Traveling With Cats in the Car: 5 Ways to Calm Your Kitty

A cat sleeping in his cat carrier.
A cat sleeping in his cat carrier. Photography by Konrad Mostert/Shutterstock.

Pippi, my 14-year-old tabby, has never hidden her total disdain for car rides. In fact, she screams it loud and proud for the whole world to hear, in deeply guttural yowls. Short of heavy sedatives, poor Pip will always be anxious in the car. Throughout the years, though, I have learned ways to make short trips (to the vet, across-town moves, etc.) tolerable for both of us. Here’s some tips for traveling with cats in the car, based on my own experience.

1. I make sure her travel carrier is familiar

A brown and white cat peeking out of a cardboard box.
Make your cat’s travel carrier a happy place. Photography by Sokratyks/Thinkstock

Instead of storing her travel crate in a closet, like I used to, I keep it in the living room, near her midday nap-in-the-sun chair. She doesn’t go into it often, but I do see her wandering in to explore or sniffing around the outside every few weeks. Before trips, I pad the bottom of the crate with the pillow that she sleeps on every night and a T-shirt of mine out of the laundry basket. The softness of the pillow, along with the familiar smells, give her comfort.

If I know in advance that the trip will be extra hard (like if there is a thunderstorm happening, or when Pippi and I moved three hours away), I spritz some Feliway into her carrier to calm her nerves.

2. I dole out the stress remedies

Before life with Pippi, I never would have believed that some distilled flower petals (such as those in Bach’s Rescue Remedy Pet) could actually work to calm an anxious cat. Many friends recommended Rescue Remedy. though, and after reading a slew of rave online reviews, I gave it a shot. I have to say, I am impressed.

I now add Rescue Remedy drops to her water several hours leading up to crate time (or the night before, if we have an early morning appointment) and it seems to take the edge off. Rescue Remedy has also helped calm her on the rare occasion that we have a house full of boisterous guests.

3. I stay within her sight

When possible, I stay where she can see me when she’s in the crate. I’m sure much of her anxiety comes from the unknown of being confined to a small space in a moving car zooming past a million new smells and sounds. Pip, though, came into my life because she was abandoned in the woods as a kitten. As heartbreaking as it is, I think a lot of her anxiety comes from a fear that I will abandon her.

For a few hours leading up to a car ride, I spend extra time with her. We play and snuggle extra hard. I want her to have strong memories of my love for her when I close the crate door and put her in the car. While we’re driving, I position her crate so she can see me and make eye contact with her when possible. When I can, I even sit in the back seat with her.

4. I talk with her

I find that being vocal while she is being vocal helps snap her back into reality and calm her. It’s important to use a soft and gentle voice, regardless of how frazzled I am (and I get very easily frazzled when she’s anxious). I meow back at her sometimes. That’s something you may or may not feel comfortable with, but for Pip and me, it’s part of our daily repertoire. I also tell her stories and remind her that she is, in fact, not dying.

5. I touch her

An orange ginger tabby in a red carrier. Photography by Kachalkina Veronika / Shutterstock.
Ease the stress of traveling with cats in cars by touching your cat. Photography by Kachalkina Veronika / Shutterstock.

Above all else, Pip is most soothed by touch. When possible, I stick my fingers through the grates in her cage to pet her, and allow her to rub her head all over my fingers. It makes sense. After all, who isn’t soothed by cuddling?

My system isn’t perfect, and like any respectable cat, Pippi changes her mind often about what works and what doesn’t. The point is simply to do what I can to lessen her anxiety, and to make her as comfortable as possible. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. Either way, when car trips are done and we’re back home in one piece, Pippi is always sure to show me that she appreciates my efforts with an extra loud snuggling and purring session. That’s the greatest thanks of all.

Tell us: Do you have any tips for traveling with your cat, especially during the holidays? Any experiences, bad or good, you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!

This piece was originally published in 2017.

Thumbnail: Photography by  Konrad Mostert/Shutterstock.

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38 thoughts on “Traveling With Cats in the Car: 5 Ways to Calm Your Kitty”

  1. If it’s a long trip or if your cat is going to the vet’s office, consider asking your veterinarian for an Rx of Gabapentin. The drug really calms a stressed out cat! It has minimal side affects, the main one being sedation that lasts 6-8 hours.

      1.TRY identifying with his/her feelings.
      EXAMPLE: BLOSSOM (pet's name) You are feeling very uncomfortable, you don't like this, etc.
      Note: For more information on this brain trick or computer-like reset, research is required.

      Resetting the mind through problem identification?

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  4. Great list of tips, Andee. About the only thing I would recommend is what Kathy says. Putting a blanket over or otherwise covering the carrier without completely cutting off the ventilation is likely to reduce a cat’s stress by minimizing the stimuli it has to process. But you’re also right that you still want to leave a way for you to stay within sight of the cat.

  5. I think, if at all possible, is to take him/her out of the kennel and let him/her sit on your lap while you pet her.

    1. Absolutely recommend never having a loose cat in a moving car – have been involved with trapping cats that got loose in a strange location (cat stepped on window button & jumped out of a moving vehicle)……..I use large mesh laundry bags when I am moving cats from large dog carrier for transport into a hotel or wherever I am staying for the night. I have travelled across the US 4 times & flown pets overseas (Cuba/Japan) & back – NEVER let them loose in the car!

  6. I am about to move 18 hours by car with my 6 year old male so I plan to take him on some 7-11 runs and a few things like that in order to familiarize him with the car trips since he hated vet trips in the car before when he was young. I also love the ideas in this article but I was wondering if I can let him out of the carrier for a little bit while driving? He can then maybe use the litter box or eat some, I am just not sure. Any thoughts on this idea, good or bad?

    1. definitely. when i got Cougar, my Balinese, on the drive home, we took her out and let her sit on our laps while pet her. just don’t try to do this while driving. if he tries to explore your car, he could get hurt. keep him on your lap while you hold him.

      1. all animals are required by law to be restrained in a vehicle, we travel with our dog and cat, just been away for 14 days and we have full harnesses on both, and when stopped are on retracter leads fixed to the caravan and changed to shirt leads fixed to the car when travelling, pets are not allowed to sit on your lap sp ours are restrained so that they can only just get to the rear of our seats in between them but otherwise have the run of the back area, our cat Abbey does meow quite a bit , but is getting better, i think it is just habit more than anything as she is not nervous, but i have had cats before that love the car,

    2. Hi there Laura,

      Thanks for reaching out! Here is an article that talks more about safe travel with cats:

      What to Pack When You’re Traveling with Cats By Car

      The article suggests keeping your cat in a cat carrier because, “this is safest for the cat, and you. Even if you have a cat who sits nicely while you drive, put them in a carrier for safety in case of an accident, or to contain them.”

    3. Travelling with cats in car you got to be cautious that through out your trip the cat can’t be released from the carrier. Carrier must always be a good solid carrier and not a flimsy one. The cat can dash out. Also opening Windows not a good idea cos they hear the noise outside and that will gv. Fright. There are pple who let out the cats inside car from the carrier and the cat go hysterical and end up inside the the engine compartment. Then there will be prob to get it out. So best way is to use the Bach remedy or some stress treats. These can be purchase from polypet. Singapore.

  7. My cat Willow hated the car. When I raised the carrier so it sat higher and she could see out the window Willow was much happier. After several trips this way she had no obvious problem with the car.

  8. we have to be moving soon by plane and we have a 3 year old adult male cat whom we adopted from the road a year ago, we need to move him by plane but he vomits and poos in the car when we go to the vet, who is just 5 mins away by car. does anyone have any tips to calm down my boy? Also when he is in the plane how will he use his litter box?

  9. Mele is my first. I loved your article,no kidding. I found in reading I do some of the same things. I put her crate facing me,I talk to her and tell her she is a good girl, and I put my finger through her cage. Reading what you did,helped me realize it does indeed help. Thank you again

  10. My little Charlie responds to me keeping back to him, in fact we have little cat conversations every day anyway !! I also nuzzle in to his ears and neck daily as his mother would have being doing itwhen he was a kitten, it makes them feel secure and very loved

  11. Over a period of 5 days we moved 4 cats 2,500 miles with no issues. Scrap the hard sided carriers and get a cat in the bag (sold on line, I have to interests in this company other than being a happy camper). Their head sticks out and they can squirm around and stand up. As a bonus, you can carry them over your shoulder while getting them in and out of the car. Cats who would squall just going to the vet let out nary a peep during the journey. Best $$$ I ever spent. My vet thinks they are the best. Get the original from the manufacturer’s website. Tip: If you buy different sizes (we have one huge cat), get different colors. They are washable plus they have a 30-day money back guarantee. You won’t be disappointed.

  12. I have so much trouble taking my cat to get groomed. She is a 6 year old spayed indoor Tuxedo whom I got from the Humane Society when she was 10 weeks old. She is on the large size 13.5+ lbs and is hard to handle. I had a hard plastic carrier which was very difficult for me to maneuver. She would freak out everytime I tried to get her into the carrier and if I did succeed our trip would usually end up with her pooping or throwing up, generally on the trip home. I recently purchased a soft, yet sturdy carrier with mesh “windows” on all sides. I have left it out in plain sight and have found her sleeping in it on occasion. I will be taking her to be groomed within the week and I am hoping she is more comfortable traveling in her new carrier. Wish me luck!

  13. My Merlin is a neutered male. When I adopted him from the shelter, they said he was around 4 years old. He’s a big spoiled baby and I love him to pieces.

    When he was 8 I moved to another state requiring a 5 hour drive and here’s what I did. After Merlin’s typical morning routine, and loading everything into the car, I put him into his carrier with some padding and into the back of my SUV. Then I covered the carrier with a blanket.

    He typically complains a lot even on short trips (vet visits, etc.). He had a few choice words early on, but soon quieted down and went to sleep. I’m sure he woke a few times to move around and get comfortable during the trip, but I never heard another sound from him. He didn’t even hide when we arrived at the new home, but explored and got used to the new place quickly.

    That was over 2 years ago and all is well.

  14. I have an excellent carrier., on wheels, (just like a carry/on bag), canvas, screening on 3 sides and a zip opening in the front.A snap on small leash inside. I click her regular leash inside, open the “door”. She’s securely attached with her harness. She can wander a little bit, look out, drink, nibble on treats, & then go back in carrier to sleep. I drove with her (Fluffernutter) and my dog, SaraLee from Key West,FL to Wyoming, and across north to New England and back down to Key West. 2 months – never a peep, in fact lots of purring. The Key is good solid secure attachments of course.

  15. If one of my kitties is going in for surgery or dental and has to be isolated, fasting overnight, I sleep on the floor in the room with them. Lots of quilts!

  16. My tomo travel very well. I’m the car we argue because she wants to sit with me while I’m driving then I turn the radio on and she goes to sleep. We travel mostly by planes and trains and she loves it. I use Bach’s but it’s more for interacting with new places not traveling. She knows it’s time to do when she sees the carrier. I try to keep it out because I do but her new ones often. Talking does work. I will shares this with my other family who have cats.

  17. Great article, all very common sense, reasonable actions anyone can take. As you mention, sometimes you have to change it up but that’s not unusual with animals.

  18. We have 2 cats, one big male short hair @ 16 lb and one female neutered 4 lb cat with 2 or 3 layers of very fine hair. Female cat is a hair ball who can’t eat much without throwing up her food. Owner is not the best animal care taker and due to work obligation I have been stuck with that job. I have raised cats, dogs, sheep, horses and rabbits so I know more than most about taking care of animals however I’ve never had a hairball cat. She might be 11 or 12 years old. The owner always finds a way to leave it to me and we fight heavy about this cat. She is determined to do it her way in resulted in hair cutting and small cut. I believe the female cat need to have her hair cut down to a level that will enable her to eat, and lick herself so we can get control of her being at the wrong end of getting well then letting the hair get back to normal and receiving proper combing of hair. The cat will not let you comb her often with a true scratching and several bites. She has 4 more hair bundles on her sides and that where the small injury came from. We are currently very low on funds so I can really use some advise that is not too expensive. I appreciate any advise. Thank you, Dave

    1. You might try a daily dose of Vaseline on the kitties’ legs or paws so she will lick it off. It will help the hair balls to work their way through her digestive tract. We have a cat who is somewhat long haired and hates being combed. She seems to have very sensitive skin. We bought an electric clipper and got rid of the matted hair. We also use a pair of scissors. My husband holds her (sometimes with his gloves on) while I cut away the mats and trim her rump with a pair of scissors. Once you get her trimmed, start with the Vaseline. Hope this helps you with your furry friend.

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  21. when I used to take my 3-yr. old Calico, she would yowl. This last trip for her vaccinations I tried singing familiar songs to her and she did not yowl at all. I have to take each of my 3 cats (ages 1 and 3 as well as the 5-yr.old) . I do keep the carriers in the master bath, which is huge. The Torbie goes in there from time to time to lay down.

    1. Absolutely agree – singing really calms both of my cats down during car rides. If not familiar songs, I make up nonsense songs that mention their name multiple times.

  22. When we took Funny-Girl on a trip, here cat carrier door was facing her litter box in the back seat. So when she wanted to go it was right there. It took us a couple days to get to our destination, and by then she was pretty much “used to the travel”. Sitting on my lap as hubby drove, she was almost always watching what was whizzing past outside, or nestled on my lap napping. Once she got out at a gas station, but being frightened by the strange surroundings was easy for even hubby to catch. She had learned to stay with us.

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