Unfortunately, traveling with your cat is pretty much unavoidable. This being the case, you should know how to calm down a cat in the car to make your trip as smooth and safe as possible.
Maybe it’s just your yearly visit to the vet. Or maybe you have something a bit more long-term in mind, like a cross country road trip with your cat. Either way, if problems do arise, you’ll be glad you took a little time to educate yourself beforehand.
All cats are different. However, one thing that is true of almost all cats is that they hate car rides. They’ll show their disdain in different ways, too; crying, panting and hyperventilating are the main issues that arise with any cat riding in a car.
Being creatures of habit, cats love their routine. Breaking that routine in any way is a surefire way to get on your cat’s bad side. It may not seem like a big deal to you or me, but your cat spends all of their time at home. It’s their home field and they have the advantage. Yanking them from their beloved territory and into the unknown is almost certainly going to cause them stress.
Now that we have a bit more understanding about why cats hate car rides, let’s look at the protocol for keeping cat(s) calm in the car.
Tips on How to Calm Down a Cat in the Car
Pick the Right Cat Carrier
First and foremost, you’re going to have to conduct some research and figure out the best cat carrier for your feline friend. There’s no one-size-fits all. You’ll have to assess the needs of your cat and yourself and choose accordingly.
The first decision to make is whether to choose a hard or soft carrier. I tend to recommend a hard carrier for anxious or difficult cats. There’s sure to be some unhappy biting and scratching and soft carriers just can’t handle that kind of abuse. On top of that, hard carriers are just safer for car travel. That hard plastic will hold up a lot better than nylon in the event of an accident.
That being said, if you’re traveling with your cat on a plane then the soft carrier is probably the way to go.
Make the Carrier a Happy Place
Now that you’ve chosen your carrier, it’s time to let your cat get used to it. Cats don’t do well with change and need time to adapt. They do better with new experiences if they have brief and gradual exposure to them rather than sudden and long-lasting.
The best method for introducing a new carrier into their environment is pretty simple. Place the carrier somewhere your cat spends a lot of time- next to a heater, under their cat tree or next to the sofa. Make sure the door is open and leave it there.
Do not force your cat into the carrier. In fact, don’t even acknowledge it after you’ve chosen a spot and opened the door. Let your curious feline check out the strange new piece of plastic a their own pace.
Add Familiar Objects and Smells
Once your cat has accepted the carrier into their environment things start to get a little easier. Some cats will even take to sleeping in this new piece of furniture.
If your cat still seems apprehensive, try putting their cat bed inside the carrier. If your cat doesn’t have a bed that will fit then a towel or blanket will do. You can learn about the benefits of a heated cat bed from our previous post.
Your cat will be more comfortable if they can pick up familiar scents. Use some of their favorite toys or blankets to make the carrier a more attractive place to hang out. You can also try gently wiping a cloth over your cat then wiping down the inside of the carrier to transfer the smell.
Feline pheromone spray is another option. There are a bunch of different types of calming sprays for cats but we’ll talk more about them later.
If you’re planning on taking your cat on long road trip then you’ll need a separate carrier just for the vet. Things like vaccine shots and surgery are traumatic events in your cat’s life. Don’t count on your furry friend forgetting them any time soon. Thus, you want a cat carrier that has no negative association in your cat’s mind.
Do Some Practice Runs
It’s important to get your cat adjusted to the idea of being in your car as well, not just their carrier. Doing some short practice runs will be hugely beneficial to the long-term goal of keeping your cat calm in the car.
Let your cat inspect the interior before you start the engine. Even though they’ll be in the carrier for the duration of the trip, they will still be wary of the alien environment that is your car. Give them a few minutes to wander around be curious.
Once your cat has had some time to take it all in, get them back in the carrier and make sure it’s secure. Now you can start the car and do a few laps around the neighborhood. Remember to take things slow. Only a few minutes in the car then its back home for a treat. Cats are slow to adjust so patience is key.
Tire Your Cat Out Before You Go
Your cat can’t cry if they’re sleeping, right? This method is a natural and effective way to keep your cat relaxed in the car. It also means more quality time with your little ball of fur, so it’s a win-win!
Give your cat extra snuggles and play extra hard for longer. Starting a few hours before you have to leave it best. Remind your kitty of your love so it’s fresh in their mind when you close the crate door.
Something else to try is catnip. Why would you want to rile my cat up right before you leave? Well, your cat will go bananas for about 10 minutes then settle down for a nice rest. With all their energy spent it’s the perfect opportunity to guide them into the carrier.
It’s a good practice to keep meals on the lighter side before a big day of travel. The fear and anxiety often churn up a cats stomach pretty good and too much food can make things worse.
Motion sickness is super common in cats. The stress of being in the car is a lot to handle, especially if they’ve only been in a car once or twice. Here are the symptoms to keep an eye out for:
- excessive vocalization (loud meowing or howling)
- pacing and restlessness
- excessive licking of lips
- excessive drooling
- lethargy or inactivity
The best way to combat motion sickness is repetition. The more your cat is in the car the less they’ll care. For a more short-term solution you can ask your vet about motion sickness medication.
Use Your Voice
This is perhaps the easiest and best way to calm down your cat in the car. The sudden change of environment, the foreign smells, the moving car- you are the only constant in this scenario. Make sure your cat knows that you’re there and you’re calm. Being vocal will help drag them back to reality. Speak softly and use a gentle, soothing tone.
Touch Your Cat
Most cats are soothed by touch. Use this to your advantage! Periodically stick your fingers through the grate and give your little furball some pets; or just let them rub against you.
Make your cat forget they are out of their element. They trust you and will be filled with reassurance by the sound of your voice and feel of your gentle fingers.
Control What They See
Your cat is experiencing a million new things being in the car with you. Naturally, all this outside stimuli can be extremely overwhelming and stressful. Depending on your cat, increasing or decreasing how much they can see out of the carrier can really help.
Some cats might prefer to sit in the back seat quietly with a blanket over their carrier. Others may like to face the window and curiously study the dozens of cars whizzing past. Still others may want to see only one thing- you.
As we’ve established, you are the constant here. Their rock. The only thing that is familiar in this crazy new world. If just talking and touch your cat isn’t doing the trick, position the crate in such a way so they can see you too. This goes double if your kitty had a rough childhood or was abandoned at a young age. Don’t let their trust issues stress them out even more.
Use Medicine to Calm a Cat
Some cat parents find that their furry children flat out refuse to relax. Their cats will pant or cry or even hyperventilate. No matter what they do they just can’t make their cat happy during a car ride.
It’s at this point that you’ll want to consider a cat sedative. There are a few different options here so we’ll quickly go over them.
Benadryl is sometimes used as a calming aid for cats, although if you go this route use extreme caution. It works wonders for cat sedation but if you get the dose wrong there could be trouble. As with everything not prescribed, check with your veterinarian before administering to your cat.
If you’re looking for a natural solution you can try hops. Don’t dump lager into your cats water bowl though! The dried flowers are better for the liver and are more effective anyway. If you think you’ll need something stronger then you can see what your vet suggests. Some cats need something as strong as Xanax to knock them out; it just depends on the cat.
Take it Slow
This is probably obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway: drive carefully. Unless there are cops after you, in which case you have bigger problems.
But seriously- slow. It isn’t a race. Leave with plenty of time to spare so if you do run into traffic you don’t have to sweat it. No road rage either. Your cat is feeding off of your vibes even more than usual, so keep a cool head. If you fly off the handle then expect them to follow suit.
Manage the Car’s Environment
In addition to bringing familiar smells to the carrier, bringing them to the car is a great trick too. Having toys and blankets strewn throughout the car is reassuring to your cat. The sight and smell of those familiar objects gives a sweet reminder of your furball’s home turf.
Regulate the temperature depending on the weather. Use the heat and A/C as appropriate to keep your cat right in their comfort zone.
Now this last thing some people swear by. I haven’t personally seen it work but every cat is different and I guess it can’t hurt.
Classical music. Many cat parent’s swear it mollifies their cat almost instantly. What have you got to lose? Try out different genres and see if your kitty has a refined taste in music. Although it’s entirely possible they just want to hear your voice. Equally likely is their preference to sulk in silence. Trial and error is the only way to find out.
Frequently Asked Questions
How big should a cat carrier be?
About 1 1/2x the size of your cat. If your cat can turn around, stand up and lay down comfortably, then it’s probably big enough. Don’t go too big with the carrier though- cats like their cozy spaces. If the cage is too cavernous it will only compound your cat’s anxiety.
What can I give my cat for a long car ride?
There are both natural and synthetic sedatives for calming cats during a car trip. Sedatives are an easy and potent way to keep your cat happy and calm. Benadryl, chamomile, hops and products such as Bach Rescue Remedy work great as cat sedatives. Make sure to consult your vet before using over the counter prescriptions.
Why is my cat panting in the car?
Cats tend to pant when they’re stressed, anxious, overheated or after serious exercise. Since cats are generally uncomfortable in the car this is totally normal. However, if you notice your cat panting outside of these circumstances there could be an underlying medical issue. Contact your vet immediately.