What to Do if Your Cat Has Travel Anxiety

Serenah McKay
anxious kitty in carrier

Cats are the ultimate homebodies. Just the sight of a cat carrier can send your feline running to her favorite hiding place. So when you have to take your kitty in the car, you want to make the experience as stress-free as possible. Fortunately, simple behavior modification techniques and the use of holistic remedies can help ease your cat's travel anxiety.

Positive Cattitude

Before you try anything else, use behavior modification techniques to help your cat associate his carrier with positive feelings.

At Home

Your first step should be to help your cat develop positive associations with the cat carrier.

  • Keep the crate near your cat's favorite napping or bird-watching spot. Just leave the door open so she can explore it if she wants to. The crate won't seem as scary if it becomes part of her normal environment.
  • Place a favorite toy or blanket inside the crate so she learns to associate good feelings with the crate. Shortly before a trip, add a soft piece of clothing that has your scent on it.
  • When it's time to put your cat in her carrier, approach her calmly. Talk in a gentle, reassuring tone and keep your movements steady and deliberate. If you get tense or nervous, your cat will sense it and decide something unpleasant is afoot.

Hitting the Road

After a few weeks of positive exposure to the carrier, start making short "test runs" to get your cat accustomed to being in her carrier and riding in the car.

  • The carrier needs to go in the back seat of the car for safety reasons. Still, you can place it so your cat can see you. While stopped at a traffic light, turn around and make eye contact with her so she feels reassured. Place your hand at the door so she can rub her face on your fingers.
  • While some cats prefer to see out, others become fearful watching the world rush past the car window. Covering the carrier with a towel or small blanket can help keep your cat calm.

On the Way

  • Try talking or even singing to your kitty throughout the drive. The sound of your voice will comfort him.
  • Create a soothing atmosphere in the car by playing soft, calming music. Try different radio stations or CDs to find a genre that seems to soothe your pet.

Feline Groovy

You can augment these behavior modification techniques with the use of holistic products formulated to relieve stress. Depending on the brand, they may be given orally, applied directly to the cat, or sprayed in the carrier and car.

  • Rescue Remedy for Pets by Bach Flower Remedies is a homeopathic treatment made of spring water in which wildflowers were soaked to impart their energy. Vegetable glycerin is added as a preservative. The energized water helps remove negative emotions. Rub it on your cat's gums, ears, or paws, or add two drops to her drinking water, four times a day. Rescue Remedy for Pets is sold at many natural-foods stores, supermarkets, and online retailers. It comes in 10 and 20-ml bottles, with the larger selling for around $16 online. Reviewers on Amazon.com gave it an average rating of 3.7 out of five stars.
  • Feliway is a synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone cats use to mark their territory, making them feel safe and secure in their environment. It's available in a spray form from veterinarians, pet stores, and online retailers. The company's website recommends spraying eight to 10 pumps inside both the cat carrier and the car. Wait at least 15 minutes for the alcohol in the product to evaporate before introducing your cat to the sprayed area. The effects of the spray last four to five hours. A 20-ml bottle sells for around $15 to $20. Reviewers on Amazon.com gave it an average 3.7 out of five stars.

A Last Resort

If your cat's travel anxiety is severe and doesn't respond to the combination of behavior modification techniques and holistic remedies, talk to your veterinarian about prescription medications. According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), cats should only be sedated for travel if they get so upset that they are in danger of hurting themselves.

Common Cat Sedatives

Dr. Heidi L. Shafford of Vet Anesthesia Specialists recommends the following medications for travel anxiety and other stressors.

  • Gabapentin, an anticonvulsant that has an analgesic effect in cats, given two to three hours before travel
  • Buprenorphine, an opioid drug, given orally 60 to 90 minutes before travel
  • Buprenorphine AND injectable acepromazine, a pet sedative, both given orally 90 minutes to two hours before travel
  • Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety medication, given orally 60 to 90 minutes before travel
Prescribed dosages will vary according to the cat's weight.

In addition, Vetinfo.com suggests treating travel anxiety with the antihistamine diphenhydramine. Marketed as Benadryl, this drug has a sedative effect and can help alleviate motion sickness. Though available over the counter, it should only be used in consultation with a veterinarian.

What You Should Know

According to the AAHA, the risks of sedation include difficulty breathing and balance problems that can lead to an injury. They caution cat owners to:

  • Only use a medication prescribed by a veterinarian.
  • Test the medication on your cat well before your trip.
  • Make sure you can observe her at all times.
  • Never sedate a kitten.

Additionally, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) strongly advises against sedating pets for air travel because of an increased risk of heart and respiratory problems at high altitudes.

Bon Voyage

Your cat may never come to love road trips, but with a little help from you, she can be a calmer and more comfortable travel companion.

What to Do if Your Cat Has Travel Anxiety