Getting Cats To Travel
We’re committed to helping you manage the health, care, and well-being of your cats. Just Cats has prepared this list of strategies, solutions, and ideas to help you make the experience of getting your cat to travel more positive.
Getting Cats To Travel
We agree with what was published in a recent veterinary mega study that listed “problems associated with travel” as the number one reason cats do not visit their doctor regularly. As outlined in our Preventive Health Care Program, all cats should receive at least one exam a year – two exams a year for cats over the age of 10. This protocol recognizes that cats are excellent at hiding illness, and regular exams are the best way to help your feline companion live a long, healthy life.
All felines are different, and no idea will work for every cat. We’re hoping this will not only help you to get your cat to travel but will also provide you with some insights into how cats think and how recognizing their behavior can help you use it to your advantage. Remember, cats are intelligent, instinctual, and famous for being creatures of habit. If you keep these attributes in mind, we’re confident that you’ll be able to make your cat’s trips to the vet more pleasant. Most people hate going to the doctor, and your cat most certainly feels the same way. Patience, understanding, and working with your cat’s natural behavior are your best strategies for getting your cat to travel.
If you have a travel solution that’s worked with your cat, we’d like to hear from you. Send us an e-mail with your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org. Our goal is to create an extensive library of solutions based on our years of experience, along with feedback from our community of cat parents, so all of our clients can benefit from ideas that work.
Choosing A Veterinarian
First, you should strongly consider a feline-exclusive veterinary practice to manage your cat’s healthcare – like Just Cats. As you’ve hopefully experienced if you’ve visited us in the past, a cat-friendly practice offers more comfortable and calming surroundings for felines compared to a traditional veterinary office. Just Cats was specifically designed to make your cat’s veterinary appointment as comfortable as possible. In fact, we’re the first veterinary facility in Connecticut to receive Gold Level status from the American Association of Feline Practitioners, acknowledging the outstanding level of care we provide to our feline patients.
A Cat-Friendly Practice provides a veterinary environment without the smells, noises, and stresses inherent to veterinary offices. It may not make your cat feel any better about visiting the doctor, but it certainly can help. A complete listing of cat-friendly veterinary practices is available from The American Association of Feline Practitioners.
As you could imagine, a better veterinary experience the first time should make way for more comfortable visits in the future.
Some felines are so sociable that housing them in a carrier when traveling would appear to be unnecessary. However, for your cat’s safety, we strongly recommend the use of a carrier whenever you’re traveling with your pet. This is the safest way to transport your cat; it will help prevent distractions to your driving and reduce the risk of your cat winding up lost or injured – or worse, in the event of an accident.
There are a variety of carriers to choose from. Carriers with both top and front openings are recommended, and hard-sided carriers are typically preferred for more fractious cats. Top-loading carriers allow for a more stress-free placement and removal of your cat and, if necessary, will allow for an examination while your cat is in the carrier. Make sure your carrier is the correct size. A large carrier is sometimes the only way to go because it can be difficult to squeeze a big cat through a narrow opening. As cardboard carriers can retain odors and lose their stability, they should be considered disposable and only used for a single trip.
Always line the bottom of your carrier with a mat or folded towel. This will not only provide comfort but also allows for secure footing when the carrier is in motion. Cats prefer being allowed to hold onto something with their claws which gives them a sense of stability and control. (Anyone who’s ever bathed their cat at home knows that one of the tricks is to place something in the tub or sink that their cat can grab onto – like a mat or towel). Keep cleaning supplies and an extra towel with you in case your cat has an accident. Make sure there’s an identification system attached to your carrier that has your name, address, and contact information.
Regardless of your cat’s temperament, you should consider prepping the carrier and your cat before your trip. Remember, despite our best efforts to provide you with the most comfortable, feline-friendly veterinary environment and experience possible, your cat is still visiting the doctor…a less-than-preferred destination for most of us, including your cat.
There is a mixture of things you can do with the carrier to help you with your cat’s trip. One of the easiest is to keep a T-shirt, towel, or piece of cloth where your cat typically sleeps. This material will be marked with your cat’s scent and can be placed in the carrier to create a more familiar environment.
Cats are equipped with glands located on the forehead, lips, front paws, and their flanks and rears that secrete pheromones. Essentially, a pheromone is a chemical that is secreted naturally by your cat’s body. Cats produce several different pheromones that send various signals and affect a number of different behaviors. Pheromones also are used to mark objects and territory, and some signal comfort and familiarity. When cats rub their faces on various objects, they leave their scent, which is reassuring to a cat and non-offensive to humans.
Fortunately, there are a few products designed to replicate this pheromone marking, and have been shown to prevent and decrease stress in some cats. Feliway is a synthetic hormone available as a spray and in a plug-in diffuser. It matches feline facial pheromones and works as a calming agent. You can spray the inside of the carrier 1/2 hour before your trip – or spray a towel and place it in the carrier.
Roughly 50% of cats respond to catnip, and if yours is one of them, you can sprinkle some loose catnip or put a catnip toy in the carrier. Catnip is a member of the mint family and contains nepetalactone, a chemical compound that cats react to differently. If your cat is one of the few that likes to eat catnip, it can actually act as a sedative and should be considered as a simple option to serve as a mild calming agent.
There are also a few homeopathic products on the market, like Bach’s Rescue Remedy, that are designed to work as calming agents. Homeopathy is an alternative medical practice in which extremely dilute amounts of certain natural substances are used to treat various ailments. While many of our clients have experienced significant success using these products, they tend to work best by helping only mild cases of anxiety.
While your cat is in the carrier, it’s a great idea to reward frequently with treats. However, avoid these if your cat is being fasted for special blood testing or anesthesia as part of your veterinary visit.
Always test your cat’s carrier before your trip – make sure that all of the latches and zippers are functional, and address any problems before you put your cat in the carrier. Clean your carrier as needed using soap and water. Do not use any products that contain harsh chemicals and leave a lingering odor. Also, cats absolutely hate the smell of citrus, so these types of cleaning products should be avoided. After working with nothing but cats for over 20 years, we’ve seen our share of carriers in various states of disrepair – rusted metal grills, caked-on dirt, grime, and grease on your cat’s temporary home will not be appealing to your pet. Remember, your goal is to eliminate anything that can negatively affect your cat’s trip. You wouldn’t want to travel in a filthy taxi cab – your cat deserves the same courtesy.
When storing your cat’s carrier, please keep it in a clean location and avoid leaving it outside to face the elements. This will also prevent it from picking up any odors from the environment, which can affect your cat’s behavior. Your cat’s sense of smell is over 14 times greater than yours, and any foreign odor may affect your cat’s behavior. If you’re forced to store your carrier outside or in your garage, keep it covered with plastic which will not only protect your investment but will also keep it in good condition in anticipation of your cat’s trip.
Get to know your cat, and if necessary, get creative. We had a client who was an avid news junkie and always listened to an AM news station at home. To help his cat travel, he would place a small radio in his cat’s carrier, quietly tuned to the same station. What may be looked at as an extreme approach for some people actually was a very strategic and thoughtful way of trying to comfort his cat with something reminiscent of his home environment.
Is The Carrier The Enemy?
Without question, the number one reason our clients are forced to cancel or postpone appointments is because their cat took one look at the enemy known as the carrier…hit the road and hid to avoid the trip.
Before we outline some of the ways you can make the carrier a comfortable part of your cat’s life, we need to review their behavior. Outside of their natural instincts, cats learn by experience. If the experience is good, they will try to repeat it. If the experience is unpleasant, they will try to avoid it in the future. This is how kittens learn – through repetition. Around 6 months, kittens develop enough reasoning power to begin to understand “cause and effect” – but this is an elaborate process that they refine throughout their life. If your cats only experience with a carrier is a stressful trip to the doctor, you’ll probably always struggle with getting your cat into the carrier.
The best way to make car travel and trips to the veterinarian less stressful is to get your cat familiar with the carrier and car trips early in life. If possible, you should start doing this during a kittens primary socialization period – up to the first 8 to 12 weeks. However, even if you have an adult cat with an established fear, there are still steps you can take to reduce travel anxiety and making your cat more comfortable with the carrier. We recognize that a cat carrier is not necessarily the most attractive item to leave out in your house or apartment. But cats are creatures of habit – if the carrier only appears before a veterinary appointment, you’re cat will quickly associate it as being undesirable and something to be afraid of.
Try and make the carrier part of your cat’s everyday life. Some people actually leave the carrier out and fill it with comfortable bedding making it their cats preferred place to sleep. Occasionally, feed your cat in or near the carrier or try introducing the carrier before every meal. Always associate the carrier with something positive like treats or playtime.
Wand toys are extremely effective with helping to address many feline behavioral concerns. Cats hunting skills have never really been lost throughout the process of their domestication. Hunting is an instinctive behavior for our cats and dates back to pre-domestication days before their dinner came in a bag or can. Since almost all domestic cats do not need to catch their dinner, they have turned this hunting instinct into a form of playing. When playtime with wand toys is followed by a benefit in the form of a treat, it replicates a cats natural instinct to hunt, capture and be rewarded. Maneuver the wand toy in and around the carrier as part of the playtime experience – this will work to associate it with something familiar and positive, not as the enemy.
Once your cat is more comfortable with the carrier, practice closing the door for short periods while your cat is inside. When your cat becomes used to relaxing in the closed carrier, practice the sensation of being moved. Pick the carrier up and hold it for a few seconds and then put it down. Work up to carrying the carrier around your house. Reward your cat frequently with treats and continue to treat the carrier as something that’s not just associated in a negative way.
Go on short practice trips with your cat in your car and always follow these test runs with a significant amount of treats and playtime. The goal of these practice runs is to get your cat accustomed to being in the carrier, riding in a car and ultimately, view the experience as something expected – or at least not feared.
Getting Your Cat Into The Carrier
Even if you’ve followed our recommendations on how to avoid the carrier being the enemy, you may want to limit your cat to a single room the day of or the night before your trip. Many cat parents exhibit anxiety on the day of their cat’s appointment – and cats have a unique ability to sense this nervousness, react differently, or even hide.
Start by putting the carrier in a small room without hiding places. Bring your cat into the room and close the door. Place the carrier in a stable location. Pick up your cat, holding the back legs with one hand, and place your other hand under the chest. Place your cat into the carrier backward so they can’t see where they are going. If you’re using a front-loading carrier, gently but firmly back your cat into the carrier. Before you let go, keep one hand inside the carrier at face level to prevent a last-minute escape. If you have a zippered carrier, be careful not to catch your cat’s hair in the zipper – long-haired cats are especially susceptible to this.
If necessary, you may need to “burrito” your cat. This is a technique where you drape a towel over your cat’s back and quickly “wrap” your cat from underneath, creating a burrito shape. This will help secure your cat’s arms and legs and will typically allow you to safely place your cat into the carrier with less of a struggle and risk of injury.
When On The Road
Remember, a ride in the car for your cat involves less than familiar noises, sights, and potentially unsettling motions. Once in your vehicle, your cat should be able to see you, and the passenger seat is preferred. Many carriers feature a safety belt connector, and if your carrier has one, you should use it. If not, you should still wrap the seat belt across the front of the carrier to provide for a smoother and safer ride. While driving, keep your car stereo speakers at a reasonable volume, avoid smoking, and don’t roll your windows down. During your trip, speak to your cat in a calm, reassuring tone.
If your cat is determined to “serenade” you during your trip, try covering the carrier with a breathable bed sheet or towel. Many stressed-out cats find a darker environment more comfortable.
When you’ve arrived at your destination, try not to place the carrier on the floor. Cats prefer higher ground, and the movement of feet on the floor tends to make them nervous. The reception area and retail store at Just Cats feature side tables to keep your cat off of the floor while you’re waiting for your appointment or shopping.
Also, we suggest that all cats away from home have a way to be identified outside of the carrier – either permanently with a microchip or with a tag attached to a collar or harness.
Everyone at Just Cats shares their life with a cat, and we understand the important role they play in our lives. We appreciate the special bond that can be formed with our patients and their cat parents.
Unfortunately, we also know that cats are so good at hiding illness that we’re often faced with addressing a medical concern that may have been treated more effectively if it was detected earlier. Having your cat receive regular exams is the best way to identify a problem and treat it successfully.
Even if you’ve always struggled with getting your cat to the veterinarian, we hope we have provided you with some useful ideas. We encourage you to understand and appreciate your cat’s natural instincts and, if necessary, take advantage of the products designed to help.
We’re dedicated to partnering with you to provide your cat with a long, healthy life. And we look forward to seeing you soon.