(The Pet Life “Collapsable 360 Vista View Dog Crate” that was fantastic for transporting my cat across the country, as seen here in a hotel, and she now uses as a cat house in my apartment).
Making a cross-country trip gets twice as complicated when transporting pets. When I began planning my move this year from Virginia to Colorado, I realized that suddenly every step along the way now had a new caveat to it that would require more thought and strategy since my cat would be with me.
My tabby cat has never been outdoors (this is how she was when I adopted her and how she has lived with me). Her only experience in a car has been short trips to the vet’s office in a small carrier. She’s never felt colder temperatures than house temperatures. I tried to put myself in her shoes (or paws, if you will) to sensitize myself to how confusing and anxious a trip of this magnitude could be for her – and how to make her life (and thus mine) easier during the trip.
Step 1: Call Your Vet and Research the Web
Much like people, every animal is different. Personalities, experiences and other factors can make driving the same trip unique to each pet. So I suggest starting with your vet. They’ve been asked numerous times already about transporting animals and they also can anticipate your animal’s needs likely better than you can.
My vet advised me to never drug an animal unless there was no other choice. He then proceeded to advise that the majority of pets, given the proper amount of space and comfort, would eventually settle into a groove for a long trip on their own.
Also, I did find several postings online from other pet owners (mostly dog owners) who I researched for how to accommodate a cat for a long trip. I looked at pictures they posted of the carriers they used, items they put in with the pet and if I was lucky, what their vehicles looked like with the animal situated.
Step 2: Start Researching Carriers/Crates Well in Advance
I tried to think back to my earliest memory as a kid being toted along to my grandmother’s house. Driving to her place required a stomach-churning trip through a river gorge and 2+ hours of mountain highways. My sister and I used every trick in the book to not get carsick (i.e. watch the middle lines, look out the windshield not the windows, etc.). But I remember what always made the trip better was when our parents drove our family Suburban with the seats laid down in the back and we could make a play space to take our attention during the worst of it. (Mind you this way back in the day when having everyone belted all the time was not as much of a focus as it is now).
For my cat, I wanted to give her the benefit of having as much space as was possible to at least sit up right, turn around and step into a litter pan if she needed to. I also had to keep in mind that this is a container, with her weight, the weight of some litter and other items, I would have to haul in and out of hotels too (so it had to be something I could muscle to through doors).
I am glad I started looking several weeks in advance, as it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Most of the travel crates/carriers are either for animals to stay lying down in, or they are too big to carry for any distance (think hotel parking lots, lobby, hallways, etc.). I took 2-3 weeks to settle on my first purchase, realize it was heavier than I expected, returned it and then finally pick the crate I ultimately went with. If you are planning a cross-country move, your time available to spend perusing the Internet for pet supplies will be minimal, so start in advance.
Step 3: Give Your Pet Time to Acclimate to the Crate/Carrier Pre-Trip
My cat knows: Crate = vet. You just need to jingle the hinge on her prior crate from another room and she is GONE. So I brought home the crate I decided on and left it open and full of her toys for a solid week before I would be moving to let her get used to seeing it.
I was floored when I opened up the front canvas and pinned it to the top the first day and she waltzed right in and happily claimed her new digs. As it turned out, she especially enjoyed hopping on top of the carrier and laying there hammock-style while I packed up my house like a mad woman.
Step 4: If It’s Large, Practice Handling the Crate
I was not prepared for how tired I would be each night when I had to stop and check into a hotel. I knew I’d be beat, but I was exhausted. The idea of having to heft her carrier with her in it and walk it through the parking lot, through the lobby, down a hallway, into an elevator and down another hallway proved herculean. I tried to book rooms close to the front but most hotels only had a meager few pet-friendly rooms.
I was driving all day long with my SUV filled to the brim with the essentials I’d need until my moving truck arrived and those few items I didn’t trust the movers with. This meant, that each hotel I checked into, I had to make 3-4 wobbly trips to the car for those items first, and then finish up only when the cat was the final trip to make.
Oh and my cat is a talker. Meaning you leave her in a strange place alone and she will meow, no howl, until you come back. I really didn’t have anything left in me each night to deal with worrying if my pet was causing problems in hotel rooms, so I made her the final trip every time checking in, and the first trip to the car checking out.
Step 5: Plan for the Unexpected
My cat was a stellar traveller after the first 30 minutes of driving. Pulling out of my old house was emotional and traumatic enough for me, but realizing my cat was howling every 3 seconds as I hit the road was of zero comfort as I contemplated the nearly 30 hours remaining drive time. As her meows got fewer, and we hit a few curves, the realization that feeding her a snack just prior to leaving was a horrible mistake. Yep. She tossed her kitty cookies all over the fuzzy carpet of her brand new carrier. And it smelled lovely.
I hadn’t expected to have to pull over and clean up quite a scene of cat vomit at a gas station. But I was able to dash in, buy some paper towels (I didn’t pack these in a handy spot – mistake), and lay down a new carpet of tripled-up paper towels to at least give her a dry spot to make it to the first hotel where I could do a better cleaning job.
I also didn’t plan on my SUV breaking down before I made it to the first hotel stop.
So there I was, stranded with an overheated vehicle, in a mountain gas station, with a cat that was carsick still and in my vehicle with no running air conditioning until a tow truck could arrive and tow us elsewhere. It all worked out in the end, but again, I hadn’t planned for what to do if I broke down (mistake – but really what can you do).
I ultimately ended up in a pet-friendly hotel for 3 days where the car dealer I was towed to couldn’t fix my SUV and I had to buy a new one (that’s a blog post for another day). I also didn’t think about being stuck there not able to leave my talkative cat alone in the room to get myself meals either (also hotel policy to not leave a pet alone). Fortunately a family member arrived to help me out during this time, but it was another unexpected situation I didn’t see coming.
Obviously, a lot can happen on a large-scale trip like moving across the country. It pays to think through the unexpected when your pet is depending on you to take care of them and maintain your own sanity too.
Step 6: You’ve Planned so Off You Go!
If you’ve tried your best to plan all of the above, it’s time to hit the road and just push through. You can’t accommodate every eventuality, but if you’ve strategized as best you can per the above, I’d like to think I and you have done a decent job preparing.
I realized, thankfully, that once we got through the worst of that first day, my cat settled into a type of “kitty zombie state”. She barely ate and barely drank anything, but slept or stared aimlessly for the rest of the 2 days of driving. She was OK, but it was her way of zoning out and dealing with the trip. Once we arrived, it took her a good week to start eating and drinking normally again, but she was just fine.
- Music – You may be OK with jamming out to your wicked playlist but remember your pet’s sensitive hearing (and especially in the close quarters of a vehicle).
- Heat/Air – Take into account where the vents are pointing and where your pet is.
- Sun – Keep a light piece of fabric handy for if the sun hits your pet directly.
- Litter – I found those aluminum foil casserole dishes in grocery stores were perfect for a disposable litter box. To keep it from sliding around, I placed a shallow cardboard box on its side (tall enough the cat could crouch in it) and snugged the aluminum dish into it. This also created some separation for the cat to do her business in away from the rest of her crate space.
- Food/Water – I kept water available to my cat at all times. But I only offered her a light snack here and there to help her keep from eating too much. You know your own pet’s eating schedule so consider that and how much they may need and when during driving time. I also took away her food 30 min before taking her out of the hotel each day to help her keep a settled stomach.
- Toys – My cat never played with her toys during the trip, but I selected her most loved items and placed them in her crate for familiarity.
- Emergency Braking – Take a second and consider where you place your pet in your car. If you had to slam on the brakes, where is the most beneficial spot to place your pet? And remember, your pet, in a hard brake, is not wearing a seat belt and could be horribly injured (or worse) by an air bag too.
- Leveling Seat Surfaces – I found a few beach towels placed under the cat’s crate on the middle seats of my SUV did just find to level out the crate to accommodate the slight incline of the seats.
- In Case Your Pet Bolts – In hindsight, I should have travelled ready with a picture of my cat and a game plan for what I would do if she bolted and I lost her in any given city. It’s probably not a likely incident, but if it happened, what would you do? Food for thought.
I hope this experience helps anyone else out there thinking of traveling with a furry friend. Happy trails!