Surviving A Cross-Country Drive With Cats

In 2017 I made a life-changing decision to leave the San Francisco Bay Area and move across the country to Raleigh, North Carolina.

Naturally, figuring out how to uproot my life and get everything across the country caused many sleepless nights.

Figuring out how to get my two cats, Charlie and Clancy, from California to North Carolina was the challenge that I worried the most about.

FLYING OR DRIVING?

I considered flying across the country with my Boys: however, this was just about the same time as the latest round of incidents that caused airlines to restrict pets flying in the cabin which is the ONLY way my cats will fly. My Boys are my family and there is no way I will transport them where I can’t monitor them myself, so putting my furkids in a cargo hold is a hard no for me.

As attractive as the idea of subjecting them to just one day of travel was, the “cons” were significant:

Airlines generally have a one pet per passenger rule. Having to buy an additional ticket so I can bring both cats together was cost-prohibitive.

There is only one direct flight between the Bay Area and Raleigh and it is always packed (and it’s on an airline that I long ago vowed to never fly again). Having to change planes introduced too many possibilities for something to go wrong during the trip, from weather issues causing a missed connection requiring rebooking to getting bumped from an overbooked flight (especially changing planes from a 737 to a commuter jet).

Getting my car across the country. Do I drive the car, then fly back and pick up my cats? Do I fly them out, then leave them with a sitter for a week while I come back for my car?

In the end I decided that the three of us would stick together for the entire move.

A week in the car with two cats. Who hate car trips.

Yay?

If you’re planning a long-distance move with a cat (or two), you’re probably wondering the same thing I was: How can I pull this off without losing my mind?

With a lot of planning (and patience throughout the process), it is possible to bring your cats on the road with you and maintain your sanity.

FIRST THINGS FIRST: VISIT THE V-E-T

The very first thing you should do is consult with your cat’s veterinarian. If you haven’t taken kitty in for his check-up recently, it’s a good idea to schedule a visit. You want to make sure that your cat is healthy enough to make a road trip, or get advice from the vet about accommodating a special needs kitty.

You will also need to make sure your cat’s vaccinations are up to date: the state you are relocating to may require documentation showing your cat is vaccinated for rabies. This is also a good time to stock up on flea treatment.

TAG THAT KITTY

If your cat isn’t chipped, do not leave the vet’s office without one (and make sure you register it). If your cat is microchipped have your vet check to make sure the chip is still readable. Once you get home, make sure the information in the registry–especially your phone number–is up to date.

Since my cats are indoor-only neither of them wore collars. However, anything can happen on the road and not every vet or shelter is equipped with a microchip reader, so I wanted them to have an extra level of identification.

We had tried breakaway collars in the past with limited success (including having a cat get her lower jaw caught in the collar). This time I went with Beastie Bands. They are made of neoprene (wetsuit material), are lightweight, and can stretch enough that a cat can escape if the collar gets tangled on something (each of the Boys has escaped the collar during particularly rambunctious wrestling matches). I put them on my cats about 12 weeks prior to our trip so they would have time to get used to wearing a collar.

Another issue we had with collars in the past was dangling tag(s) that bothered the cats, especially when they eat and drink. I searched online and found Boomerang tags. Boomerang has a tag design that doesn’t hang and it slides onto the collar. They offer a set that includes the Boomerang collar tag and Beastie Band, so I ordered a set for Charlie and Clancy. These collars are lightweight enough that I have kept them on months after our move, and the cats don’t mind them at all.

CARRIERS: JUST DO IT

It should go without saying that safety is the top priority. Put your cat in a sturdy carrier and secure the carrier in the car.

Yes, I know people who travel with their cats and let them roam free in the car on the road. They make it sound so bucolic: Li’l Floof enjoys the scenery and then settles down on a lap and sleeps for the rest of the trip.

I also know Clancy and Charlie well enough to know that, if they’re loose in the car, there’s a 100% chance that both of them will figure out how to get up inside the dashboard in about two minutes. Also, we were facing 3,000 miles of unpredictable drivers. There was no question that they would be riding in carriers, primarily for their safety but maybe a little bit because I didn’t want to have to disassemble my car to pry them out of a hiding place.

I had already budgeted for new carriers when I was considering flying them to North Carolina but, even though they would be riding in the car, I decided to buy new ones anyway. I bought them about four months before the trip and kept them open in the living room and bedroom for the remainder of our time in the old apartment. I designated these carriers for ONLY the road trip: I kept their old carriers for the vet visits, that way the new carriers would not have an association with going to the vet (I donated the old carriers to the local shelter when we moved).

If new carriers are not in your budget, you can scrub out their regular carriers after their last vet checkup and then spritz the inside with a pheromone spray.

DRUGS. YAY OR NAY?

I struggled with this question as I planned our cross-country move. There are solid arguments for either option. One school of thought is that you don’t want to drug your pet because if he goes into physical distress, the symptoms could be masked by the drugs and you might not realize your cat is in distress until it becomes an emergency. On the other hand, when you have an anxious cat, providing a sedative may help reduce his car anxiety.

Charlie would get so anxious in the car that he’d hyperventilate, even on quick trips to the vet’s office (which was less than 10 minutes from home). As much as I’m philosophically anti-drug, if there was even a small chance that a sedative would relax him so he wasn’t panting for 3,000 miles, I would get on board in a heartbeat.

So bring this up with your veterinarian. If your cat tends to do all right in the car (a bit of yowling, but no panting or other signs of distress), he should be fine without drugs.

Your vet may tell you to avoid drugging your cat if he has a medical condition that could be exacerbated by providing sedatives or is taking medication that could cause a bad reaction with sedatives.

It is also important to consider existing medical issues if you want to use herbal tinctures, such as Jackson Galaxy’s Stress Stopper or Scaredy Cat blend or Rescue Remedy. Please check with your vet before administering these so you and your cat aren’t surprised by any reactions or bad drug interactions.

If you decide that drugs are necessary, you should consider administering the first dose and do a test trip BEFORE you begin your long drive. You don’t want to be hundreds of miles away from your vet’s office before you discover that your cat reacts poorly to the drug. A test trip will let you assess how how well the sedative works (or doesn’t) and your vet can make any needed adjustments before you hit the road for real.

Clancy and Charlie reacted a little differently to the sedative. Once the drugs got into Clancy’s system he was very relaxed, almost wet-noodle-like. Charlie was not as chill, however, I only had to chase him around the apartment a couple of times to wrangle him into his carrier (without drugs this is usually a 15–20 minute process that usually costs me some flesh and blood). Both did well on the test drive: Charlie got a little vocal about 30 minutes in but he wasn’t panting or showing any sign of distress, which was a HUGE victory. Clancy mostly napped.

On our actual trip, I sedated Charlie and Clancy only for the first two days. The first day it went well: I gave them their sedative in pill pockets when we woke up so they would have time to take effect while I showered and loaded the car.

The second morning did not go so well: both of them had the pill pockets figured out and would not touch them, even without a pill inside. (Several months later they still refused empty pill pockets so I tossed the package.) Plan B was the “pry open the mouth and shove the pill in” method. After 30–40 minutes of wrestling both cats, it’s possible that I managed to get one pill in Charlie. I thought I had successfully administered one to Clancy, but found three partially-disintegrated pills on my final sweep of the room before we left.

The good news was both of them did well enough on the drive that day that I decided that trying to pill them was more stress than it was worth. They both handled the remaining car trips like champions.

A PLACE TO REST

We pet parents are fortunate to be living in an age where the hospitality industry agrees that our furkids are family: many hotels and AirBnB rentals are pet-friendly. However, you should still do your research to be sure the place you want to rest for the night is specifically cat-friendly.

The Automobile Association of America (AAA) is a great resource for planning travel with your pets. If you have pets and enjoy road trips, I highly recommend their Traveling With Your Pets guide. The guide lists pet-friendly accommodations and restaurants in hundreds of cities throughout the United States.

“Traveling With Your Pet” from AAA is a great resource for finding pet-friendly stops on your road trip.

You can also plan your drive using their TripTik service online, or you can go to your local AAA office and ask them to help you create a TripTik (membership is not required to use this service).

I used TripTik to plan out each day’s drive. As I plotted out our course, I aimed to keep drive times between 6–8 hours since that seemed like it would be our limit. Given the time of year we were traveling (mid-winter), I chose to travel along I-40: it was a direct route and–I hoped–far enough south that we wouldn’t encounter bad weather.

Once the route was wire-framed, I could figure out where we were going to sleep each night. Here is where you need to research accommodations: pet-friendly is not necessarily the same as cat-friendly.

I’m not a person who needs origami washcloths and truffles on my pillow: I just want a place for us to sleep that’s reasonably safe and bedbug-free. AirBnB can be an affordable option and you may find places that are cat-friendly; however I decided against it due to my own discomfort in being in someone else’s home–especially with two cats who are going to be stressed out. Cats are champion hide-and-seek players and the possibility of having to pull a stranger’s room apart during a round of Crouching Furkid-Hidden Tabby did not appeal to me.

I had a budget of around $100/night, and found that LaQuinta Inn was our best option. It is a cat-friendly chain and they don’t charge an additional pet fee.

I had to make an adjustment to my original itinerary when I tried to find accommodation in Asheville, NC that fit my budget. There wasn’t a LaQuinta in Asheville, but there were pet-friendly places listed in the AAA guide that came close to my budget. However, when I checked the hotel websites, most of them only allowed dogs. I found one large national hotel chain that, at $130, was a bit over my budget but it allowed cats so I set up a reservation for a pet-friendly room. It was only after I confirmed the reservation that the hotel disclosed the pet fee (it wasn’t in the quote for the room) of $45 PER PET. I cancelled the reservation and back-tracked us to Knoxville, TN, since it had a LaQuinta Inn.

I’m going to gripe here for a moment: First of all, people who aren’t traveling with pets generally won’t request a pet-friendly room. Therefore, anyone requesting such a room should be quoted a rate UP FRONT that includes any additional pet fee. Second, there was no freaking way I was paying an extra $90 for one night, especially when my cats and I don’t require $90 worth of clean-up (I was hauling a hand-vacuum AND a bottle of Nature’s Miracle on the trip, so I had their clean-up covered).

Lesson: always do your research! The LAST thing you want to have happen after a long day on the road is to find out that the pet-friendly hotel you reserved doesn’t allow cats. The second-last thing you want is to be hit with a surprise pet fee.

Note: I am not employed by LaQuinta and I don’t get anything for recommending them, but I had a great experience with them. I only experienced one problem with the accommodation in Albuquerque, where it took a few tries to find a room where the box springs weren’t ripped open. For the most part, though, LaQuinta staff across the country were very cat-friendly, knew most of the places where cats hide in the rooms, and were always willing to help flip mattresses or move furniture to retrieve a cat.

PACKING FOR THE TRIP

Food: Bring enough of their food to cover the time on the road, plus a few extra days (we had a six-day trip planned and I packed ten days’ worth of food). If something happens and your travel is extended, you don’t want to be scrambling to buy food on the road, especially if your cat is on a prescription diet that must be purchased from a veterinarian’s office. Be sure to include their favorite treats!

Water: Cats can be frustratingly finicky and will often shun something that they have every day if it suddenly tastes different to them. Water is an often overlooked “comfort” for cats, but is critical for their health so you don’t want them to be put off by water that tastes funky to them.

Before we left California, I filled a 2-gallon jug with water from home for drinking and for their food preparation (I add water to their canned food). Two gallons was enough for the trip plus a few days of transition to Raleigh water. It was a taste of “home” for them.

Dishes: If your cat will use them, paper dishes/bowls will make your life a LOT easier. Try giving them a few meals with the paper bowls before the trip to help them adjust to them. If you have the room, it’s never a bad idea to have their regular dishes handy, just in case they need that touch of home along the way.

Toys: Bring a baggie with some of your cat’s favorite toys. Include a favorite interactive/wand toy to help you entice your kitty out of hiding.

Medication: Refill any prescriptions for medications your cat takes before you move. That way you will have a full supply when you leave and won’t be scrambling to find a vet in your new city to authorize a refill.

Litter/litter box: Your cat is going to be spending the next several days in many unfamiliar territories. Their litter may be the most important component in helping your cat handle these changes. Although it’s tempting to want to use brand-new litter, your cat will feel a lot more comfortable if he has litter with his scent in it. So, as tempting as it is to use fresh litter, make that litter change two or three days before you leave so your cat has a chance to work his scent into it.

I was able to make cargo space to carry one of their regular litter boxes, so I scrubbed it thoroughly and brought it for the new home. For the trip, though, I bought a smaller, disposable box that I double-bagged in garbage bags between stops.

Carriers: This is another place you don’t want to skimp on comfort. Put their favorite blankets and beds inside the carrier. Unless the blanket/bedding has been soiled, resist the temptation to wash it immediately before leaving as your cat will feel more comfortable with his scent on it.

If your cat is prone to accidents in the carrier, line the carrier with pee pads and bring along extra garbage bags and non-toxic litter box wipes to help with roadside cleanup (you can give the carrier a thorough scrub when you stop for the night).

Pheromone spray: Spray the inside of the carriers and the back seat of the car before your first drive and again every couple of days during the trip. You might also spray the hotel room before you let the cat out of his carrier, and spray around your new home when you arrive.

Paperwork: Bring your cat’s rabies certificate and have their microchip number and contact information for the chip registrars.

Flea treatment: If you can, it’s a good idea to give your cat a flea treatment a couple of days before you leave.

ON THE ROAD

Feeding and medication: You should withhold food and water at least two to three hours before you leave to avoid car sickness and minimize the chances of accidents in the carrier. If you are sedating your cats you should give them their pills two hours before you leave (or follow the instructions on the pill bottle).

Safety and comfort: Once you have the car loaded and you’re about to close up the old house, spray the pheromone spray in the back seat of the car (or whatever part of the car they will be traveling in).

If you weren’t in the habit of buckling the cat carriers into the car before, get into this habit now. On a long trip there are just too many unknowns and too many unpredictable drivers. You don’t want cat carriers launching out of the back seat if you have to stop suddenly or if your car gets hit.

And you’re off! If you’ve done a practice trip (or two) with your cats, you have a good idea of what to expect from them in the car (and they will now have the experience of a car trip that does NOT end up at a vet’s office).

With my Boys, I knew from our previous trip that they will be zonked out for at least 30 minutes. Around that mark Charlie would usually perk up and start meowing and Clancy would join in soon after. The two of them would have a conversation for several minutes and then they would go quiet for a while.

If your cats do the same, you can play some music softly (cats’ ears are sensitive so, unless your cat prefers it, don’t crank the death metal to 11). There are albums available online that claim to be music for relaxing cats. I don’t know if the music relaxed Charlie and Clancy but it did keep me from stressing out over their occasional vocal outbursts.

Rest and refreshment for YOU: If you are traveling solo with your pets, make sure you’ve packed plenty of snacks and water for yourself to minimize stops along the way. If you are traveling in the winter excessive heat isn’t an issue, but in the summer you don’t want to have to choose between securing your car or roasting your kitties if you need to stop for refreshments.

Even if you find pet-friendly restaurants along the way, getting the cat carriers out and buckling them back in again is time-consuming.

Stopping for the night: When you reach your lodging, keep the cats in their carriers until you’ve finished unloading the car AND put away any luggage carts and made sure that any open windows are closed.

I made the mistake of wanting to get my Boys out of their carriers and give them access to their litter box as quickly as possible: I’d set up the litter box and open the carriers in the bathroom and close the door while I unloaded the car. Charlie happens to be a master at opening doors, especially when he’s determined to patrol the room for better places to hide. If you have another human traveling companion, you can let the cats out and have one person keep an eye on them while the other loads/unloads the car. But if you’re the lone human let the cat yowl in his carrier for a few more minutes.

Dinner time!

WHERE CATS LOVE TO HIDE

You never realize how many nooks and crannies there are in a space until you need to find a cat. Here is a short list of places to look in hotel rooms.

Bathroom:

  • behind toilets
  • in, under, or behind sink fixtures
  • tub/shower

Room area:

  • inside box springs
  • under the bed
  • behind the nightstand (or in it)
  • behind (or in) the dresser; behind the TV
  • in the closet
  • on the window sill behind the curtain (remember to check for open windows — even in the winter — before you let the cat out of the carrier!)

One of the first things I checked as we settled in the hotel room was the box spring. I ran my hand along the exposed area of the springs to check for any holes. If you find holes, you can plug them up with extra bedding or towels, or you might ask the front desk for a different room. Ideally, the bed will be on a platform and not on a frame as this minimizes the area that cats have to rip open the box springs.

The possibility of needing to move furniture is the primary reason why I prefer hotels to an AirBnB. Hotel staff anticipate the need to shift furniture and are generally willing to help (plus they have a good idea of all the places in the room where a cat likes to hide). An AirBnB host may not be as amenable to you moving their stuff around, even when you do your best to put things back.

THIS IS NOT NORMAL

Cats are driven by routine. Consider yourself fortunate if you have a cat that can take change in his stride. Neither of mine are like that. For example, Clancy once started to jump on the sofa at home, only to launch himself into a backflip mid-jump because he saw a different blanket on it. As for Charlie, he tries his best to be a good sport but his face is very easy to read, so I know when he’s feeling upset but trying to put up a brave front.

Even though you will be carting them from place to place for several days, your cat can settle into a sense of normal, if you establish a “road routine”. Our routine looked like this:

Interactive play: While Charlie and Clancy explored the room, I would hold their favorite interactive wand toy to distract them from their desire to immediately hide. This helped them get comfortable in the room and work up a bit of an appetite, while helping me hidey-holes to block.

Mealtime: My cats usually split a large can of food at breakfast and a small can at supper. However, I knew that they would likely be freaked out by the car ride and opted to start with the small can after the first trip. This would minimize waste should they decide they were too upset to eat. At first both Boys made a good start on their canned food — until they heard dogs outside of our room. It took awhile for me to entice them back to their bowls with treats and their favorite kibble.

Settling down for the night: Our established wind-down routine consisted of snuggling the kitties on the bed while I composed blog posts and wrote in my journal. Even if I had left them access to a hiding place or two, they usually felt comfortable enough to cuddle by bedtime.

Mornings: In the morning I fed them first thing (usually some kibble and the small can of food) so they would have time to digest while I showered, had some breakfast, packed, and loaded the car. Our morning routine was more flexible after I stopped sedating them.

As often as possible I added packing to other tasks so there wouldn’t be a sudden burst of packing activity to alarm the cats and drive them into hiding.

I also kept the litter box out until it was time to load the cats into the carriers so they would have access for as long as possible (Clancy still managed to have an accident a few minutes into our trip on Day Two…oh well).

The Boys started getting used to traveling by Day Three and there was less “conversation” from the back seat. The only issue we had (other than Clancy soiling his carrier) was going through mountain ranges. The change in air pressure bothered Clancy and he became more vocal as we climbed through the mountains in Arizona and Tennessee/North Carolina. If you notice a similar change in your cat’s behavior, he may be reacting to the altitude.

WE ALL SURVIVED!

Six days after leaving California we made it to our new home in Raleigh. It wasn’t always easy but, with planning and a lot of extra love to my Boys, we traveled nearly 3,000 miles without killing each other.

Now that they are seasoned travelers, I’m even considering taking them on future trips (maybe not to the mountains, though).

I hope our travel tales will encourage you to take that road trip with your cat!