with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Cat on the Road

Toshi loves rubbing against the tires and resting under the cool shade of the trailer. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenToshi, the traveling kitty, loves exploring new worlds and new civilizations. He boldly goes where few cats have gone before. In just two years, he traveled over 60,000 miles back and forth across North America, and together, we both learned a few things about life.

Some cats just don’t travel well; some people don’t travel well. Like people, animals can grow accustomed to almost anything. Start slowly, and when necessary, start over from square one. Patience is the key to successfully training a cat or any animal. Sometimes an animal will learn quickly and never forget, other times the lessons seem to go on interminably. Just have patience and keep it up. Eventually the animal will comply and do so with grace and style.

Toshi adores Brent and loves to spend time with him, even when Brent is making bread. A cat who is a fan of his owners makes for a better traveling companion. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenStart by observing their current behavior. Many animals already have behaviors and abilities that will transfer to riding in cars. Does your pet have a favorite toy or sleeping bed? Toshi didn’t take to animal carrying bags in any way shape or form. I tried a variety of them, costing a lot of money over the years. But he LOVED my purse or any fabric bag. I had a huge oversized “sack” I got in Mexico many years ago and he calls that home. He just curls into a ball with the curve of the fabric and I throw it over my shoulder and set off, him bouncing against my body, totally happy. Many animals, especially cats, just love crawling into boxes or paper bags. If your pet is comfortable and familiar with these things, don’t add something new. Stick with the old to start and when the animal is ready for a change to a serious carrier, introduce it slowly.

Just as it is safer to wear a seat belt and to have children in car seats, so is it safe and practical to keep your pet in a carrier case of some kind, restrained from wandering the vehicle. During long trips, a cat may seek out the warmth of the engine on the floor of the car and you may step on the brake to find the cat under the pedal, a hazard to the cat, you, and others on the road. Toshi, our traveling kitty, loved to sit on the back of the seat to watch the world go by. This was great until a spot of black ice sent the car into the ditch and Toshi flying through the air into the windshield. He was fine, as was I, but it could have been worse. Keep the animal secure in a carrier for everyone’s safety.

Cats just love boxes, no matter what size they come in. Here, Toshi enjoys the comfort of part of my trailer desk under construction. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenFind some kind of container the cat is happy in, even if it is a plain box, and make it “home” for a couple of weeks with favorite toys or blankets. Cats really like small blankets, or some kind of warm fuzzy like a sheep skin pad. After a week or two of familiarity and comfort with the case, put it in the car with your pet for a few minutes every day, slowly increasing the time to an hour. Sit in the car with your pet in his “home” and talk to him, maybe even stroke him through a small opening. As the time increases, leave him alone for a bit, always using a reassuring voice when you get back in the car. NEVER leave an animal in a closed up car when it is too hot or too cold.

After your pet is comfortable with 30-45 minutes in the still car, turn it on and just let the engine idle. Lengthen the time the engine is running over the next week or so. Then start with short trips of 10 – 15 minutes. Slowly, the cat will come to adjust to the noise and vibration without any trouble.

Some cats will take a week or two for this process, while others will take a month or more. If you care about the animal, go at the speed the animal needs. How would you like to be grabbed up and thrown into a roller coaster ride with a blindfold over your eyes? You are doing no less than this to your cat, so take time to acclimate him to his new lifestyle.

Cats are really flexible and will learn fast if they get plenty of attention and rewards. Toshi not only loves to ride in purses, but his favorite place to ride in the very cold car is under my sweatshirt or coat on my lap. He’d nose up under my shirt and cuddle against my warm skin. Air brakes on trucks passing would freak him out and he would dive for either his purse or under the seat, as deep and far as was possible. Every cat has its own comfort level. You just have to find it and slowly stretch it to fit your needs.

Tips for the Traveling Kitty

Each cat and their owner have unique abilities, talents, and capabilities. Some cats will learn very fast, while others require more time. Some owners will be able to teach their pets quickly, while others will get bored and tired easily. It takes a lot of patience, with training sometimes lasting for months. Take it slow and be patient, and everyone will be happy with the end results.

Harness them
Toshi shows off his harness as he peeks through the screen door at Daddy Brent while exploring the Yukon on the way to Alaska. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenA collar is cute but a harness is better for the traveling cat. It gives you more to hang onto without hurting the cat. When you attach a leash, the harness takes the pressure off the cat’s throat and puts in on the upper back, not far from the “scruff” where their mother carried them, a more familiar pressure point.
Name the cat
Teach the cat its name. This is so easy and very important. When you call the cat to come for food, say the cat’s name and then say “food” and shake the dry food or run the can opener, whatever clue the cat associates with food. When you pet the cat, keep saying its name over and over again. When the cat comes to you when you call his name, reward him with a food treat. He will learn quickly to associate food and his name. If you and the cat become separated when traveling, call his name and he may just come running right up to you. Toshi, was lost for almost a week and we told everyone in the huge campground we were in that he comes like a dog to his name. Someone saw him and couldn’t remember his name but they called “Tofu!” and patted their legs. He not only came running, he leapt into their arms so eager to be recognized.
Train them to use a leash
Training a cat to tolerate a leash isn’t difficult, it just takes time. Put a short leash (without the retractable handle) on the cat for a few minutes a day for them to drag around and feel comfortable with. Make sure there is nothing around to catch the leash on and scare the cat. Slowly start walking the cat with the leash in the house, tugging and commanding “stop” or “halt” when you stop. Cats are guided by scents, so they won’t learn “heel” too well, but they will learn to walk “near” you, often pulling ahead or dragging behind as they sniff out the world. Slowly work towards going outside and let them “lead” you until they get the hang of it. You will find that the path you walk “out” with the cat often must be followed “exactly” when coming back as they tend to follow their scent. When they lose their “scent” they can become distressed and very frightened. Pick the cat up and carry them when crossing traffic, noisy areas (especially with dogs or children), and to cover distances quickly. Few cats will “go for a walk” but the leash will help you keep the cat close at hand when switching from the vehicle to a building.
Tag them
Put a plastic or metal identifying tag on the cat, and possibly combine it with the new tattoo or computer chip recording techniques. A person finding a lost or dead animal can’t trace the pet back through a hidden tattoo or computer chip unless they are familiar with and have access to the technology, but they can still read a tag. If you travel a lot, inscribe on the tag the pet’s name, your name, and your vehicle license number in addition to your home or cell phone. In general, a metal tag lasts longer than a plastic one, but plastic tags can be made of reflective materials, standing out in the dark. Replace one that is scratched, damaged, or hard to read immediately. And avoid jiggling, noisy tags or bells. Cats’ ears are very sensitive and they are dependent upon sound to avoid danger.
Watch temperatures and temperature changes
Going from a hot front yard to an ice cold air conditioned vehicle can be a bit of a shock to a sensitive cat, as can going from the cold outside to a hot car. This can sometimes cause motion sickness as the cat tries to cope with the extreme changes. While cats are fairly tolerant to extreme weather conditions, try to warm up or cool down a vehicle with the cat inside with you.
Dahni, the new addition to the VanFossen Family and the amazing eyeless wonder, loves his Sherpa bag and his snuggle blanket for traveling. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenUse a travel carrier
For safety, and sometimes legal reasons, it is best to keep your traveling cat in a traveling carrier. Sherpa makes great carriers, though they tend to collapse in the middle when carrying them (I remedied this by sewing cut metal clothes hangers into the length of the bag to keep it up), and they are great for airplanes. There are many kinds and sizes of pet carriers. Some cats will freak out at the sight of a cage, so be aware that the caged types might not work, but most cats love cardboard boxes. Find what does work for your cat and make it a safe place for the cat to explore or sleep in at home, not just used once in a while for traveling. Keep familiar objects in it and maybe even keep the food bowls near it.
Take breaks
Take breaks to feed and water your cat, and to give him a good leg stretch once in a while on a long trip. Many cats will “hold it” until a break and then use the rest stop pet walk or a garden area to “go”, relieving you of the need to keep a potty pan in your vehicle. Watch feeding them more than a snack or two as too much food can result in motion sickness. Make sure the cat drinks water, though, as they can become dehydrated in the sealed air of the car. Keep familiar food and water dishes with you as you travel, as they might not eat out of strange dishes. You may even consider keeping the pet bowl “dirty” so that the smell is familiar.
Traveling potties
Cats don’t need much of a fancy potty to “go” in. I’ve used toss-away pie tins with a little gravel in it in an emergency, or a metal pie tin for longer lasting use. Easy to clean and light to carry, just put enough litter in to make a noise and give them a “sense” of the litter (make sure they are familiar with it before hitting the road). A baby potty, one used for potty training children, also works very well. Put it on the floor of the backseat and introduce them to it. Pull over and empty it as soon as they use it, or you could suffer suffocation from the toxic fumes!
Don’t throw them off the cliff – have patience
No matter what, take your time introducing your cat to the idea of traveling. Just like you wouldn’t want to be tossed off a cliff without warning, let them get used to the idea of this kind of life. Some take to it, and others don’t. You can’t force them, but you can acclimate them.
Give them a safe place
Whether you are in your home or the car, make one spot the “safe” spot. This is the place where they can go and know that they will get loved, but they will not be commanded or punished. A favorite chair, their travel case, somewhere where they can feel safe and run to when stressed out. Put a blanket or a favorite toy in that spot and let them sleep with it. Bring that with you when you travel and keep it in their carry case or pull it out when you need to reassure them. Everyone needs a safe place, especially the traveling kitty who never knows what is going to be going on outside when the vehicle stops.


  • Alicia
    Posted April 25, 2005 at 9:04 | Permalink

    Why do some cats cry when they are in the car even with there owner

  • Posted April 25, 2005 at 12:09 | Permalink

    Cats cry when they are afraid, stressed, angry, or hungry. Just like children. Why do children cry when they are in their parent’s arms, maybe the safest place in the universe?

    Cat have emotions, same as most creatures. If a cat is properly trained to ride in a car, with careful and patient training, they will act fine. But if they are unaccustomed to vehicles, there is a lot to be afraid of. They are closed up, smell funny, make lots of noise, vibrate and move, and DIFFERENT from anything they have known before.

    Every cat we’ve had, we’ve put into the car from the first moment, even to ride around the block. Since we travel a lot, it’s more convenient for us to take the cat with us to acclimate it to vehicles, or every trip in the car led to the vet, then they will never be happy. If you want your cat to get used to them, then you have to train them.

  • lindsay
    Posted July 20, 2006 at 12:40 | Permalink

    I am leaving tomorrow for a short trip and bringing my cat Salvestor. He hates car rides however when we get to this farm he can enjoy the outdoors (on lead under supervision)but I was wondering if I purchased baby gravel and gave it to him before the ride would this help to relax him?

  • Posted July 20, 2006 at 20:39 | Permalink


    I don’t know what baby gravel is, but if Salvestor likes it, then take it. Do not give the cat drugs, just a familiar environment. Talk to him and speak lovingly no matter how loud he cries. He’ll get over it. He’ll be fine. I don’t know about you, but you will be fine. I’d recommend you keep him in a carrier if you are nervous about having him out in the car. That might help.

    Let me know how it turns out.

  • sally
    Posted March 13, 2008 at 23:22 | Permalink

    Recently, I chucked all that mess and decided that I would get not one but two cats. Not having time, space nor energy for the needs of a dog was no reason to remain without a pet. I went to the humane shelter where I found Scout and Atticus, and I can’t tell you how happy I am that I did. They are house- trained (but I’m well aware that there will be hairballs from time to time, and stinky litter pans to clean regularly); they cuddle with me and with each other; they run and chase each other through the…

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  • […] Plan your travels with your pets and introduce them to traveling in a car before you take them on an airplane. Make it part of your schedule weeks if not months before you travel. It will make the experience a better one for everyone. […]

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