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How to Travel With a Cat: Tips for Safety and Comfort

While some kitties do fine with travel, the majority don’t really care for it. After all, cats are creatures of habit. They don’t appreciate changes to their daily routine — and being placed into a carrier and transported through new sights, sounds, and smells is certainly a big change. Fear not, though. It’s possible to travel with your cat both safely and peacefully by planning ahead for their needs. Here are some things to consider when traveling with cats.

Is It Necessary for Your Cat to Travel?

The first thing to consider is whether or not your cat should come with you on your trip. 

Obviously, if you’re moving to a new location, it makes sense to bring your furry friend with you. But if you’re just going for vacation or seeing family over the holidays, consider whether staying at home with a trusted friend or professional pet-sitter, or even staying at a nice cat boarding facility, would be less stressful than traveling.

Your pet’s health is another consideration. If your kitty has any medical issues, ask your vet if they are healthy enough to travel, especially if traveling by plane. If someone is watching your cat while you’re away, make sure they feel comfortable administering your pet’s medications and know which symptoms to watch for.

Traveling Internationally (Including Hawaii) With a Cat

If you’re traveling outside of the continental United States (or bringing your pet home after living overseas), you could be facing lots of regulations and paperwork. For some locations, the process begins months in advance — so it’s very important to check all the requirements well ahead of time.

Refer to government organizations such as the Department of State or APHIS (part of the USDA), or the embassies of foreign governments. 

Ask your vet if they do international health certificates for pets, or if they can recommend someone who does. Or, consider working with a professional pet transportation company. 

What’s Required for Interstate Travel with a Cat?

Travel within the continental U.S. is much simpler than overseas travel in terms of requirements — but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no paperwork involved.

Check the requirements of your final destination, as well as any states you’ll be traveling through. Some require pet owners to carry health certificates and/or proof of rabies vaccination. 

How Will You and Your Kitty Reach Your Destination?

Much of the advice in this article is applicable to any mode of travel. However, buses, trains, ships, and planes have their own regulations, which may differ by carrier. Some don’t allow pets at all, and others have major restrictions, so it’s best to do your research. 

Try to have your pet with you (rather than in cargo or a separate kennel area) if at all possible, and be sure to have your pet’s reservation in writing.

Special Considerations for Cat Travel by Plane

Not all airlines allow pets, and many have restrictions on travel for certain breeds (especially short-nosed breeds like Persians that are more prone to heatstroke and respiratory problems), or restrictions on pet travel during hot or cold times of the year. 

Additionally, many airlines limit the total number of pets allowed in the cabin (versus the cargo hold) on any given flight. Book well in advance to be sure your pet has a spot, and get your furkid’s reservation in writing. And be sure to follow the airline’s rules for carrier types, sizes, and weights, and whether a health certificate is required. In general, airline rules are not flexible.

With all the complexities of air travel and certain risks (especially for pets traveling in cargo), it may be worth reassessing to see if driving is a better option. If you must travel by air, try to book a direct flight.

How Can Your Cat Be Identified?

A microchip — a permanent form of identification placed just under the skin using a small needle — is always recommended for identifying a pet. In fact, many countries require pets to be microchipped prior to arrival. 

If you’re not sure whether or not your kitty is microchipped — or whether the registered information is up to date — ask your vet’s office for advice.

ID tags, attached to a harness, can also be helpful. They can complement a microchip, because someone would be able to immediately see your contact information. 

Placing tags on your kitty’s carrier is also a good idea.

Which Supplies are Needed for Traveling With a Cat?

For convenience, here’s a handy packing list that would cover the needs of most traveling cats…

  • All necessary paperwork, certificates, or health records.
  • Any prescription medications your cat takes.
  • A cat carrier. This should be big enough that your cat can comfortably stand up, sit down, lie down, and turn around inside.
  • A harness and leash.
  • Your cat’s food and fresh, cool drinking water, plus bowls for each. 
  • A litter box, litter, scooper, and baggies for waste disposal. Or, use disposable litter boxes designed for travel.
  • A comfort object, such as a familiar blanket or favorite toy.
  • Paper towels to clean up messes such as vomit.
  • Special accommodations for the weather, such as frozen water bottles in hot weather (which can be used to line a carrier in an emergency) or extra blankets in winter.
  • A pet first aid kit.

Take extras of all supplies — enough to last for several days longer than you plan to travel, or enough time to get settled at your new destination.

Setting Up the Car for a Comfortable Trip

Set your cat’s carrier in the back seat, since the front seat can carry a risk of injury from airbags. Secure the carrier to the seat using the seat belt or bungee cords, so it won’t slide or fall during a sudden stop. Inside the carrier, use comfortable padding (ideally non-slip) or a blanket. 

If the carrier is large enough, you can place a litter box directly inside. If the box won’t fit, offer potty breaks every few hours in a confined space (inside the car after you are parked, or inside a family restroom that locks).

Leaving food and water inside the carrier isn’t always practical, since it can splash and spill while driving. But food and water should be offered at regular intervals. For day trips, it’s usually okay to wait until you reach your destination to offer food, but water should be available more often.

Avoid setting the carrier in direct sunlight, and make sure there is adequate air flow and ventilation.

Always keep your cat in the carrier while the car is moving to prevent dangerous scenarios such as distracted driving or a cat getting under the car’s foot pedals. 

Also, leave a harness on your cat at all times. Attach a leash any time you open the carrier. That way, if your kitty suddenly dashes out the door, you can grab the leash and prevent them from getting lost. But remove the leash when your kitty is inside the carrier, so they won’t become entangled. 

In the summer, travel at cooler times of the day, if possible. Use the air conditioner in your car. And never leave your pet unattended in the car, as the car’s interior can elevate to fatal temperatures within minutes! 

Minimizing Stress: Steps to Take *Before* Traveling with a Cat

With cats, it’s never too early to start planning for your trip. Beginning weeks to months ahead of time can make travel much easier. 

Get your cat used to their carrier and harness ahead of time. For the best results, start early, with small steps. 

For example, leave the carrier sitting out in the home. Place a toy or treats inside, so your cat begins to view it as a positive place to be. Follow similar steps for the harness, leaving it on for a few minutes while offering praise, toys, or treats.

Once your cat is used to the carrier, take your cat (inside the carrier) to the car, then back inside the house. Once they’re used to this, take them for a one-minute drive, then a five-minute drive, and so on — all while offering praise and positive reinforcement. 

While it may seem like a lot of work, these steps help prepare a cat to travel on the big day, which can make the trip much smoother and less stressful for everyone.

If these steps are taken at a young age, some cats can even grow to enjoy travel! Maybe you’ve seen some of these traveling kitties on Instagram. While they are the exception rather than the rule, it is possible to have a cat who loves going on road trips with their human companion!

Veterinary Visits Before Traveling with a Cat

It’s a good idea for cats to be up to date on their routine veterinary care prior to travel. Rabies vaccination is often required, and other vaccinations and parasite control can help a furkid avoid picking up certain diseases on a road trip. A checkup with routine bloodwork can also help ensure a kitty is as healthy as possible prior to travel.

Additionally, you may need to take your cat for a veterinary health certificate on a specific, narrow window of dates prior to your travel.

Are Sedatives Recommended for Cats Who Are Traveling?

Supplements or prescription sedatives may be a great option for some cats, especially during long car trips. However, sedatives can carry risks. In fact, airlines generally don’t allow sedatives since they affect a pet’s ability to regulate their body temperature.

The best option is to talk to your vet. They can let you know which medications are recommended for your individual cat and travel plans. Additionally, they can recommend anti-nausea medications for pets who get car sick.

Never give medications or supplements without checking with your vet, since many are not safe for cats!

Also, don’t wait until the last minute to ask your vet about sedatives. All kitties react differently to these medications. Some cats become more agitated! It’s important to do a “trial run” before the big day. 

Minimizing Stress for Your Cat *During* Travel

Stress is no fun for you or your furry friend. Additionally, some cats can develop health problems secondary to stress.

In addition to the steps recommended above, here are some things to try that could keep your kitty calm during travel...

  • Use non-medical calming aids, such as Feliway wipes or spray (a pheromone product that signals safety) or a Thundershirt (a vest that mimics swaddling). 
  • Keep things as calm, quiet, and dark as possible. Place a blanket over the side windows or over the carrier (as long as there’s adequate air flow). Talk in quiet voices, don’t slam doors, and keep the radio on low. 
  • Try to be calm yourself, since pets can pick up on our emotions.
  • Consider bringing a travel buddy. In addition to having someone who can stay with your cat during pit stops, this person can give your furkid attention while you drive.

Traveling Long-Distance with a Cat

Be sure to check all the recommendations listed above, and to stock up on necessary supplies.

Look for pet-friendly accommodations and restaurants along the way. Consider making hotel reservations ahead of time during busy travel seasons, such as holidays.

Research emergency veterinarians along your travel route, too. That way, you’ll know what to do if your kitty isn’t feeling well. 

While travel can be stressful, a little planning goes a long way and can make your trip as enjoyable and peaceful as possible!

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