Egads! It appears that I missed National Pet Travel Safety Day (January 2) so I hope you will be gracious enough to permit a belated post on the subject. There are many aspects on traveling with pets that I could cover, and as cats and dogs travel VERY differently, it would entail a rather lengthy post. Here are some links for general car travel, practical pointers, traveling cross-country, assorted tips, and considerations when taking a road trip or traveling by plane.
I am most familiar with traveling by car. In these cases, I was transporting cats to the vet (the most common reason for travel), moving residences (twice), and from the shelter (once for each cat). Here are a few things that I have learned from traveling with my cats:
- Freaked out. Traveling is immensely stressful to most cats. It is very rare for a cat to not think the apocalypse is upon them when they are in the car. Boudicca will frantically meow nonstop whether she is in the car for three minutes or three hours. Some pets will have accidents due to stress. Other pets get motion sickness.
- No loose cats. DO NOT travel with a cat loose in a car, even if you are not going far or your cat is not obviously having a nervous breakdown. I’ve placed cats in cardboard boxes and plastic bins in lieu of carriers but never let a cat just hang out on the backseat. In these rare circumstances, I always sit in the backseat with the alternate container ensuring that the cat remains confined while a friend drives us to the vet.
- Beware the quiet ones. You may have the most docile cat under the sun at home but when the carrier comes out, your chill fur ball turns into a bristling Hulk of angry, panicked cattitude. Cats are amazingly strong, fierce, fast, and have LOTS OF POINTY ENDS. Oh, they can be loud too. There’s a reason why it’s called a caterwaul.
- Request backup. Do not be ashamed if you need to enlist help getting your slim 6 lb cat into a carrier. It is a collaborative effort getting any one of my trio into a carrier. For this reason (and many others) it is advantageous to befriend cat whisperers. Wearing a motorcycle jacket or other tough protective gear wards off claw marks and reduces the chance of at least one of you bleeding.
- Hidden in plain sight. Rather than taking the carrier out of storage only when you take your cat to the vet for their annual exam, leave the carrier out if possible. Our vet suggested that the carrier be treated like a piece of furniture if at all possible. We have ours stored under the end tables in the living room. The carrier door is unlatched so the cats can explore at will. We periodically use the laser pointer and treats to entice the cats inside so they can associate the carrier with a positive, no-stress experience. Some cats will sleep on top of them or use them as ledges. Others will use them as retreats to safety, as it feels like a cave (this is why cats also like boxes). Charlie hid in a carrier occasionally during the first few weeks after we brought him into our home. Now the boys regularly hide behind the carrier and ambush one another as they would with any other piece of furniture.
- Don’t forget your towel. Charlie has a total meltdown when he realizes he is going to the vet. (He has been sedated at the vet’s office before. Poor guy.) In order to calm him, we put a towel over him. This might seem silly but, for him, it works. He stops struggling so much when we put a towel over his eyes and he relaxes a bit. (His grumbling commentary keeps going, mind you.) Using the towel, we make a purrito and put him into the carrier. It’s a win if in the process he hasn’t cussed us out, drawn blood, or peed on anyone, and we aren’t late to the vet appointment.
- You’re gonna need a bigger carrier. I use a carrier that was originally designed to hold a small to medium-sized dog. (It was actually a carrier that my parents had used to transport our Miniature Schnauzers.) Many carriers designed for cats are smaller than this. I found trying to get Boudicca, a fairly tall cat, through a typical small cat carrier was just not going to happen. Her haunches were too big and it was too stressful for her being squished through the door. So we obtained one that more comfortably contained our house panther. We are able to stand the carrier on its end and slide her backwards (tail-first) inside. A larger carrier also gives her sufficient room to move around and stand. (NB: In a pinch, such as an emergency, a larger carrier would be handy as you could hold, in theory, two cats.)
Of course, there are many types of carriers available. There are duffels, slings, collapsibles, scrunched bags, and many others. I have friends who use different types of carriers to accommodate the needs of their individual cats and their own preferences. I’ve only used hard plastic carriers so I can only speak to my own experience there.
The most important thing to remember when traveling with your pet is that you, as the owner, must be the responsible one. You are acting on behalf of your pet. You have to think about safety. You have to be cautious. You have to check things out and do your research. Ask questions. Be prepared.
The links I included at the top of the post are useful and many of the suggestions apply to dogs as well. For additional information about pet travel safety, check out at this guide, this article for Pet Travel Safety Day, and this report, which gives a handy rundown about safety in cars with your pet.