Cat - Travel Related Problems

Why are cats so reluctant to travel?

Cats are highly attached to territory, and movement away from that secure base is not something that is undertaken lightly! Travelling in cars, planes and other forms of human transport can be a very stressful experience for all concerned, not least because the cat is no longer in control of his own experience. Being confined in a travel container adds insult to injury and the cat’s fear of leaving his familiar surroundings may be compounded by his fear of being enclosed.

My cat seems to get worse with every journey – why doesn’t he get used to it?

For most cats travel is a relatively uncommon experience and there is simply not enough opportunity for any significant level of habituation to be achieved. Unlike dogs, who come to see the car as their passport to a happy run in the field, most cats see travel as an entirely negative experience and the likely destinations of feline transport confirm this. Veterinary surgeries, catteries, new homes and rescue centres are probably the most common destinations for a travelling cat and none of these give much scope for teaching cats that transport is fun!

I want my cat to travel happily in the car – can I teach him?

Cats can certainly learn to enjoy car travel and there are cats who actively seek the inside of the family car and sit purring on the parcel shelf for the entire journey. In most cases these cats have been taught to travel when they were very young and it therefore makes sense to expose kittens to car travel as early as possible. There is a period in your kitten’s life when he is most open to new experiences and when he can come to accept just about anything as being normal, provided that it is fun! Unfortunately this period is very early in kittens and therefore the responsibility for introducing kittens to car travel primarily rests with breeders. Sadly few breeders have the time to ensure that all of their charges are taken for daily trips in the car and realistically it will be the new owners who need to start the introduction process. Even when the primary period of sensitivity to habituation (which runs from between two and seven weeks of age) has passed, short frequent car trips that are pure pleasure will still be very valuable. Although cats on parcel shelves may look cute it is important to ensure that your cat is under control during a journey and in most cases this will mean confining your cat to a carrier of some sort while he is in the car. Teaching your kitten how to respond to the carrier is therefore also important.

My cat reacts badly to the carrying basket – what can I do?

One of the major sources of stress for cats during travel is confinement within a cat carrier and the fact that the carriers are often only produced when your cat needs to go somewhere which is potentially hostile is highly significant. Your cat will very rapidly develop a strong negative association with the carrier, seeing it as a signal of the impending veterinary surgery or cattery. Training kittens to enjoy being in their carrying boxes can make these outings far less traumatic for all involved, but even when cats are older it is possible to break down the negative image of the carrier and work to make it a safe haven rather than a prison cell. The first step is to select the right sort of carrier for your cat and there are a number of things to consider. The ease of cleaning and the way in which you put your cat into, and take him out of, the carrier are important considerations. In addition the level of security that the carrier will offer to your cat during his journey should be taken into account. This will depend on your cat’s personality and some cats who feel far more relaxed when they can see what is going on around them will benefit from the open wire basket design, while those who feel more secure when they are totally hidden from view will be better suited with a solid cat carrier design. Whichever type of cat carrier you purchase the most important step in introducing it to your cat is keeping it on permanent display. If it is hidden away between uses there will be no opportunity for your cat to learn to like it, but if you keep it easily accessible you can increase its positive image by lining it with a warm blanket and putting cat treats inside for your cat to find. The idea is to let your cat explore the carrier without any interference from you so that he learns that being in it is fun. Gradually over time you can then start to close your cat in the carrier for initially very brief and gradually longer periods. Finally introduce movement – carrying, car travel etc – all in a positive way and associated with treats and fun at the end of the 'trip' to help your cat to view the carrier as positive.

I do not have time to introduce my cat to his carrier in this controlled way – what can I do to make the car trip next week more bearable?

If you have not had time to introduce your cat to his carrier it is important to take steps to make the confinement as stress free as possible. Putting familiar bedding inside the carrier, together with a favourite toy, can be useful. The idea is to make the carrier smell familiar and therefore reassure your cat that it is safe. Another possible way in which to increase the familiarity of the carrier is to apply Feliway, which is a synthetic feline facial scent. This scent is believed to help your cat to relax during the journey and, in trials, it has been shown to significantly decrease the signs of stress in cats during car travel. In order to be most effective Feliway must be applied to the interior of the carrier 30 minutes before you need to put your cat inside. (This is important since the smell of the alcohol carrier from the product can disturb some cats and you need to leave time for this to evaporate.)

I am going to have to take my cat by aeroplane when I emigrate – should I get some tablets from the vet to sedate him?

While sedating cats for travel may seem like a sensible option we need to consider that cats can react very differently to sedative medication and selecting the right tablets for any individual is not always easy. You also need to be aware that sedation is unlikely to last for the entire duration of your plane trip and therefore medication should not be used as an alternative to the behaviour therapy approaches discussed above. Your cat will still need to be prepared for its travel by being introduced carefully to the carrier and Feliway should also be used within the carrier to make the journey less stressful. This applies to long car journeys as well as to plane travel. If you feel that medication is necessary, because of the severity of your cat’s reaction to travel, you will need to discuss this in detail with your veterinary surgeon.

Used and/or modified with permission under license. ©Lifelearn, The Penguin House, Castle Riggs, Dunfermline FY11 8SG

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