Why Do Cats Pant in the Car?

Brown kitten tongue out panting

Most cats don’t enjoy traveling by car and even the most laid back of felines, the most placid of pussy cats may become distressed and sometimes even aggressive during a car ride.

We might expect them to scratch, hiss, yowl and bolt but why do cats pant in the car?


Why Cats Pant in the Car

Unless there’s an underlying medical reason —  which we’ll mention later in the post — cats pant in cars because their heart rate is elevated and they’re stressed.  Generally, cats hate car rides. They’re anxious travellers. They’re territorial, too, and don’t take kindly to being trapped in a carrier, clipped onto a strange smelling seat and taken out of their territory, their kingdom to somewhere new.

It can be distressing for the cat and equally so for an owner to witness. Fortunately, any panting should start to subside once the cat begins calming down.

Is The Cat Too Hot?

Heavy breathing can also be a sign that the animal is too hot and is overheating. Make sure that the inside of the vehicle is at a cool temperature and that the carrier is out of the sun and in the shade. Turn the air conditioning on if you can.  Fresh cold drinking water should be available throughout the journey.

Cats are usually pretty good at keeping themselves cool. You’ll usually see them moving to a cold spot on the kitchen floor or sitting under the shade of a tree to lick their fur.  Unfortunately, if they’re traveling in the car and in a box then that isn’t possible. As the owner, it’s your job to make sure they’re at an optimum temperature.  

Overall, brief spells of panting are normal in cats if they’re anxious, too hot or if they’ve just overexerted themselves through play or exercise.

Panting that’s not connected to anxiety or to temperature can be a sign of something more serious.  You should make an appointment to see your veterinarian as soon as possible.

If you’re traveling with your cat over a long distance, then there are several things you can do in preparation of 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.


A man's hand grips the steering wheel of a car as he drives.


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 not only start panting but swiping claws, bearing teeth and yowling, too. Obviously, we don’t always have the luxury of advanced notice when it comes to transporting our pets but if you do have a trip planned then use the time beforehand to your advantage.

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

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

Don’t be tempted to get an oversized carrier.  Cats tend to like smaller spaces so go for one that’s built for their weight and length rather than one that’s more spacious. They won’t appreciate the extra room if they’re nervous.  We’ve written a post on the best cat carrier for long car trips which you might find helpful. If your cat is particularly anxious about car journeys then you can read our post on the best cat carrier for difficult cats.

Don’t just bring the carrier out on the day of travel.  It’s better to put it somewhere where the cat can explore it in the days or weeks before your trip. Better still if you have space to keep the box out permanently. Add blankets, toys and treats to encourage the cat inside.  You may even find that they’ll prefer it to a comfortable bed or their usual sleeping spot.

Once a cat is familiar with a carrier, they’ll start to associate it as a safe place and the more they use it the more it will become scented with their own smell. The car might be a strange environment but the carrier will provide a familiar and comfortable spot to retreat into.

Introducing your cat to the inside of your vehicle can also help.  This may depend on whether your cat is an outdoor or indoor cat as well as whether you can get them into a harness or not.  Allowing them to explore on their own terms should make their return visit (when they’re inside the carrier) less stressful even though they’re seeing it through the grate of their box. The car should be stationary but you might like to turn the ignition and let the engine roll so they can get used to its sound.

If you think it’s the carrier more than the car stressing your cat out, then you can buy a cat car barrier to keep them secure (but free to roam a little) during your journey.

You could also buy medicine to calm cats for travel.  Some milder forms like Benadryl are available over the counter but if you’re looking to sedate your cat then contact a veterinarian.

Sprays are available, too. Feliway is one that’s particularly popular. Its man-made pheromones replicate the scent that cats naturally leave on surfaces and people. It should help keep them calm. Feliway is particularly useful for spraying inside carriers before a car journey.  You can also buy a Rescue Remedy for pets containing a floral remedy that helps reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, depression and sadness in animals.

Why Else Might My Cat Be Panting?

A veterinarian is the only person qualified to tell you what’s going on medically with your pet.  There could be any number of possible reasons why a cat might be breathing fast and they include:

  • Asthma
  • Respiratory infection
  • Throat Blockage
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Heartworm


We’re so used to seeing dogs panting that it’s unsettling to see a cat doing the same thing.  Any concerns you have about the health or welfare of your animal should be discussed with a professional.

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