The first time I took my cat on a car ride, she meowed the whole trip. She was okay on the carrier but she would start meowing as soon as the car would start moving. I found myself thinking... why cats don't like riding in a car? What can I do to help my cat be comfortable when riding by car? This is what I learned:
Cats learn what's safe and what's not during the first 16 weeks of age. Everything new after that will trigger a fear response, that depending on the confidence of the cat will be fight or flight/hide.
Your cat can be comfortable when on the carrier on even riding with you in the car. The way to achieve it is by desensitizing them and using counter conditioning. Keep Reading to help your cat conquer fear!
Counter-conditioning is the process of changing the pet's emotional response, feelings, or attitude toward a stimulus.
Kittens that are actively socialized are less fearful in unfamiliar situations and adapt better to changes in their environment.
Socialization takes place during the first 16weeks of age. Kittens will be still developing their fear response and learning what is good and what is bad. They approach everything with openness and curiosity and will give everything a chance.
Providing kittens broad socialization, pairing new experiences with rewards, builds confidence. If you are raising kittens, try to expose them to people, other animals, car rides, and the carrier regularly. This will help them identify those external inputs as good or neutral, making them not scary in the future.
It is not recommended to adopt kittens under 12 weeks of age, so chances are that your cat is almost past the kitten socialization period.
Counter-Conditioning Young Adults and Adult Cats
In cats that have already developed a fear response (cats older than 16weeks), the process will take longer, but this doesn't mean that it can't be achieved.
There's a 3 step process to desensitize your cat:
- Introduce the stimuli slowly, at levels that your cat can accept and digest.
- Reward every time that stimuli are presented at a level that your cat can tolerate.
- Increase the intensity of the stimuli as your cat builds desensitization.
Habituate a Cat to Ride by Car
Most likely, your cat hates riding in a car but can be inside the car with no issues. Take your cat to the car and play and reward generously. Your cat is little by little going to consider the car as a fun and interesting place that delivers treats.
After your cat is comfortable inside the car, try turning the engine on, without going anywhere. Keep rewarding. See where I'm going?
Traveling by car is a desensitization process that is the succession of making your cat comfortable in front of different stimuli. I would divide the process into 5 phases:
- The Carrier: Help your cat be comfortable inside the carrier.
- Leaving Home: You don't need to go far, this is about getting your cat to be comfortable after leaving their safe space, their home.
- The Car: Help your cat get used to the car, first with the car off, then with the car on but in place, and finally, with the car in movement.
- Meeting New People: Work on habituating your cat to be comfortable around new people.
- Smelling New Stuff: Expose your cat to new and different smells.
To make your cat comfortable with the lifestyle, the best you can do is to create opportunities for your cat to get used to all the above before starting a trip. In the video below I explain how I trained my bengal cat, Mia, to travel by car in only 3 weeks:
This video is a good example to follow if you are planning to travel by car with your cat. Below the list of products we take with us when traveling:
|Small Carrier||Check on Amazon|
|Cat Leash (the one we use)||Check on Amazon|
|Cat Harness (the one we use)||Check on Amazon|
|Expandable Carrier||Check on Amazon|
|Disposable Foil Trays||Check on Amazon|
|Absorvent Toilet Training Pads||Check on Amazon|
|Sanitizing Wipes||Check on Amazon|
|Wet Hand Wipes||Check on Amazon|
|Cat Litter||Check on Amazon|
What do you need to travel by car with a cat?
There are a few things that you need to take when traveling with a cat to make the trip comfortable, safe and clean:
- A carrier: It has to be safe, ideally a carrier that can get secured on the seats.
- Cleaning Goods: Wet Wipes, Paper Towel, Hand Sanitizer, Plastic Bags...
- A portable litterbox or a disposable aluminium foil tray.
- Litter: Find one that's not dusty and traces little because you don't want to get the car messy with cat stuff.
- Food and Water: Plan generously, in case an emergency happens, you don't want to be worrying for your cat's wellbeing.
- Towels impregnated with your cats smell and pheromones.
How do you make a trip enjoyable for a cat? SIMPLE! It’s the exact same thing for them than it is for us, humans: The right temperature, a comfortable seat and keeping noises and sudden turns to the minimum. Also, the ability to stretch our legs at least every 3 or 4 hours and, of course, using the restroom when needed.
How to deal with the litterbox when riding with a cat?
Cats pee and poo are the #1 concern of most cat parents traveling. For a reason!
Remember you can take your cat with you
Despite there are some ready to go portable litter-boxes that are already filled with litter, the litter itself is dusty and Mia was not used to it. The risk of using those was double, Mia not identifying the new litter as her own and choosing to do it somewhere else and, in the case she did, the lower quality litter would be tracing and dusting all around the car where we would have to ride for long hours, eat and sleep.
The option that worked best for us during the roadtrip was to have a disposable foil tray inside the car, the ones you can buy to use inside the oven, with our preferred litter. The beauty about the disposable tray is that you don’t need to clean it, and because it’s foil, it’s recyclable so every week, you can just toss it and get a new one. We bought a grouping of 5 and every few days, when we had to change the litter, we would throw away the disposable tray and get another one.
There are fancier options, made out of cloth, but those need to be cleaned and while they are great for going to hotels or traveling by plane, they are not as ideal for traveling by car.
The best cat litter to ride by car with your cat
Bring more litter than you think you need. If you end up wasting it for any reason, it’s something you don’t want to run out of.
There are 3 things that I look when choosing my litter:
- Clumping ability
- Dust Free
- Hides/Prevents Odor
We found that a litter that clumps very well, and produces almost no tracing or dust was ideal for a car environment. We use Worlds Best Litter and we love it.
As soon as Mia would use it, we would clean immediately to prevent odors from staying in the car. Put it inside one bag, then another one and whenever we had a chance, we would stop and dump it.
Allow your cat to take breaks when you stop
If your cat is leash trained, totally recommended if you are going on a long roadtrip, it makes a lot of sense to let your cat roam around every few hours, whenever you stop for a break, give them a break too. It will help them disconnect from the ride and getting them tired will help them disconnect and sleep during the ride.
I hope you found this article useful!
Stay wild, stay safe... SEE YOU OUTDOORS!
Albert & Mia