Cats and Travel, Dreaded by Us and Them

Some precautions to take prior to travel

mediumAugust 18, 2016

One of the toughest things about being a cat owner is making decisions about your cat when you travel. If your cat has a reliable (and hopefully fun) caretaker at home as an option, this could be preferable for both them and for you.

But having them accompany you may be your only viable option and it certainly is if the travel isn’t just for vacation but when relocating.

While dogs mostly seem to adore the adventure, cats are another story.

There’s a lot of preparation involved in making travel work, like packing enough food and finding cat-friendly lodging at each of your destinations. And of course cats (most of whom are anxious when you rearrange the furniture, let alone take them away from their home) are not as thrilled as we are to get out and travel. Then there’s all the cat travel paraphernalia, starting with litter, a box, and a scoop, to add to your goods and chattel.

If you do end up leaving your cats with a trusted sitter back at home, perform your own physical check of each one. Dr. Judy Morgan, DVM, CVA, CVCP, CVFT, in her Radio Pet Lady show “Holistic Vets,” recommends that you check for lumps, ear infections, and hot spots so there are no surprises for your pet sitter. Make sure your vet has your written word on who makes decisions about your pets while you are away.

Shannon Bolt, petcare expert in San Francisco at The Domestic Animal, reminds me to habituate and condition my cats to travel gear and being transported before any big trip. Also, with more than one cat traveling, I spray a bit of Feliway® in the carriers (like smelling jasmine at a spa, this is a natural cat pheromone that has a good success rate of helping relax cats). If they’re comfortable enough to eat while moving around in harness and carrier, they’re pretty relaxed and ready for the road!

Shannon also points out that you should be wary of recommendations to sedate a cat for travel; many cats feel more comfortable keeping all their wits about them for the trip.

But if little Purrball is to travel along with you, take these things into consideration.

Car travel

Whenever possible, car travel is highly recommended over plane:

  • you are the most familiar bunch of traveling companions to your cat and will be a source of comfort
  • you have the ability to feed at regular times
  • you establish the timing for “bathroom breaks”
  • and you have complete control over the environment: the stability of the carrier, temperature of the interior, the level of noise you make

Note that keeping cats in carriers is a must and a harness and leash are recommended at all times. A frightened cat can bolt at the mere opening of a door or window.

I like to position my cats to have the best view possible with the safest and use of the security belts. The shy cat who is happy not to watch is secured snuggly on the floor, the two others are strapped in seats.

Like children, it is not recommended to leave cats in a vehicle alone. Oftentimes restaurants will understand the plight of the traveler with cats and will allow your cat in a carrier and that’s the first route to take. Note that even with open windows, this has been proven highly dangerous to both children and pets, though we get away with it with our pets rather frequently. If this is a necessity at some point in your travels, absolutely do not do this in times of high heat and walk the extra steps you need to in order to park them under the shade of a tree or building. Leave windows cracked. Period. Use judgement on time: this is nothing you should rely on for more than a few minutes out of complete necessity: a car can reach unbearable temperatures quicker than you think.

Plane travel

It is becoming more and more evident that cats should not travel in the cargo hold of a plane and should be done only if there are no other options available. In 2014, there were 45 animal deaths, which had all occurred at some point during the transit. These figures are in the U.S. alone and include the seven major airlines within the country and a sourced from the Department of Transportation. This includes some cats like rodents (guinea pigs and hamsters) as well as cats and dogs, and many of the deaths were attributed to things like the cat escaping its confines or previous poor health exacerbated by the confines of air freight traveling.

Stories like pet owner Michael Jarboe losing his beloved dog because he was left in high heat on a tarmac for nearly four hours are horrifying. We’ve all wasted time buckled up in our seats waiting for our flight’s approval to take off and we’ve all seen trailers of cargo waiting around for the personnel to unload them. It is hard to picture what that wait is like in the cargo hold and it is even harder to picture letting your cat sit in the heat (or cold) and noise of a busy tarmac.

Note that if you have a breed of cat with a squashed face look (the Brachycephalic breeds), then cargo travel is patently unsafe: these breeds will need to pant furiously to keep their temperature under control and they are at a much higher risk of trauma to their health.

Before purchasing a plane ticket

Flying in the cabin is not impossible for cats! You have to do some due diligence and pay extra for each cat. And, often, each cat must be paired with a single human companion, which may make you think about gifting a vacation to a few friends or family to travel with you, if traveling solo and transporting more than one.

Start by researching:

  • airline policy (most airlines post pet travel policies on their web sites)
  • any restrictions or qualifications needed by your destination country on the admittance of cats


  • then purchase a comfy carrier that is airline approved

For the latter, there’s a great design by PetGear® (and I’m not paid by them in any way to say so) that can either roll with a handle, be worn as a backpack, or be carried by shoulder strap or traditional short handle. It lies flat and the small size for cats is designed to fit under the seat in front of you — what a much nicer spot for your cat.

It may be a matter of time, and a matter of cost to traveling cat owners, but air travel needs to continue to improve for the safety and comfort of cats. By demanding better travel options for your cat, you can help shape this future. And where you can travel in your own vehicle, all the better for your whole clan. Happy trails to you and those with tails!