Dear Car Talk Pet Gurus:
I have to move across the country. This is great because I’m getting my dream job. This is bad because I have a cat who hates traveling. Are there things I can do to help her be more comfortable on our 2,117 mile journey? (Yes, I’m counting each miserable mile for this poor cat! HELP!)
--Julie in Concord, NH
Dr. Sip: Many cats hate car travel, and for good reason! Unlike most dogs, who just love going on car rides, cats only travel when they're either going to the vet, the groomer or when a family moves, which can all be pretty traumatic. If you were an adult human who had NEVER been in the car before, and we tossed you in a car, wouldn’t you look like a freaked-out-cat?
Melissa:Yup, your eyes would be super-wide, mouth agape, and thinking “holy *#^! I’m flying in a coffin on wheels….I’m going to die.” Then, when the cat gets to the vet, they are stabbed and handled by strangers. Every time they go to the crate, it ends up being quite traumatizing. Being proactive and acclimating cats to travel in the same way that we do to dogs can help significantly.
Dr. Sip: Hey! I take issue with your use of the word “stabbed.” I am a most gentle vet. On the other hand, it’s not unusual for me to get stabbed by my patients (meaning your cat’s claws), but once again, I digress.
Melissa: True -- you are bringing a single needle to a 20-Claw Cat Fight….
Dr. Sip: Point is, traveling with a cat can be so much easier than cat owners often make it. It just takes a little work in advance.
Melissa: In the words of pet trainers, veterinarians, high school health instructors and Boy Scout leaders everywhere: Be Prepared.
Dr. Sip: Right. The first step would be to get your cat used to the carrier that you’ll be using.The ASPCA has a great tutorial on getting cats acclimated to the carrier. It involves tuna, time, and patience. You’re absolutely right. Fluffy the Cat shouldn’t only see the carrier 20 minutes before car/vet time. When I had to travel with my kitty, Lefty, I had her carrier out for six weeks before the flight, and fed her in it every day with one end open. She associated good things with that carrier. Regular cat carriers are one way to go.
Melissa: There are those regular hard carriers, and there are also soft options. Harder cases are sturdier and harder for escape artists. Softer ones are easier for the owner to carry and are just way more convenient. Whichever way you go, add a towel in the bottom for kitty's comfort!
Dr. Sip: Bonus - if the cat pukes en route, it's easier to just toss the towel away than it is to clean the inside of the carrier! For long rides, there is also this thing called a "cat tube"…
Melissa: Isn’t that just YouTube? It’s all cats anyway.
Dr. Sip: Different tube, but I do love that video where the cat is…
Melissa: Playing a symphony in B minor? (Remember, Sip, this is an NPR audience!)
Dr. Sip: Oh, right. Never mind. Here's an actual cat tube.You can get a short cat tube as a regular carrier, or a long one that goes the length of your back seat for long rides. You can put the litter box on one end and comfy bed at the other.
Melissa: This is genius! Do they come in “toddler?”
Dr. Sip: Hmmm. I'd run that by a pediatrician.
Melissa:The carriers should always be belted in, just like with dogs. Petbuckles.com makes a good system for strapping carriers down. Cat crates can sometimes be softer and smaller, so they can theoretically become a projectile in an accident. Making sure that Fluffy is secure in her crate, cat tube, or other containment system, and that particular containment system is belted in would be the safest possible option for kitties - regardless of how far you are traveling.
Sip, what are your feelings on appeasing pheromones? Do they work? Do they help?
Dr. Sip: When a product called Feliway first came out (a pheromone that is supposed to relax cats), I thought “quack quack quack.” It was promoted primarily to help get stressed kitties to stop peeing outside their box, handle car rides better, and deal with Aunt Bertha moving in for two weeks. I didn’t buy the pitch. But now I’m a believer, at least for some cats. There is a spray, an atomizer plug-in, and little wipes that you wipe around the inside of the carrier before travel. Some of my clients say it makes a big difference. So, I think it’s worth giving the carrier a spritz or a wipe before travel if it makes Fluffy less stressed.
Melissa: I agree! Though this doesn’t work for every pet, it doesn’t hurt to try it and it does appear to help lots of cats that just need to “take the edge off.” It’s like a … Kitty Martini?
Dr. Sip: It’s really more like a cat “teddy bear in a can.” But to sum up - it’s critical to train your cats and acclimate them over time BEFORE they need to travel in their carriers, in the same fashion we would acclimate dogs to crates. Feeding and watering cats in their carriers, and making the carrier a “thing” that is out in a living space to curl up into voluntarily, can really help. There are products available for comfort or longer road trips and there are pheromones that can help.
Melissa: If owners need more assistance, I recommend the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants to find a cat behavior specialist that can come into the home. Also, visiting the veterinarian for something a little harder than a Kitty-Tini* to help a cat through a trip to the vet or a move across the country can really, really help stressed out cats.
*Don’t give your cats alcohol. Seriously. Don’t be that guy.
Dr. Sip: Regardless, it’s important to always keep your cat’s identification tags on a collar or a harness in the event of an accident, or in case they dart out of the crate at a highway rest stop and to also microchip your kitty should a collar or harness come off during or after an escape.
Melissa: I think we’ve beat at least 8 of the 9 lives out of this subject.
Dr. Siperstein is a staff veterinarian at Berkeley Dog and Cat Hospital in Berkeley, California. Dr. Sip sees dogs, cats and exotic pets. She believes hedgehogs should have the right to drive because they should be treated as E-Quills.
Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA is a certified dog trainer. She is the co-Training Director of New England Dog Training Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Car Talk aficionados might have heard of Cambridge...for some reason.