The Cat Owner’s Guide To Traveling

Families with pets are faced with difficult decisions during the holidays: Should the pets be boarded at a kennel or veterinary hospital, should a housesitter be hired, or should the cat join you? Here are some questions – and answers – that can guide your decision about whether to take your cat along or leave him behind.

Would your cat ultimately be better off in a familiar (but relatively empty) home, or with his or her family in unfamiliar, and perhaps stressful, surroundings?
As a general rule, cats are probably better off in their own homes with familiar litter boxes, food bowls and resting spots. A housesitter should be enlisted to clean the litter boxes and refill food and water bowls daily. Alternatively, assuming cats need no medication or special care, a neighbor can do the job while keeping lights and radios tuned to the cat’s familiar schedule.

Have you familiarized yourself with airline regulations?
If you’re flying with a cat, ask your airline for permission to carry your pet in the cabin with you (carriers must be small enough to fit under the seat). Prior consent is important, because most airlines allow only one pet per cabin. They also charge a fee for that priviledge. Be sure to question the airline carefully about regulations and check-in requirements. Cats should ideally be taken only on direct flights.

Is your cat accustomed to the crate or pet carrier?
It is generally unwise to wait until the last minute to introduce an animal to a crate – many will react with acute anxiety and distress. When cats are upset enough they may also urinate or defecate, further aggravating both their distress and yours. If you’re planning a trip by airplane or by car, take several weeks to introduce the crate. Place it, lined with towels or blankets and with the door open, in a frequently visited area of the home. Offer food or catnip treats inside the crate. Airline-type plastic carriers can be disassembled (the top removed) at first, inviting curious pets to jump right in. The longer the period of introduction to a carrier, the more comfortable your cat will be.

Would your cat benefit from a sedative during the trip?
With the help of your veterinarian, it helps to weigh both the costs and benefits of medication. Consider your pet’s general health and history of severe anxiety during travel (and for those with anxiety, perhaps reconsider leaving the cat at home with a reliable housesitter). Pet owners are often surprised to hear that pets can do just fine without a tranquilizer. Consider also that sedation can persist considerably longer than the trip. A drive or flight of just one or two hours, for example, may not require heavy tranquilization. It may be helpful to have a "trial run" of a medication while you are home with your pet over the weekend. For certain cats and certain stressful situations, medication may ease travel – for others, it is unnecessary.

What will your destination be like for your cat?
If you will be staying at pet-friendly hotels, consider (for cats) the room and its size, safety (windows should not be opened, and housekeeping staff must be trusted in your absence), and whether your pet will have to be crated while you are out of the hotel. If you will be staying at someone’s home, probably the most important consideration is the resident dog or cat. Cats, in particular, can be quite distressed by the presence of unfamiliar cats – one consequence of which might be long-term inappropriate urination and defecation.

Traveling with your pet can be fun, but its details may be daunting. Armed with information, your family can make an educated decision that will be best for everyone concerned – including your cat.