Q: My 3-year-old rescue cat is terrified of the car. Every time we put her in the car in her carrier, she eliminates her bladder and sometimes even her bowels. My husband is in the Army and we will be moving to a new duty station across the country this fall. I dread this two-day drive because I know how upset my cat gets. What can I do in the coming months to prepare my cat to move and be in the car for so long? Do you recommend a carrier that may ease her anxiety?
A: Your cat isn’t alone. Many cats become stressed when riding in cars, often reacting by eliminating in their carriers. Help your cat adjust to car rides by gradually acclimating her through counter conditioning and desensitizing to car trips weeks before your scheduled move.
1. Buy a hard-sided carrier. A dog carrier large enough for your cat to comfortably stand up, turn around and lie down in, with room for a small litterbox, is ideal for a long road trip.
2. Let your cat sniff it out. Place the open carrier in an area where your cat enjoys hanging out. Make it a fixture in her living area. Get your cat used to the carrier by making it a place she enjoys. Feed her treats and play with her in it.
3. Prep for the trip. Before bringing your cat to the car, place a few layers of puppy pads in the bottom of the carrier. Then, put your cat in the carrier and loosely cover the carrier with a towel.
4. Sit with your cat. After placing the carrier in the back seat of the car, help relax your cat by sitting next to her and talking softly to her. If she is relaxed, give her treats that she adores.
5. Go back home. After a few minutes, take your cat back into the house and let her out of the carrier.
Repeat these sessions throughout the day — gradually increasing each time your cat is in the car. If your cat becomes agitated, slow down, you are pushing her too fast.
When your cat is relaxed and not agitated by the car experience, ask a friend to help you by starting and stopping the car. Repeat, this time hesitating a little longer before turning the car off. You need multiple sessions — increasing the length of time the car stays on each time. Finally, ask your friend to drive your car a short distance. You’ll need many frequent car trips, each trip a little longer then the last.
Be patient and take it slow. Through gradually counter conditioning and desensitizing, your cat will be able to take the long road trip without becoming stressed or anxious.