If you’re anything like me, you love your cat like a family member. However, before you think about bringing your feline family member with you on vacation, think again. As a veterinarian and cat owner, let me fill you in on something: Most cats out there hate traveling. So, find out some important travel facts that you must know about before transporting your #1 baggage.
Your cat doesn’t want to go
As cats are really resistant to changes in their environment, it’s not worth putting your cat through the stress of traveling if you’re only going for a few days. Trust me—your cat would prefer to be at home instead of dealing with the noise and stress of traveling. (Think of it as her vacation away from you!)
Being prepared before you travel
Learning how to travel with a cat begins with making sure your cat is healthy to travel by scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian. Make sure to do this in advance and with careful planning. If you travel out of state or out of the country, you’ll need a current health certificate (dated within 10 days of travel) to verify that she’s healthy, up-to-date on her vaccines. You'll also need to verify that she doesn’t have any external or internal parasites (such as fleas, ticks, or gastrointestinal worms).
Next, figure out your route. If you’re driving, plot out emergency veterinarians along the way and find pet-friendly hotels. Make sure to be stocked up on extra cat treats, a secure cat carrier (that you’ve acclimated your cat to!), cat food, water bowls, and kitty litter before hitting the road. Lastly, have your veterinarian’s phone number, the local emergency veterinary clinic’s phone number, and the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center’s phone number (888-426-4435) programmed in your cell in case of emergency.
Just say yes to drugs
Most cats get very stressed from travel. That’s why it’s important to chat with your veterinarian in advance about using a sedative (like high-dose gabapentin, butorphanol, or acepromazine) to relieve the anxiety and stress. If your cat gets nauseated from motion sickness, your veterinarian can prescribe medications like Cerenia, too. When in doubt, ask your veterinarian how to start a “drug trial” at home several days before you go. This way you know how your cat is going to respond to the medications (e.g., if you need more or less!). In general, the medications typically need to be given 1-2 hours prior to your departure.
Flying with a cat
If you’re wondering how to travel with a cat by plane, the only way to go is with her in a carrier at your feet or in the seat next to you (depending on weight limitations). Shipping a cat in cargo would be much too stressful, as the extra loud noises, vibrations, feelings of nausea, and odors are overwhelming. Personally, I only travel by plane with my cats if I’m moving somewhere new.
When in doubt, check with the airline weeks in advance to make sure you aren’t scrambling at the last minute. Certain airlines have regulations on the types and sizes of soft-sided cat carriers they allow. Also, help minimize the stress by trying to book a direct flight. Once you’re on the plane, please make sure not to open your cat carrier. Not only will this help prevent any escapes, but it’ll appease the cat-allergic people near you. Finally, once you’ve safely arrived to your new location, give your cat ample time to settle down before offering any food.
If you’re traveling by car
When traveling with your cat in the car, please keep your cat secured in a cat carrier while driving. Not only may it be illegal for you to travel with your cat on your lap, but it can be distracting to you, putting everyone’s lives in danger. (And you only have 1 life, compared to the 9 of your cat!) I never recommend letting your cat roam around in your car. If she wanders near your brake pad, you’ll be unable to brake safely, resulting in a serious accident. Also, before opening a window or car door, make sure your cat carrier is secure. I’ve seen the rare cat escape, getting lost forever.
If it’s a long car ride, consider stopping and offering a kitty litter box (although I highly doubt she’ll use it!). If you do take a break from driving, make sure to secure your cat carefully, leave the A/C running, or find a safe spot to leave your cat. Cars can heat up rapidly, resulting in heat stroke.
The day of the trip
Let this be your final lesson on how to travel with a cat: The day you’re leaving is not the day to introduce your cat to the cat carrier. Ideally, you want to acclimate your cat to this slowly weeks prior to the trip. Using pheromones like Feliway may help. Also, to minimize any vomiting or motion sickness, try not to feed your cat for at least several hours prior to departure. Lastly, plan ahead. Minimize the pre-travel cat hysteria, or your cat will pick up on it. The more time you leave to prepare yourself, the less stress for you and your cat.
When in doubt, don’t travel with your cat. If you must, make sure your #1 baggage makes it safe and sound.