great thing about a new kitten is that you can help influence their behaviour during these earlier stages.
The carrier is the cat’s primary point of contact inside the car, so allowing your cat to explore inside will help encourage it to feel safe, secure and familiar. Getting your cat to feel comfortable in their pet carrier gives you a massive head-start 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, they will recognise the scent inside and make them feel more comfortable. There are several things you can do to create a safe-smelling environment.
You can put things inside the carrier that the cat is already comfortable with. For example, their favourite toys, bedding, etc. It can even be things that smell of you, too. In the past, we’ve put an old hoodie in the carrier’s base.
You can also gently touch a soft cloth over the cat’s face and then wipe this over the inside of the box. This mimics what the cat does naturally.
Some cat owners also swear by artificial pheromone sprays. These sprays replicate the pheromones your cat naturally deposits on surfaces, helping them feel safer and more secure.
We’ll link below to a couple of examples of pheromone sprays. We are an Amazon affiliate, so if you purchase something using one of our links, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost.
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- FELIWAY is vet recommended, and the #1 selling solution: FELIWAY Classic may help cats adjust to challenging situations, and curbs stress related unwanted behaviors such as urine spraying, scratching, and general fearfulness
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- FELIWAY Classic Spray makes vet visits, travel, new environments, and loud noise (thunder, fireworks, etc) less stressful for your cat
- FELIWAY Classic is a drug free solution that mimics cat’s natural facial pheromones, which may help your pet feel calmer in common stressful situations
- Great for on the go use, or spot treatment at home; you can spray calming pheromones directly onto objects such as your cat carrier or car (do not spray directly on your cat or his or her scratching post as it will deter scratching)
- REDUCE URINE MARKING & SCRATCHING: Proven to reduce urine marking and destructive scratching; you may see changes in your cat’s behavior in 1-2 weeks
- PROTECT HOME AND FURNITURE: Great for spot treating areas in the home that your cat targets such as couches or door frames
- TRAVEL WITH EASE: For travel or vet visits, spray your cat's bedding, let dry, and place inside carrier 15 minutes before transporting your cat
- DRUG AND FRAGRANCE FREE: Drug-free solution so you can feel good about helping your cat feel good
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Last update on 2024-02-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Use Medicine to Calm a Cat
For long car journeys, some owners use Benadryl to sedate their cats 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 animal use by the FDA, but owners use it in small doses. We’d always advise caution when using Benadryl, as 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.
If your cat suffers from extreme distress in the car, you can also talk to your veterinarian about prescription drugs to sedate them. You can read more about Benadryl for cats on the PetMD website.
Tire Your Cat Out Beforehand
If you’d prefer not to sedate your cat, tiring them out through play and exercise will help make them sleepy. A cat that sleeps through a car journey isn’t going to be stressed or anxious. It can also be helpful to exercise a cat after a journey to help burn off any nervous energy.
Reduce Food Intake Before Getting into the Car
On the day you’re traveling, keep your cats’ meals small and light. This will help to reduce any motion sickness and 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 your cat is suffering, 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 too.
Let the cat wander around the interior when the engine is turned off. Ensure 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 you feel in control of your actions. All you’re doing is letting them smell the interior and explore without any noises and movement that can make them feel uneasy. Most cats are curious by nature and may respond surprisingly well to this. Once you think the cat is used to the new environment, 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 decide to take them on a short journey, ensure 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 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, it could be anxiety or 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 nervous about traveling in cars. You might also like to angle the carrier so the cat can see you throughout the journey.
When you take a break from driving, it’s nice to place your 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, which might mean putting them on the seat rather than the floor.
Other cats, however, may become distressed by the fast-flowing outside scenery, 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 calm their cats in the car. We play music to our cat when there are fireworks outside, so it could be that the sound covers up the engine noise and helps keep them calm. Although, who’s to say that your cat won’t prefer rock music or talk radio?
Drive Carefully. 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. Ensure the carrier is secured correctly to prevent it from sliding about or bouncing against the seat.
Ultimately, keeping your cat calm in the car won’t always be easy, but several options are worth exploring. We’d suggest encouraging your cat to get used to its carrier and, later, become more familiar with the car. It’s also worth remembering that cats can be susceptible to their owners’ moods, so if you’re nervous or anxious, they may pick up on that, which could make them feel less at ease when traveling.