How to Make Summer Travel with Your Cats a Breeze, According to a NoVA Vet

Although people often bring dogs to their vacation destinations, cats don’t usually make the journey. But now that more people have the flexibility to work remotely, they may opt to take longer vacations this summer — and it might make more sense to bring their cat than pay for weeks worth of boarding or pet sitting.

How do you bring a cat on vacation? With a little planning, you should be able to make it work, according to Dr. Rachel Colligan, the medical director of VCA Beacon Hill Cat Hospital in Alexandria and a fear-free certified veterinarian. Here are her tips for traveling with your feline friends this summer.

Do your homework before you go — preferably before you book

If you’re not planning to drive to your destination, make sure you have the proper documentation for your cat ahead of time. That means calling the companies operating your transportation (think: airlines and Amtrak) and your accommodations a few months in advance to see what type of notice, fees, or paperwork you’ll need.

If you know you definitely want your cat to travel with you this summer, you may even want to call various travel providers ahead of booking to make sure their policies align with your needs. Some non-cat-friendly destinations or hotels might be off the table.

Get your documents in order

Traveling abroad will definitely require different export documentation to show that your pet is healthy and up-to-date on all required vaccinations. But even some states have their own policies regarding what you need to provide when you fly with a pet. To that end, Colligan suggests consulting this webpage maintained by the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to see what country- and state-specific policies you need to follow.

If you need a travel certificate, you’ll likely need it to be issued within 10 days before travel, Colligan says. But you may want to consult with your vet before you book your travel (or, at least, once you know you want your cat to tag along) to ensure your pet is healthy enough to travel in the first place.

Slowly introduce your cat to its travel-related gear

A month before your trip, leave your cat’s carrier out in common spaces so they can get accused of its presence and not feel afraid of it. But if possible, Colligan says you should actually “always leave your cat carrier out for your cats to get used to the smell of it and have a safe place.” She also suggests placing the carrier near their food to help them feel comfortable.

“If you get them used to being in the carrier and drive around with them in that month in advance, do little short trips, and give them treats,” that can help show your cat that the carrier doesn’t have to be scary, Colligan explained. She added that holding the pet carrier with both arms close to your body will prevent it from swinging around, helping the cat feel safer than if you just use the handles.

Additionally, make sure your cat is wearing a properly fitting harness at all times during travel, and keep their leash close.

Talk to your veterinarian about appropriate sedatives and day-of-travel care

“A lot of cats travel well with mild sedation,” says Colligan. She noted that certain amounts of common human medications, like Benadryl, Dramamine, or Gabapentin, can be used to mellow out a cat in preparation for a car trip. However, you shouldn’t just gauge the proper dosage yourself; considering that older cats tend to have kidney and heart problems that can make it difficult to process such medications, Colligan says you need to consult a veterinarian about the appropriate type and dosage for your pet ahead of time.

And while CBD- or hemp-based products promoting kitty calmness may be available on pet store shelves, Colligan says to avoid them.

While “dogs respond quite well [to such products], cats have a completely different physiology,” she says. “And we haven’t seen any results, and hemp and CBD are quite toxic to some cats depending on their genetic line” because they can’t metabolize the compounds as well.

Regardless of if you decide to request a prescription for a mild sedative, don’t feed your cat the morning of travel. Most cat owners won’t be surprised to learn that their pets are prone to vomiting, an issue that extends to car trips. That’s in part because of how attuned cats are to their inner ear apparatuses, which help them balance, climb, and jump.

“The issue is when [a cat’s] in a pet carrier, that masses with their inner ear,” says Colligan. “Consider like a human being in the tea cup at Disney World, being in a carrier does that to them if they can’t see.” And just like humans, if you’re dizzy on what feels like an amusement park ride with food in your stomach … well, you know what happens.

But getting your cat acclimated to riding in a car or being shuttled around in a pet carrier can help minimize such issues. Colligan also suggests considering compression pet clothing, ear covers, or even just placing cotton balls in their ears to help with mid-ride stress.

Pee time concerns

Pee pads will be your friend on flights. Line sturdy trays with a thin layer of your cat’s usual litter box material, whether it’s wood pellets or commercial gravel. The familiar smell will help them realize this is their temporary bathroom. Colligan recommends a tray that is at least two-and-a-half-times the size of your cat.

If you have a vocal cat, it might seem difficult to determine when it will want to relieve itself. But Colligan says it’s possible to listen for signs it’s time to go.

“They generally use a different tone than typical complaining noises, it’s usually a little higher pitch,” she said. “But it depends on the cat, sometimes it’s lower pitched.” Colligan also says to listen for pawing noises.

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