Brown kitten tongue out panting

Why Do Cats Pant in the Car?

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Most cats don’t enjoy traveling by car, and even the most laid-back feline can quickly become distressed and even aggressive in a moving vehicle. Whether a short journey to a veterinarian appointment or part of a longer trip, unhappy kitties make for difficult traveling companions. 

There are several reasons why cats pant in the car, and we will discuss them in the post below; we’ll also add a few suggestions on how to help calm them down that other owners have found useful. 

Cat Panting Stress

Unless there’s an underlying medical reason — which we’ll mention later in this post — cats pant in cars because their heart rate is elevated and they’re stressed. This is similar to how people sometimes experience rapid breathing when they’re in a stressful situation. 

Unlike dogs, cats are often anxious travellers and territorial, too. They don’t take kindly to being trapped inside a carrier, clipped into a strange, unfamiliar seat, removed from their usual environment, and moved somewhere new. 

If your cat is open-mouthed when stressed, remove it from that situation (if possible) or try to calm them down. However, this isn’t always easy if you’re already inside the car, so it’s helpful to spend time preparing for car journeys with your cat before you roll off the driveway. Your options may be limited once you’re already on the road.

Cats may respond to reassurance by petting through the cage, putting classical music on to cover the sounds of the engine, and using small treats and familiar-smelling toys and bedding. 

You may also find it useful to cover the carrier with a blanket so that they’re not disturbed by passing scenery and are less likely to suffer motion sickness.

Is the Cat Too Hot? 

Heavy breathing can also indicate that the cat is too hot and overheating. Ensure that the temperature inside the vehicle is similar to what your pet is used to and that their carrier is shaded. Turn the air conditioning on if you can, and ensure they can access fresh and cool drinking water.  When they’re outside, cats are generally pretty good at keeping themselves cool, but that’s not possible inside a car, so it’s your job as the owner to ensure they’re not getting too hot. 

Brief spells of panting should stop once the cat starts cooling down, but if this doesn’t happen quickly, then it could be suffering the early stages of heatstroke. This is a severe condition which can be fatal. If it is heatstroke, the intensity of the panting will increase as the condition becomes more advanced, and symptoms can also include drooling, increased heart rate and respiration, vomiting, etc. If you suspect heatstroke, then contact a veterinarian immediately. 

Is There a Medical Issue? 

Brief spells of fast breathing in the car due to anxiety or heat will stand out as unusual behaviour, similar to when a cat is panting due to overexertion through play or exercise, but if the panting can’t be tied to the above, then it could be a sign of illness.  You should make an appointment with your veterinarian for further investigation. It doesn’t necessarily mean the issue is a serious one, but a panting cat may be suffering from a cardiac or respiratory illness, heartworm, or they could be in pain. 

If you’re traveling with your cat over a long distance, then there are several things you can do in preparation for the journey to not only reduce the feline’s distress but to make the trip more comfortable for both the driver and any passengers, too.

How to Stop a Cat Noisy Breathing in the Car

You can help to reduce the stress of a car journey weeks before you even turn the ignition and roll off the driveway. And after all, it’s in your best interests as it means the cat will be less likely to start panting, swiping claws, bearing teeth, and yowling.

We don’t always have the luxury of advanced notice when transporting our pets, so it’s a good idea to help your cat feel more comfortable travelling by car before you need them to get in the car. 

Pick a pet carrier that’s the correct size for your cat. It should be big enough for them to stand up, lie down, and turn around comfortably. 

Ask the question — should I get a hard or soft cat carrier?

Hard carriers are popular because they’re more durable and helpful if your cat is a nervous traveller and likely to scratch or pee when scared. They’re easier to clean and harder for a cat to claw its way out. Soft carriers are lighter to carry and more comfortable for the cat. They’re also easier to fold down if you’re short on storage space. 

Don’t be tempted to get an oversized carrier, as cats tend to prefer smaller spaces, so find one suitable for their height and weight rather than going for one massive. 

We’ve written about the best cat carrier for difficult cats if you’d like to find out more before buying.

You can also use a cat car seat.

Once you have your carrier, don’t just bring it out on the day of travel. In the weeks or days before your trip, put the cat somewhere where the cat can see and explore it. Add toys or a blanket into the box and maybe a treat to encourage the cat to go inside and smell it. If your cat has a history of hating the carrier, this may take a while. 

Hopefully, once the cat is more familiar with the carrier, it’ll associate it as a safe place because it smells like them. It means that even if they dislike the smells in the car and physical motion, they can at least retreat into a safe space. 

Introducing your cat to the inside of your vehicle can also help. 

If you have an indoor cat, then do this with a harness. 

Allowing them to explore on their terms should make a return visit (when they’re inside the carrier) less stressful. The first time you let them into the car, it’s worth keeping the ignition off. If they’re calm or if this isn’t their first time, running the engine will help them get used to the sound. 

If you think the carrier is the problem, you can look at a cat car barrier that keeps them secure but gives a little freedom to roam. 

You can also buy medicine to calm cats for travel. This is something you should discuss with a veterinary professional. Some owners use Benadryl, available over the counter, but it’s a medication developed for humans, so it’s worth being careful. 

Sprays of artificial pheromones replicate the scent that cats naturally leave on surfaces and people. Rescue Remedy also has a pet spray, a floral tincture to help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, depression and sadness in animals. We’ll add some examples from Amazon below that you can explore. If you buy something using one of our links, we may make a small commission but at no additional cost to you. 

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Last update on 2024-05-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Why else might my cat be panting?

If the panting doesn’t seem related to the car, you should book an appointment with a veterinarian, as what’s happening could be medically related. Only a qualified professional can diagnose asthma, respiratory infection, throat blockage, congestive heart failure, and heartworm. It can also indicate that a pet is in pain. 

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