Most cats are not particularly happy travellers – they are usually bonded strongly to their own territory and feel very vulnerable off home ground.
The rewards of staying with the family 'pack' or the potential of exploring or walking somewhere new at the end of the journey do not excite the average feline in the same way as its canine cousins.
If you wish to take your cat on a train/car or air journey you will have to ensure it is safely and comfortably secure in an appropriate carrier and is kept confined at the end of the journey, at least until it has become bonded to the new territory.
Of course you get the occasional cat which travels frequently with its owner and does not panic or run off in a new environment, however, these are few and far between.
Travelling by car
It can be very dangerous to have a cat loose in the car – not only could it cause an accident by becoming entangled with the driver, but if a window or door was opened or an accident occurred, the cat could escape and become lost.
You will need to invest in a carrier which is strong and easy to clean should the cat urinate or defecate or become sick during the journey. There are a wide range to choose from – wicker, solid plastic, fibre-glass, plastic-coated wire mesh etc. It is best to avoid the cardboard or very cheap, light plastic boxes which are suitable for short journeys or very temporary confinement but would not be strong enough for longer periods, especially if they became wet. See our information on how to choose and use a cat carrier.
Also consider the weather you will be travelling in – both your present situation and the likely temperature of your destination. If it is likely to be very hot then use a basket which allows a good air flow through – if it is going to be cold then one which can provide draft-free warmth while still allowing a good air flow would be useful. If your car journey is going to lead to another type of travel, eg, in a plane, then you need to find out the type of carrier which the airline prefers or demands (see later).
If you have a large metal pen (such as those used for a dog when in the back of the car) then you may wish to put your cat in this, however, do bear in mind that larger is not necessarily better when it comes to the cat feeling safe and secure. Cats quite like to sit in a small space and are unlikely to move around a great deal anyway. If you are using a larger crate which fits in the back of the car you will still need a small carrier which can be carried to and from the car to keep the cat safe at either ends of the journey. If you are using a large crate you may be able to provide the cat with a litter tray although it is unlikely that it will actually use it during the journey. It may be better to line the carrier well with newspaper and absorbent cloth in case an accident happens, and take some spare familiar-smelling bedding if you need to replace it.
Place the carrier where it will be secure if you have to brake suddenly but where it has a good air flow – ie, not underneath lots of other luggage in the back of the car. Do not put the cat in the boot and take care with the rear of hatchbacks – ventilation may be poor and the cat may overheat. You can secure the carrier behind one of the front seats or use the seat belt to make sure it is held securely on the seat. The cat may meow initially or even throughout the whole journey – speak calmly and reassuringly to it but resist letting it out of its carrier. The noise will probably drive you mad but the cat is unlikely to be suffering; just voicing its dislike of the situation! Eventually the constant motion and noise of the car will probably induce it to sleep or at least to settle down.
Check the cat regularly, especially if the weather is hot – don't underestimate how rapidly the temperature inside a car can rise - bear this in mind if you stop for a refreshment break and leave the cat in the car. Put the car in the shade and leave windows open – if it is very hot take a picnic and eat it nearby with the cat secure in its carrier outside the car or with all the doors open. Heat-stroke can be a killer.
Travelling by train
Obviously if you are travelling by train you will need a very secure carrier which the cat cannot possibly escape from, but one which is also light enough to carry. You may want one with a solid base in case the cat urinates so that it does not soil the railway carriage. Line it with absorbent paper and material and take spare bedding too. You will probably be able to keep the cat in its carrier on your lap depending on the type of train and the space available.
Travelling by air
If you intend to travel by plane with your cat then you need to plan well ahead. You may have a choice of airlines and how they can transport your cat may influence your choice. Most airlines do not allow cats to travel with their owners and have to travel in a special part of the hold which is heated and pressurised.
Most cats do travel well but it is not recommended to send a pregnant cat or kittens under three months old. They also note that not all flights are licensed to carry animals so the cat may have to travel on a different flight to you. If possible get the cat onto a direct flight so that there is no need for it to be disturbed for transfer and prevents any problems associated with waiting around in a very hot or cold country can be avoided. This may also affect the timing of the flight you choose. The International Air Transport Association Standards say a container must be large enough to stand up in and turn around with ease – check with individual airlines on what they need.
Using the carrier
For cats the production of a carrier usually means a trip to the veterinary surgery so they are often not too keen to get into it! Take time to let the cat become accustomed to the carrier or travel crate well before the journey. Make it a pleasant place to be – feed the cat treats inside it and make a cosy bed of familiar smelling bedding which can be used on the journey. Leave the door open and encourage the cat to go in and out and to sleep in it. Then, when it comes to the actual journey, the cat is at least familiar with its immediate environment.
If you have more than one cat it is better to give them separate carriers which allows better flow through of air, more room and less chance of overheating. Even the best of friends may become stressed during a journey and behave in an uncharacteristic way such as becoming agitated with each other; separate carriers will prevent any injury. If they can at least see and hear each other they may be comforted by that.
Withhold food for about four to five hours before the journey in case the cat is sick while travelling. Offer water up to the time you leave and again during the journey if possible. You can buy bowls which attach to cages so they are not spilled by the cat during the journey and are easy to fill without opening the cage should there be a delay during the journey.
Arriving at your destination
When you arrive place the cat in one room and make sure it is secure, comfortable and cannot escape. Offer water and a little food although it may not be interested in eating until it settles in a little more. Do not let the cat go outside for at least a week and make sure it is identifiable if lost. Withhold food for about 12 hours so that the cat is hungry and comes back to you for food when you call. Gradually let it explore further and use food to ensure it does not go too far and returns for regular meals.
Use of sedatives
If you know your cat is a bad traveller and has previously been sick on a journey it is worth talking to your vet about giving a tranquilliser. However, some cats actually become more agitated with tranquillisers so it may be worth testing this out before the actual journey. If the cat is going into the hold of an aeroplane tranquillisers may not be recommended as drugs can alter the way cats adjust to temperature changes. Cats may also recover from the journey more quickly if not sedated.
Travelling outside your own country
Remember to check all the regulations if you are taking your cat from one country to another. Preventive health requirements such as rabies vaccination (or even quarantine) will vary, as will those for worm/flea treatment etc. Failure to comply may mean the cat not permitted to continue with the journey and it may be at greater risk of catching diseases it is not familiar with.