Roughly a week ago I got an email from a lovely woman who recently took in a gorgeous stray cat she found in her neighbourhood. Worried about the fact that he had symptoms of a cold that never seemed to go away (even after being medicated), and that the vets at her current clinic didn’t seem to know what they were doing, she emailed asking for my advice on what to do.
Her email included an explanation about how, if she wanted to go to another vet, she’d have to drive three hours to reach the next veterinary center, and while she didn’t have a problem driving the distance, she did worry over her new cat Ashton, who hates car rides and spends the entirety of a car trip crying until it’s done.
Sherpa Original Deluxe Pet Travel Carrier Medium – Amazon / eBay
As if that’s not enough, the poor baby is incredibly congested (one of the symptoms of whatever illness he may have), and sneezes quite a bit. When he’s in a car, naturally, his sneezing increases because of his stress and anxiety, so for very good reason, she was torn about taking such a long car ride with her poor cat – afraid she may do more harm than good.
I advised her to seek help at the vets a few hours away if she’s willing to go to them, as if she feels those near her don’t know what they’re doing, it’s important she see someone who she feels does. But in order to do so safely, I recommended training Ashton to be comfortable in cars, so the poor thing didn’t have anxiety over the long trip and end up with an unpleasant flare up of his symptoms.
I’ve written about how to get cats to be comfortable in carriers before – that is 100% the first step in getting cats to be comfortable in cars. Making sure cats aren’t stressed out in their cages and carriers means they have one less thing to bring them fear and anxiety when travelling, and if you get your cat to be happy enough sitting in his or her carrier, the carrier itself may end up feeling like a safe space to a cat, which is any pet parent’s dream come true.
Most cats hate cars initially – I bet you would, too, if you had little to no experience with them as most cats do. But you can train your cat to understand that the car, and the movement of your vehicle, is not a threat, and being within a car is safe rather than dangerous and frightening.
In my opinion, even if you’re not likely to be driving long distances with your cat, it’s still an incredibly helpful thing to take the time to train cats to be comfortable in cars. There are so many reasons why you may need to take even short trips with your cat in a vehicle – trips to the vet, travelling to a pet sitters briefly, moving to a new house or apartment within the same rough area. Why wouldn’t you want your cat to be as comfortable and stress-free as possible in situations like these? Stress, panic, and discomfort for 15 minutes or 30 is still a shame when you could have your cat be cool as a cucumber each and every time you get into a car and drive off with him or her.
The steps that I’m going to outline take little to no effort, just time, patience, and repetition. Once you’ve trained your cat to be used to cars, it should make life so much easier – not only for your cat, but for you as well if you’re anything like me (anxious when your pet gets anxious). Again, I promise it’s not hard and it’s something you could probably do in under a week with only a small bit of effort on your part.
But enough dilly-dally; let’s get into the steps.
Picture from post Cats Can Like Cages
How to Train Cats to Be Comfortable with Car Travel
Step 1: Train your cat to be comfortable in his carrier.
Yes, I know I said it in the intro, but it bears repeating: you really should train your cat to be comfortable in a carrier before or at least simultaneously at the same time as training your cat to be comfortable in a car.
It’s easy to do – just like this is, I promise. And once your cat’s happy in a carrier, that contentedness will make car travel so much more of a breeze for your cat. Half the fear (in my humble opinion) of car travel is from cats hating being crammed into a small space they don’t feel safe in. Get rid of the carrier fear and transform it into a liking or even loving of that small space and you’ll have transformed the scary cage or carrier into something like a portable safe haven, as though you threw a cat bed or your cat’s favourite cat house into the back seat of the car. Pull this off and you’ve already won half the battle.
Step 2: Practice sitting in a still, turned off car with your cat.
The first step after getting your cat happy to be in his or her carrier is trying to get him or her used to the car itself – not travelling in it, as the movement of the vehicle is a separate issue from the car itself. If your cat feels the car itself is not a threat, you’re moving the needle just that little bit further for your cat to make the connection that car travel is actually a safe activity.
Essentially what I’d recommend with this step is this: after placing your cat in his carrier, take your cat outside, open up the back door of your car, place your cat’s carrier on the middle seat, and sit right next to him or her. Don’t get up and climb to the front initially, just sit for some time. Talk to your cat if you want, sit in silence if you want, make your cat feel like this is no big deal. Then bring your cat back into the house.
Step 3: Once you come back into your house from the car, spoil your cat rotten.
And when I say spoil your cat rotten upon entering the house, I really do mean it.
This step should be done every single time you come back in from a car trip. It doesn’t matter one jot if your cat threw a hissy fit or, contrarily, was positively amazing during the trip to the car, when you walk into the door, lock it behind you, open up that carrier to let your cat roam free, then immediately proceed to spoil your cat rotten with verbal praise, attention, cuddles, food, treats, snacks, catnip, play, (even a little bite of tuna?) – or whatever else you know your cat to love – what you’re saying is, “You had to do something hard. It’s done now; here’s your reward for going through it, and I’m so proud!”
Your cat may not understand why the spoiling is taking place the first time. Or the second. But after repeated exposure to the car, then a vast amount of lovely treatment and way too many amazing things happening to ignore after those car trips, your cat will eventually make the mental connection between “car rides = spoiled rotten after” – likely plenty before you get to the car, while you’re placing your cat into his or her carrier. This is a positive mental connection you want to encourage, so make sure never to skip a spoil session, and make sure it happens immediately after coming back in.
Picture from post The Flight from Toronto to London With a Cat in Cargo
Step 4: Practice sitting in a still car, with the ignition turned on.
Next step, similar to #2, is going into that car with your cat, then going into the front seat, turning on the ignition, and just waiting a few minutes, then heading back in (to spoil your cat rotten – don’t forget!).
Again, you can talk to your cat if you want, or simply sit in silence. Absolutely makes no difference if your cat cries or doesn’t make a peep, eventually he or she will begin to understand that the car is no big deal.
If your cat didn’t make a peep during these first few steps – not one cry, fuss, and not really more than a confused look after the whole shebang – congratulations! You actually already have a cat who’s fine with cars. What he or she dislikes is just the movement of the vehicle when you’re travelling in it. If your cat cried or was frustrated even with this experience, you may want to repeat the process until kitty stops being stressed, realizes the car is safe and okay, and then proceed to the next step. Eventually, your cat will definitely get it.
Step 5: Take your cat on a quick trip around the block.
This will likely be the shortest car ride you’ll ever take in your life, but it should be done pretty darn quickly. Do your best to drive smoothly; don’t accelerate too fast, try not to hit any potholes in the road. But a quick trip around the block and then back home and into your house (followed by spoiling your cat rotten – no, I won’t let you forget!) is all this trip is going to encompass. Again, it really doesn’t matter if your cat was a little frustrated, upset, or panicked – with repetition, this will get a lot easier for him or her. You can continue to repeat this step until your cat is cool as a cucumber with those short trips around the block then move on to the next step, or simply proceed because either way, your cat will become more used to the car.
Step 6: Take your cat on slightly longer car trips each time. Up to 15 or even 30 minutes at a time.
Extend that quick trip around the block to a trip down the road and back, to a 5 minute car ride; you get the picture here. Just increase the number of minutes you’re taking on, all the while trying to drive as smooth as possible and (yes, again) spoiling your cat once you’re back home.
You do this enough times your cat has to learn it’s safe to go in cars, and that there’s not always a vet on the other end of a car ride. Actually usually there’s kibble, cuddles, and catnip. What’s not to like about car rides?
Step 7: Repeat until your cat no longer seems to be bothered by car trips.
Didn’t really need to be another step, but this is just here to drill in that repetition is key.
One last question I’m assuming people will ask about this process: how long you should wait between each step? That’s totally up to you. You can take your cat out once a day, twice a week, five times a day – it doesn’t matter.
Obviously, if you’re going to the vet in a couple days, you’re going to want to do trips out and escalate the steps much more frequently and quickly than if you want to train your cat to be calm in a car by next month, but really and truly, it’s up to you how fast you go with this. Your kitty’s unlikely to mind going out multiple times a day as long as there’s that amazing treatment directly afterward. And waiting a few days between steps is unlikely to have your cat forget the spoil session either. So again, completely up to you and what you need to happen.
Petmate Sky Kennel Airline Approved Pet Cage – Amazon / Chewy
How Do Your Cats Like Car Rides?
How do your cats react to car rides? Does it matter if the trip is long or short, bumpy or smooth, fast or slow?
Have you ever tried training your cat to feel safer and calmer in cars? Ever thought about doing so, but weren’t sure how? Would you ever undergo car training with your cat? Do you think it’s beneficial to, or not necessary for most cats?
Leave a comment with your opinions down below. Really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the topic!
Megan B. says
So, I have a 10 week old kitten. He enjoyed his very first ride when I bought him once he could sit on my lap. I started to follow these tips in hopes that he could transition to another seat and didn’t have to be on me. I just took him on a 7 hour road trip this week and he was completely fine the entire time. This post definitely helped make that trip painless for the both of us!
My 10 months old maine coon, who was never in a car in his early life, throws up every time we get the car moving. He will start to meow constantly after just some meters, then vomit if the movement doesn’t stop. I suspect he has car sickness, since being inside the unmoving car is no big deal to him.
I don’t really know what to do to help him without pills and whatnot. I’d really like to bring him places, because I know he would enjoy himself.
Do you have any insight on this?
Thanks for your help!
Your posts always help me so much with my cat. Thank you.
Elise Xavier says
Thanks, Megan 🙂 Happy to help!
Eastside Cats says
The Hubby and I always talked about how we wanted to get the cats used to being in the car, but we didn’t try any of your steps. And Da Boyz, they really are so chill that they don’t have a problem with the car. But, I really like your tips!
Elise Xavier says
Thanks! It always baffles me how well some cats do in cars with zero experience with them. If both of Da Boyz have had no problem in them – maybe it’s a little to do with genetics? Who knows!