How to Travel With Cats

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If you’re considering taking your cat on a long trip, the first thing to do is reconsider. Our feline friends don’t take to the car (or plane, for that matter) as happily as their canine counterparts, with most preferring to be left at home in the care of a loved one while you travel the world. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, of course, like when we find ourselves moving to a new state or visiting family for an extended period. Should you find yourself in that position, there are a number of things you can do to make the trip as pleasant as possible — for both you and your cat.

By Road

Cat inside a car with a harness on for safety.
Credit: GabrielPevide/ iStock

If you have enough space in your car, an extra-long carrier like this one that takes up the entire backseat will allow your cat to stretch their legs and even move around a bit. When I moved from Los Angeles to Denver two years ago — a drive that ended up taking a full 14 hours — it provided enough space for both of my cats and a small litter box. (They didn’t use it, but it was one less thing to worry about during a very long drive.) If your cat dislikes the car as much as mine do, you might want to ask your veterinarian about a mild anti-anxiety medication such as Gabapentin, which many pets take in advance of visits to the vet and other stressful events. It shouldn’t be given without a prescription, but can help your cat go from distressed to relaxed.

For something more mild, a pheromone spray like Feliway can also calm your kitty for the duration of your car ride. It works by mimicking the feline facial pheromone cats leave behind when rubbing their faces against things — a way of marking their territory with “happy messages” that comfort them when present in familiar surroundings. Simply spray the carrier before putting your cat in it and reapply as needed. This, too, can be highly effective: the larger of my two cats wasn’t as affected by the Gabapentin as the smaller one was, so every few hours he’d wake up and start meowing again. Spraying the Feliway in the backseat calmed him down almost immediately.

Having food in the car isn’t a great idea, especially since felines are unlikely to eat while traveling anyway. But it’s worth checking to see if your cat would like some water every few hours — it’s doubtful that they’ll take you up on the offer, but staying hydrated is important.

By Air

Cat looking out the window of a plane.
Credit: GummyBone/ Shutterstock

Most of the same principles apply when flying with a cat: do everything you can to keep them as calm and comfortable as possible, with Gabapentin and Feliway both being viable options. Air travel requires more planning than a road trip, however, especially because different airlines have different pet policies. You’ll most likely have to pay a fee in the range of $100 in addition to providing a health certificate from your vet issued within a week or two of your flight, so be sure to schedule your appointment within the required timeframe.

Once you've booked your tickets, read your airline's pet policy several times to ensure you aren't missing anything — especially because some companies only allow carry-on animals under your seat when flying to certain destinations. If you're traveling to the United Kingdom on Delta, for instance, pets aren't allowed in the cabin and can only travel as cargo — something you should avoid at all costs. A number of cat carriers are designed specifically for flying, and though they tend to be more expensive, they’re also worth it. These are usually made with airlines’ size requirements in mind, meaning you won’t have to worry as much about whether or not they’ll fit. You’ll also want to line the carrier with absorbent puppy pads just in case, and bring gloves and wipes for cleanup.

Cat looking through the bars of an animal carrier.
Credit: Ekaterina Fedulyeva/ Shutterstock

Because these carriers need to go through x-ray scanners at the airport and your cat can’t be in it when that happens, you should also have a leash and harness in order to more easily take them out; the last thing you want is a nervous cat escaping in the airport. And since many pets tend to dread their crates, as they associate them with trips they’d rather not embark upon, it’s a good idea to simply leave the carrier out in the days and weeks leading up to your departure so your cat can get used to it and maybe even nap in it by choice.

Cats are willful creatures who aren’t reluctant to voice their displeasure (that’s part of why we love them, after all), and few things distress attentive pet owners quite like the knowledge that their furry friend is unhappy. If you keep these tips in mind and pay close attention to your cat’s body language for the duration of your trip, however, your journey should be smooth sailing.

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