Whether you’re about to embark on a short journey to your parents’ house or on an epic drive across the country, the thought of traveling by car with your cat is probably keeping you up at night.
Any cat owner who’s ever had to
take drag their feline friends to the vet knows this all too well.
The non-stop, loud meowing. The eyes full of terror. And claws that try to grab anything they can through the small carrier holes.
And, when the scare is real, the poor kitty might even poop or pee in the carrier.
If you stop to think about it, it shouldn’t really come as a shock. Every time your cat interacts with the carrier – which, let’s be honest, usually involves you forcing him into it with awkward, improbable techniques – it’s because of a trip to the vet.
His only association with that carrier and your car is negative. It’s a simple equation:
Carrier + car = vet ?
Add to the mix the fact that cats don’t really like moving in a vehicle. They like being independent and in control.
You’ve got a recipe for disaster.
If you really want to take your cat out on your travels, you need to do some heavy groundwork and change their association with the carrier and your moving vehicle.
On the web, you can find lots of advice on how to make the trip more bearable for your cats (and yourself): try to spray pheromones – such as Feliway – in the car, place their favourite blanket in the carrier, use a big enough carrier and put a litter box in it, and so on.
However, there’s one thing that isn’t discussed nearly enough, and that should be the very first step to making your cat used to being in the car with you: Training your cat to like his carrier and be comfortable in a (moving) car.
Training a cat – have you lost the plot?
Now that you’ve read the words ‘train’ and ‘cat’ in the same sentence, you might think we’re delusional. But hang on.
In spite of their reputation of being independent and self-domesticated, cats can be trained. Much like dogs. But you’ll need loads more patience.
Even if you’re not planning to travel long distance or long term with your cat, there are many benefits of teaching him to tolerate (or even enjoy) spending time in a vehicle. Visiting the vet, moving house or evacuating unforeseen emergencies are just some of the many reasons why your cat may need to take a car ride.
Rather than dreading the day your cat needs to buckle-up for a drive, read on and find out how you can get him acquainted, comfortable and even calm in the cabin. In other words, learn how to make car rides for your cat a breeze rather than a total catastrophe.
How can I train my cat to enjoy traveling by car?
Not every cat will take to car travel with ease. For older cats in particular, the transition can be difficult. It takes time, effort, and a whole lot of patience to take a cat from stressed to relaxed when he’s traveling on wheels.
Luckily, it’s not impossible. Classical conditioning is a process that can help you re-wire your cat’s emotional response to something that might have initially been scary.
Before we dive into the actual process of classical conditioning your cat to travel by car, a quick word on motion sickness.
Prevent against car sickness
No matter how well you train and condition your cat to like the car, it will be impossible to convince him to enjoy the ride if he’s suffering from motion sickness. The symptoms of motion sickness can sometimes vary, but generally include:
- Excessive vocalisation
To reduce the risk of your cat suffering from motion sickness, avoid feeding meals during or close to car trips. Loud noises can contribute to motion sickness, so try not to blast your music and keep conversations relatively quiet.
Some cats – due to breed, age or just individual differences – can be prone to developing motion sickness no matter the steps you take. If your cat is still struggling with illness despite your best efforts, there are medications your veterinarian can suggest to ease the symptoms. Never medicate your kitty without the advice of a professional.
Always travel in a carrier
Your cat should always travel in a carrier for safety reasons.
Cats are unpredictable: they move around a lot, prefer to hide in small spaces and, as a result, could easily find their way between your pedals. A loose cat can very quickly become a hazard, whether you’re traversing mountains or speeding along the freeway…
And an unexpected brake or an accident could project your cat out of the car. He could get injured (or worse) or run away and get lost. For the same reason that we wear seatbelts, it’s extremely important that your cat is safe when traveling in a vehicle.
Pick the right carrier
Before you start thinking about carrier training you cat, you need to pick the right carrier (duh!).
It should be big enough to place a portable litter box in it, so your cat has enough room to move around and do #1 and #2 when on longer trips.
We used a dog-sized crate to drive from Italy to Spain with our 2 cats. It was great in the car, but it would be impractical to carry out of your home and place on your backseats with your cats inside. This would only work if you’re also leash and harness training your cats.
A good alternative would be an expandable carrier like the Siivton Pet Carrier.
You can easily take it from your home to the car, it expands to double the space and the mesh is ultra-durable and resistant to your cat’s claws.
Carrier train your cat
Cats generally don’t like carriers. But, as we said above, getting them in one is a necessary step to taking them on your travels (or to the next vet appointment).
Through classical conditioning, you can carrier train your cat to provide him with a space that he will feel safe in. While some people baulk at the idea of crate or carrier training, this of it this way: it’s basically like creating a portable den where your cat can relax no matter the circumstances.
In order to be successful with your training, make sure you start early (when your cat is a kitten, if possible) or early enough in preparation for your big trip.
Here are the steps you can follow to train your cat to enjoy being in his carrier:
- Start by making the carrier a part of his ordinary life. Leave it in the living room – or where he likes hanging out most of the time. The door should be open at all times.
- Place a blanket that smells like him inside the carrier. If your cat likes catnip, you can also put a catnip toy or sprinkle some in and around the carrier. You can also try to spray pheromones, such as Feliway, on the blanket. Make sure you spray on the blanket outside of the carrier, and preferably wait about 30 minutes before placing it back in (so the alcohol can dissipate).
- Give him the time he needs to explore the carrier at his own pace. Entice him by playing with him in and around the carrier, and reward him with some treats.
- Help him understand that the carrier is not a cage. Close the door when he’s inside and leave the room for a few minutes, then come back and open it again. Repeat several times over the course of a week.
- Once he’s used to being in the carrier with the door closed, pick it up and walk around the house. Every time you put him back down and open the door, give him a treat.
- When your cat has learnt not to fear the carrier, you can take him to the car. Read on for tips on how to help your cat enjoy car rides.
How to teach your cat to enjoy car rides
Have you noticed how you have to reward your cat with his favourite treat every step of the way?
That’s because you’re trying to help him build positive associations rather than fearful and negative ones.
This process is called classical conditioning or positive reinforcement, and will be your greatest tool in turning a vehicle from frightening to fun (or bearable) for your cat.
Carrier training, and therefore providing your kitty with a space they feel completely safe in, will be a huge part of building positive associations with the car. But that’s only the beginning.
Once you’ve conditioned your cat to enjoying the carrier, you can start to help him expand those positive feelings to the entire car. Your cat needs to associate car rides with good times.
Here is a list of actionable steps to help your cat enjoy traveling by car:
- If you have a kitten, start young. Most kittens (2-7 weeks old) never socialize with traveling by car, and when adults they approach it as an unfamiliar, scary experience. However, kittens are most prone to learning and accepting new situations, and starting from a young age – even if you don’t have any upcoming vet appointments or trips planned – would make your life MUCH easier in the long run.
- Practice getting in the car. The first few times, you should simply place the carrier on the back seats (and maybe cover it with a towel, as most cats feel safer), close the door for a few minutes and then open it again. Don’t switch on the engine. When you open the door again, reward him with a treat.
- Do this a few times until he’s comfortable being in the car, and then start switching on the engine without actually moving the car. Again, keep rewarding him with a treat and praise him in a soft voice.
- Once your cat is used to the sound of the engine, you can start moving the car. Begin with shorter drives, and gradually increase the length of these trips. Try to repeat a few times over the course of a week. Eventually, he’ll get used to the moving vehicle and will not associate the car with a trip to the vet.
At the end of every trip it’s important to let your cat out to stretch his legs (of course, only if your cat is wearing a harness and leash, and he’s trained to leash walk) sniff, and acquaint himself with his new location. Make every destination safe and exciting, and very soon he’ll start enjoying the journey there.
Slow and steady
If you’re eager to go out and explore with your cat, it can be tempting to hitch up a trailer and take off into the great unknown. But, before you jump into a multi-hour traverse across open plains, it’s important to know that you need start slow.
When introducing your cat to riding in vehicles, it’s essential that you always start with short, slow and gentle trips. Take frequent breaks, and always be attuned to how your cat is feeling – if he’s meowing loudly and trying to break out of their carrier, things might be moving – literally and figuratively – too fast.
If you’re planning to take your cats on outdoors adventures, it’s also important that they are used to riding on roads less traveled. Slowly introduce them to driving across dirt roads, up mountains and through stormy weather – anything you think they’ll frequently encounter on your cat-adventuring.
If you’re dreaming of traveling the world with your cat in tow – or if you’re just looking to make the occasional car trip less stressful – teaching your cat to be comfortable in a vehicle will be a life-changing decision.
Carrier and car travel training your cat are just the tip of the iceberg.
If you really want to dive deep and train your cat like you could train a dog, understand how they think and perceive us and the world, we highly recommend “The Trainable Cat” by Sarah Ellis and John Bradshaw.
Other books that we recommend for cat training are “The Little Book of Cat Tricks: Easy tricks that will give your pet the spotlight they deserve” and “Trick Training for Cats: Smart fun with the clicker” (for which you’d obviously need a clicker, like this one).
Does your cat fear or enjoy his carrier and car rides? Have you ever tried training him? Let us know in the comments below. ?