It was December 2012. My husband Matt had just accepted a job offer in Palo Alto and we were excited to be planning a move. Foremost on our minds was thinking about how we could safety transport our 4 cats (Pepper, Cinder, Catnip and Shivers) nearly 3,000 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to the Bay Area. Since we had some previous experience moving with our feline family, we knew we needed to start making plans right away.
Tip #1: Planning ahead is critical. Cats (although there are exceptions) are not known for being good travelers. They can become easily stressed in new and changing environments so it’s vitally important to prepare them, yourself and their environment.
The first thing you should do is ensure each cat has a comfortable carrier. The carrier must be large enough for the cat to stand up and turn around. For air travel a soft sided carrier is recommended. Purchase some puppy training pads and line each carrier with a pad. These provide cushioning and are also excellent at soaking up any accidents that might occur.
Open the carriers and scatter them around your living area well in advance of your moving day. Place toys and treats in them to get your cats' interest. The idea is to get your cats to associate the carrier with pleasant things, instead of something you only pull out when it’s time to visit the vet. When it’s time to actually put your cat in his carrier, it can be easier on both of you if you put him in butt first. If he can’t see that he’s being put in the carrier, he’s less likely to put up a fight.
Watch for extreme anxiety or motion sickness. If necessary, talk to your vet about calming medications for your cat. If you decide these are necessary, it’s important to test the medicine prior to any travel; in some animals these medications can have the opposite effect and increase anxiety. Another option is a pheromone product such as Feliway. Some vets recommend these as a more natural way to help your cat stay calm.
Plan your route and book accommodations. Remember that it can be difficult to let your cat out of his carrier on the way. For that reason, try to plan trips that aren't more than 6 or 7 hours a day. Many hotel/motel chains will accept pets (some with an extra fee). When you book be sure they know you are bringing a cat, as some hotels have special pet rooms set aside.
A site like BringFido.com can ca be a valuable resource in finding cat friendly accommodations.
Tip #2: Adjust Feeding and Litter box schedules for the trip. Since cats tend to travel better on empty (or almost empty) stomachs, consider giving your cat a large meal before bed the night before the trip. Skip breakfast or give a very light breakfast. One of the difficulties I faced was how to get my cats to use their litter box prior to beginning the journey. Since cats tend to use a litter box right after it’s been cleaned, I would give them a tiny breakfast and clean the litter box (noisily so they could hear) while they ate. Sure enough, they all used the litter box shortly after. I would suggest adjusting the feeding schedule for travel a few days before you start your trip so your cat is accustomed to it.
*Plan your travel so your cat has to spend the least amount of time in the carrier. Look for direct flights. If you have a significant layover, think about how you could let your cat out for water and access to a litter box. When Pepper and I flew from Edmonton to Pittsburgh we had a two hour lay over in Minneapolis. I had packed a small flattened cardboard litter box, as well as a very small amount of litter (it’s heavy). In the Minneapolis airport I found a single stall restroom with a door that locked. I was able to set up a litter box and let Pepper out of the carrier for a few minutes to use it and have a drink before we began the long leg to Pittsburgh.
*Buy a well fitted harness for your cat to wear on the trip. When you go through airport security, you will need to remove your cat from the carrier and carry her through the x-ray machine. This poses some risks and the harness can make it easier to hold onto to or catch the cat if she does squirm away.
*Even if your cat becomes stressed, try to remain calm yourself. Take off and landing are the scariest parts of the experience for your cat due to engines revving up and reverse thrusters upon landing. If you can, choose a seat as far forward in the passenger cabin as possible as noises are louder towards the back.
*Consider traveling very early in the day when it is cooler and traffic is lighter. Avoid placing carriers in direct sunlight and don’t have air from a vent blowing directly on your cat. If possible use seat belts or bungee cords to secure the carriers so they won’t move in the event of a sudden stop or an accident.
*Keep pit stops short and sweet. Avoid leaving your cat alone in the car for anything longer than a few minutes. Do not leave them at all in hot weather – the interior of a vehicle can heat quickly to dangerous temperatures. If you are traveling alone and you must leave them for a short period, have a second set of keys so you can leave the car and air-conditioning running.
*Many cats will be stressed and scared in a new environment and may hide. For this reason, I suggest releasing your cat(s) in the bathroom first. Set up the litter box, water and food in the bathroom, then set the carrier down and open the carrier door. Make sure the bathroom door is shut. Your cat may not come out immediately but eventually will venture out. Leave the carrier available for them to go back into – your cat will now likely see it as a safe familiar place that he can retreat to. If your cat is not overly fearful, you can let him or her explore the hotel room after a while. If your cat has a favorite treat, keep a bag handy. You can use that if you need to coax them out from under the bed or another hiding place.
*Pack along some of your cat’s favorite foods and treats for the trip. A stressed cat may not have much of an appetite and is more likely to eat if you give him something he really loves. If you have the space, consider bringing a favorite blanket or throw along. Something that smells like home can help your cat calm down in an unfamiliar environment.
One thing we know for sure is wherever we go, our cats will be coming, too!