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Why Do Cats Hate Car Rides?

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They aren’t known for their love of travel, but why do cats hate car rides?

Mainly, because cats aren’t as domesticated as dogs.

They don’t like leaving their territory, and they don’t like leaving it for somewhere new; somewhere that might have loud noises, unfamiliar smells and movement. Cats have a better memory than dogs, too, and they’re more likely to associate the car and the carrier with something unpleasant —  the journey itself or a veterinarian’s exam, for example.

Dogs travel more frequently in cars, too.

If a canine is nervous or anxious, then we’re more likely to encourage them and persevere to cure their discomfort. We’ll take our time with them. We might train them.  Cats, we tend to bundle in a box and hope for the best. Hardly a great experience for them and one that is often very stressful for us, too.

Felines can be exceptionally tuned into the mood of their owners. If you’re nervous about putting them into inside a car then they’re going to feel that anxiety and react accordingly.  If you go cold at the thought of taking them with you on the road, then it’s no wonder that cats hate car rides, too.

Wild Cats Hate Car Rides, too

Cats aren’t domesticated like dogs are —  that’s worth repeating.

There’s a fascinating article on the National Geographic website where DNA analysis shows that cats actually ‘domesticated’ themselves. There’s really not much difference between our house moggies and cats in the wild.  As the Smithsonian website writes, cats do pretty well for themselves even if there’s no human around to open a tin.  They weren’t bred for a specific purpose like dogs were and, therefore, still have that ‘wild’ streak.  Given that cats are both deeply solitary and territorial (as were their ancestors), it makes sense that car rides can be an anxiety-inducing experience.

Imagine if you were bundled up into a box and then moved to a new location —  think of the smells, the smudging of suburban neighbourhoods, cityscapes going by the car window.  Cats have borders to patrol, patches of a neighbourhood that they’ve marked. Take them away from that and they’re bound to get antsy.

Our pets are descended from African Wildcats; a species known for being both solitary and deeply territorial.  Living alongside humans for centuries has done little to erase the personality and habits hardwired into feline DNA. For example, it’s why cats still insist on burying food even after you’ve fed them out of a packet, into a bowl and on the linoleum of your kitchen.

Take a look at the African wildcat below.

Probably not at all what you were expecting. They don’t look much different from our own cats. Think about how many dog breeds there are and how different each one is to another.

It isn’t like that with cats. We haven’t bred enough of the wild out of them

An African Wildcat in a zoo


The African Wildcat looks very familiar

Cats appear to have a better memory than dogs do. They’re able to associate the carrier with a feeling of what happened.  For most of us, it means that cats do remember going to the vet or getting their claws clipped.

When you went on holiday for two weeks and left it at the cattery?

Yep, it remembers that, too.

It doesn’t mean they’ll remember it specifically in the same way a human would but they’re better than dogs at recalling how that experience felt. If it was upsetting or frightening, then they’re likely to recall those feelings The Second Opinion Doc website says that cats are 200 times better at retaining memories than dogs are.

Cats Like Routine

Cats are creatures of habit, too.  You might notice they often have a routine  — sleeping at similar times, waking up or wanting food at roughly the same part of the day.  Car trips with cats are often unfamiliar and unexpected. This is especially true if you’ve been hiding the carrier from them until the very last moment. You’re disrupting their day-to-day, interrupting their napping and eating, and you better believe they’ll hold a grudge!

Helping cats hate car rides a little less

Ideally, you should introduce the cat to its box the day you bring him or her home.  Don’t just bring out a hard or soft cat carrier when it’s time to get in the car.  Put it somewhere in the house where the cat can explore and enjoy climbing inside.  By placing blankets, toys and treats inside, you may find that the moggy gravitates to that space naturally, possibly using it as a sleeping spot.  It’s not just about letting the cat see the inside of the carrier but it’s about allowing the animal to leave its scent which will help keep it calm during car rides. This will hopefully make it easier for you to get the cat into its carrier.  Without an association of terror, your cat hopefully won’t run a mile when the box comes out of the cupboard.

You might need to make sure that you have the correct box to transport your cat in, too.  We’ve written previously about the best cat carriers for long car trips. If your cat is prone to anxiety or aggression before getting into a vehicle, then we’ve also explored some of the best cat carriers for difficult cats.

Also, have you thought about trying a cat car seat? It’s an alternative to the traditional carriers.

Spraying a synthetic pheromone such as Feliway or using a floral remedy like Rescue Remedy beforehand can help, too.  These can be useful if your cat starts panting in the car. If you’re very worried about the level of stress your cat exhibits during long car rides, then you can get medicine to calm cats for travel. Some are over-the-counter human drugs like Benadryl but you can also get sedatives prescribed by your vet.

You might like to allow the cat to explore the car before your journey. Keep the windows down and the doors locked but let them wander over the seats and have a good sniff. Take some treats in, too, so that they’ll associate getting into the car with getting something tasty to eat.  You could also start the engine to introduce them to its rumbling. Just be sure to supervise them carefully. If you think that it’s the carrier more than the car causing anxiety, then you can buy a cat car barrier which keep the cat secure during the journey but which allow them some measure of freedom.

Some cats prefer the carrier to be covered over with a towel or blanket. Others would rather be able to look outside. Try both and see which your cat is happiest with.

So why do cats hate car rides? Because it’s an unfamiliar space; it takes them away from their territory and is often a precursor to an unpleasant event. We don’t help our felines create better associations with vehicles the way that we do with dogs but with a little effort, you can make a car ride less stressful for everyone — owner included!


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  1. Pingback: How To Travel With A Cat | Tortuga

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