Cat riding in car

Many cats are uncomfortable with car travel. Unlike dogs, most cats are never taught to enjoy car trips. Many kittens have limited experience with car rides during their primary socialization period (2-7 weeks); when a kitten does go for a ride in the car, the destination is often the vet’s office, which can be scary in itself. Finally, a ride in the car involves unfamiliar noises and sights, as well as unusual and potentially unsettling motion. Taken together, it’s no wonder many cats are unhappy when they are asked to ride in the car.

The best way to make car travel less stressful for your cat is to get her used to the car early in life. But if you have an adult cat with an established fear, there are still steps you can take to reduce travel anxiety.

Teach Your Cat to Love Her Crate

The safest way to transport your cat is always in a carrier; this will help prevent her from distracting the driver and may reduce her risk of winding up lost or injured — or worse, in the event of a car accident. But rather than forcing your cat into the carrier when it’s time to leave the house, teach her to enjoy spending time in her crate. This will make it easier to get her into the crate and into the car.

Training your cat to enter her crate willingly makes heading out in the car less frightening for her and less stressful for you. Start by teaching your cat that her crate is a safe place. Make the carrier inviting by placing her regular meal just outside the carrier. As she grows relaxed around the crate, move her food bowl inside the crate, pushing it farther back at each meal until she’s eating entirely inside the crate. Drop treats, such as freeze-dried chicken or a stuffed kitty Kong, inside her crate during the day to encourage her to investigate the space outside of meal times. You can also teach your cat to enter the crate on cue by following a target stick.

Put comfortable plush bedding on the inside of the crate to make it homey and inviting for your cat. You can spray Feliway, a synthetic cat hormone spray, into the carrier to encourage relaxation. Once your cat is comfortable inside her crate, practice closing the door for short periods while your cat is inside. Give her a favorite longer-lasting treat, like a dental chew, to gnaw on while the door is closed. Over time, work on closing the door for longer periods of time; while the door is closed, intermittently place favorite treats inside the crate.

When your cat becomes used to relaxing in the closed crate, work on getting her used to the sensation of being moved. Pick the crate up and hold it for a few seconds and then put it down. Work up to carrying the crate around your house. Reward your cat frequently for staying calm.

Put Your Cat — and Her Crate — in the Car

Next, take the crate out to the car. Set the carrier in the car with the car door open; give your cat a treat and then take the carrier out of the car. Practice this on a few occasions; once your cat gets used to being in the car, shut the car door and then open it again. If your cat remains relaxed, turn the car on, and then turn it right back off. Next, move the car just out of the driveway, then pull right back in and park.

Keep your pace slow; this will help your cat stay calm, which will make this a more positive experience for both of you. Work up to short trips in the car, like a spin around the block or a stop at the coffee shop drive-through. With experience, your cat will learn that riding in the car is nothing to fear. You can also make the car less unfamiliar to your cat by rubbing a towel over the scent glands located by the side of her cheeks; rub this towel over the inside of the car to distribute your cat’s smell and make the car a more familiar and relaxing place.
If your cat’s fear has to do with the destination — specifically, the veterinarian’s office — incorporate this into your training. Drive to your vet’s office and sit in the parking lot; have a short play, petting or treat session with your cat, and then leave. Once your cat is comfortable with the parking lot, ask the staff if you can bring her inside the office during a slow time to do some relaxation training in the waiting room or in a quiet, unused exam room. As always, treat her as long as she remains calm.

If your cat is having difficulty adapting to the crate or the car, talk to your veterinarian about her anxiety. Your vet may recommend a product such as Anxitane, a green tea extract, to help your cat relax in the car. The veterinarians I work with at the North Idaho Animal Hospital are also keen on using the Thundershirt for cats. To get your cat used to the Thundershirt, place it on loosely to begin with and make it snugger as the cat adjusts to wearing it.

Finally, remember that cats can quickly overheat if left in a car, even on a day that may not seem particularly hot to you. Never leave your cat unattended in a parked vehicle.

More on Vetstreet: