Cat in a Car on a Long-Distance Road Trip
Cat in a Car on a Long-Distance Road Trip / by Raindom on Pixabay

We Drove Cross-Country With Our Cat (and Nobody Died)

Here's how we survived with our limbs intact.

“Dogs have owners; cats have employees.” So goes the conventional wisdom.

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So, when we decided to take our “boss”, Lizzi, on a three-month road trip of the U.S. East Coast, people told us we were crazy. They weren’t wrong. Frankly, we had no clue how to travel with a cat in a car long distance.

Anyone who’s ever tried taking their feline for even a five-minute car ride knows the struggle. Now, imagine bringing them on a seven-hour drive. It can be … stressful. But, our current living situation left us no choice. So, we prepped and researched and did the best we could to make things as comfortable for everyone as possible.

Fast-forward to the middle of our road trip. We’ve been traveling with our calico kitty for almost two months now, and we’ve learned quite a bit about what works. Here are our favorite tips for keeping your (and your cat’s) sanity on a long-term road trip without anyone ending up in the hospital.

How to Travel with a Cat in a Car Long Distance (with a Litter Box)

Prepare for Your Road Trip with A Dress Rehearsal

Of course, the best way to see how your cat will react on a long distance car ride is to actually put them in the car and go somewhere. It’s one thing to drive them quickly to the vet and back. But, you want to see how they’ll react on a long distance road trip.

Lizzi the Travel Cat Bracing for Another Day on the Road
Lizzi the Travel Cat Bracing for Another Day on the Road

We took a few short trips near home to see how Lizzi dealt with it. Almost any cat will be stressed, especially at first. Lizzi was no different. We let her out of the carrier in the car, she paced, she panted, she cried. She wasn’t happy. But after about an hour, she began to calm down.

Now, she still paces, pants, and cries on travel days but only for a short while. Then, after about 20 minutes, she usually settles down on top of our belongings in the back seat and just chills out. Or, at least tries to chill out.

Shop the Right Cat Carrier or Cat Crate

Most cat owners rarely consider their cat’s carrier or crate. It’s not something most people use often. But, your cat will likely spend more time in and out of it on the road than ever before. Make sure it’s sized properly for your kitty.

We had a soft-sided mesh carrier which worked fine. But, we ultimately switched to this hard-sided carrier with a removable fluffy liner, and Lizzi is much happier with it. We bring it into our Airbnbs and she’ll oftentimes curl up inside of it and sleep.

Of course, depending on your cat’s temperament, you may not need a cat carrier at all. We probably don’t as Lizzi is fine being picked up, held, and carried. But, we opted to use one anyway for the added security of knowing that she won’t get spooked once we stop somewhere and run off.

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Take Your Cat to the Vet

This one’s a no-brainer. Before leaving home, make a stop at your local vet. Make sure your kitty is healthy enough for travel. Shots up to date? Any obvious health signs that should be investigated before hitting the road? Do you need to load up on prescription meds to last the duration of your trip? Any special dietary needs to tend to (e.g. does she need special food that may be hard to find away from home)?

Get Your Cat Microchipped

Aside from occasional breaks on our apartment balcony, Lizzi has been an indoor cat her whole life. I’m not sure she’d last ten minutes outdoors. Either something would eat her (she’s awfully plump) or someone would steal her (she’s far too pretty). Or she’d just plain wander off and get lost.

This last reason is why we paid to have her microchipped. The service is available at most vet offices these days, and it costs around $50. But, the rice-grain-sized chip isn’t even noticeable by her or us. And it’s serious peace of mind on the off-chance she goes missing while we’re on the road.

Lizzi the Travel Cat exploring the bedroom of our tiny house in Sarasota, Florida
Exploring Our Tiny House in Sarasota, Florida

Find Familiar Objects for Your Cat’s Road Trip

Cats are creatures of habit. Making their environment as comfortable and familiar as possible is key. We packed Lizzi’s favorite blankets so we could lay them out at Airbnbs for her to curl up on (this has the added benefit of protecting our hosts’ furniture). Anything — toys, chews, scratching posts, etc. — that already has your cat’s scent on it is a good thing.

Slow Travel: Long Days, Less Days

Cats adapt slowly to new environments. They need to get their bearings, orient themselves, and ease into feeling comfortable with the new smells, sights, and sounds around them. This is especially true when you take your cat on a long distance road trip, and their new world becomes the backseat of a car moving at highway speeds.

For our road trip, we opted for fewer travel days but each day is a bit longer. We found about six hours is Lizzi’s max in the car. Any longer and she gets very stir crazy and irritable. Moving around less also means that we’re staying in each destination a bit longer which gives her more time to acclimate to each new living space along the way.

Keep Calm and Carry … Cat Treats

You may think you know your cat. But stress can make cats behave in (even more) mysterious ways. Lizzi is pretty chill, especially by cat standards. But she hates — hates — being in her cat carrier. And in the car. And especially in her cat carrier in the car.

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Before recent trips to the vet, we discovered half of an all-natural calming treat helped ease her state of a mind. We’re not keen on medicating her to the point where she’s “stoned,” but we’re less keen on her being needlessly terrified for six hours. We found those same treats help relax her for car rides. Especially during the first 1-2 hours where she’s likely to be the most stressed.

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Also, if you have any issues giving your kitty medication, we highly recommend Greenies Feline Pill Pockets. Lizzi needs a pill every day to keep her hyperthyroidism in check, but we could never get her to take it. We tried crushing it up in her wet food, but then we never knew how much of the medication she was actually getting. These Pill Pockets were a game-changer!

Lizzi sleeping after a long travel day
Lizzi the Travel Cat Sleeping Off Another Travel Day (South Carolina)

How to Take a Roadside Lunch Break

We were positive Lizzi would have no interest in food while on the road trip. But, since we have to stop every day to give her her medication, we found it an ideal time to attempt a bit of dry food as well. We’ll typically stop half-way through our travel day to grab some lunch for ourselves. This is when we’ll pour a small serving of dry food into her familiar food dish and let her snack a bit. She rarely eats much when we stop, but something is better than nothing.

Water has been another story. She really won’t drink in the car. But, most of her daily water intake comes from eating wet food (which we give her in the morning and at night), so that doesn’t seem to be an issue.

… and a Pee Break Too

Of course, the most challenging part of long-distance road tripping with a cat is how to handle the dreaded bathroom break. Dogs are easy; the world is their bathroom. But cats need the right setting: the perfect lighting, some votive candles, Yanni music, and, of course, a litter box.

To be honest, we had no idea how we’d handle this in the beginning. We wung it for the first few weeks, and hoped for the best. We figured she doesn’t pee more than 1-2 times a day at home anyway so a few hours in the car would be a cakewalk for her.

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Then an idea hit us … our clothes were packed into a single, large suitcase in the backseat. It was easy enough to stop in a shady spot at a truck stop or service plaza, then pull the entire suitcase out and leave it next to the car. In the space left by the now-removed suitcase, we put a disposable litter box and poured a bit of litter in the bottom. To our amazement, Lizzi the (now expert) Travel Cat hopped in and peed almost immediately!

Once she’s done, I wrap a plastic litter box liner around the entire litter box and stow the whole thing back in her travel tote. Then, I put the suitcase back in the backseat, and we’re on our way.

Keep It Cool

It goes without saying that you should never leave an animal in a sealed-up car, period. On travel days, one of us is always in the car with Lizzi with the air conditioner running. So she stays calm, cool, and safe.

… and Keep Your Cool

Like dogs, cats naturally soak up stress from their bosses (er … owners). If you’re wigging out and screaming in traffic, your cat will sense that and, in turn, stress out more. Maintain your composure, talk softly to them occasionally to remind them you’re there, and soothe them as best you can.

Some cats may want extra affection while traveling which is why it’s ideal to have a co-pilot, while others may want to be left alone. You just need to see what works best for your kitty.

Clean-Up Duty

One of the dirtiest parts about traveling with a cat is clean-up duty. No matter where you’re staying — at a hotel, Airbnb, or campground — you’re going to want to clean up after your cat at checkout. We packed a washable rubberized mat to place under Lizzi’s litter box. It’s a snap to pick up and shake out over the trash when we’re ready to leave. Plus, we can hose it down in the shower if it gets a little funky.

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Lizzi the Travel Cat watching chickens at Everlee Farm, Chattanooga
Lizzi the Travel Cat watching the chickens at Everlee Farm, Chattanooga

We also packed an arsenal of cleaning products including this ultra-portable, stand-up Shark Rocket vacuum and a Swiffer kit. Since we’re mainly staying in Airbnbs for this road trip, we want to be the best guests we can be. And that means leaving our accommodations better than we found them.

Settle In and Settle Down

When we get where we’re going, our routine is to bring the cat and all her accouterments (which is a shocking amount of things!) inside before doing anything else. Lizzi is so habituated to life on the road now that, once we stop and I call her to her carrier in the back seat, she climbs right in.

Once inside, we set up her water, food, and bathroom immediately so she can start settling in as quickly as possible. Then we tend to all the other things we need to do at each stop.

The Bottom Line

There are, of course, no set rules for how to travel with a cat in a car. Your mileage with these tips may vary. Dogs are more predictable, laid-back, and easy to travel with in general. Cats are temperamental, finicky creatures by nature. Some, none, or all of these tips may work for you. If you’re heading on a long-distance road trip with your cat, I hope for your sake it’s smooth sailing.

It’s all still a work-in-progress for us. As we’re gearing up for an even longer fall road trip, we’re keen to hear other travelers’ experiences. So, fellow pet owners, what are your tips for how to travel with a cat in a car? Let us know in the comments below what did and didn’t work for you!

Lizzi the Travel Cat sleeping in bed at our log cabin Airbnb in South Carolina
Lizzi the Travel Cat Settling in Just Fine at Our Log Cabin Airbnb (Gaston, South Carolina)

After two short months on the road, it seems Lizzi has become the model of how to travel with a cat in a car long distance!

Packing List for Traveling with Your Cat in a Car

These are the best cat-friendly products that we relied on most during our long-distance road trip.

Petlinks Purr-FECT Paws Cat Litter Mat

A flexible, easy-to-clean rubber mat that helps reduce scattering of litter — great for Airbnb stays!

Kitty’s WonderBox Disposable Litter Box

These were probably the single best thing we bought for our road trip with Lizzi! They help control odor, they’re ultra-durable, and they don’t leak. In our experience, each one easily lasted a few weeks, so a 3-pack was good for 1-2 months of travel.

Foldable Travel Cat Carrier – Front Door Plastic Collapsible Carrier

We upgraded from her soft-sided carrier to this hard-sided one. It folds down semi-flat and it’s super easy to wipe clean inside and out. Plus, it came with a soft, comfortable pad that Lizzi loved to sleep on in the car.

Purina Tidy Cats LightWeight Instant Action Clumping Cat Litter

Lizzi’s tote of road trip essentials was surprisingly large! This ultra-light cat litter helped keep the weight of her “stuff” to a minimum. Plus, it works great!

Founding Editor
  1. Thank you for sharing your travels with your cat. I found it very helpful for our upcoming trip in our SUV to North Carolina with our 2 cats.

    1. Thank you! I’m thrilled you found the post helpful. Traveling with a cat is infinitely more difficult than with a dog. But, we still loved our trip!

      Best of luck with your upcoming journey!

  2. Bless you! I am in the process of driving 16 hours with my cat – and your “how to make a car litter box” saved me many anxious minutes.

    Things I can add:

    If you are traveling alone, gas stations are chill about you having the cat in a carrier. Usually.

    Pet stores are your best friend because you can use the restroom and water your cat and let them run around the restroom.

    If your cat is placid enough, you can get them to use a leash and harness. That harness was very helpful when the cat tried to make a break for it out of the car during roadside stops. The leash was great too for those spots, and she was able to stretch her legs at the pet stores on her leash.

    I got one of those car seats for small dogs and tethered her to it. She loved it, except for when she wanted to be sleeping in her carrier in the backseat. She had to be in her car seat for city traffic and the drive throughS LOVED it.

  3. Thank you for this! My husband and I are planning a move to Missouri next year and the most stressful part of the entire thing has been thinking of how the heck we’re going to transport our cat. This definitely makes it feel more manageable.

    1. Hey Vanessa, have you made your big move yet? I’m curious how you got along on the road with your kitty?

      Let us know! -Mike

    2. Hi Vanessa,
      I am currently in Florida and unfortunately have to move back to Missouri sometime between June and July. I saw you mention you were traveling to MO. Just wanted to get your feedback as well. I’m not sure how long of a drive you have. My drive is between 17-23 hrs. Unforatunly my cat is 16 years old and panics in the car(don’t mean to get grafic) just across town to the vet and were he panics so badly he gets automatic diahria, wets himself and goes into a full on panic mode. He’s getting up there in age and has some physical things I worry that could become worse if he’s under this extreme amount of stressful long hrs in a car. Any other tips or remedies that may help my fur baby would be appreciated greatly! Please email at [email protected] Thank you again!

    3. Hi Vanessa,

      Small world! We are moving next week from California to Missouri, with our two sister cats. They spend the whole time meowing when we drive to the vets, so I can only imagine what it will be like driving 1600 miles. Good luck on your move!

  4. I needed to read this! Like Vanessa, My hubby and I are planning a move from Spokane Washington to either Vegas or Phoenix with our 2 teenage kids, 2 dogs and 3 cats. By far the biggest stress for me is the cats…I have seriously cried I am so worried! We have a couple of months before we leave, but I feel much better knowing that we will all survive!!

  5. Hi Mike,
    I am currently in Florida and unfortunately have to move back to Missouri sometime between June and July. I saw you someone comment about moving to Missouri so I asked for their feedback as well. You had alot of great useful advice. I desperate to figure out how I can make this transition easy for my fur baby. My drive is between 17-23 hrs. Unforatunly my cat is 16 years old and has always been a sensitive cat when it comes to change especially panics in the car(don’t mean to get grafic) just across town to the vet and he immediately panics so badly he gets automatic diahria, wets himself, his heart is racing and goes into a full on panic mode. He’s getting up there in age and has some physical things I worry that could become worse if he’s under this extreme amount of stressful long hrs in a car. Any other tips or remedies that may help my fur baby would be appreciated greatly! Please email at [email protected] Thank you again!
    Sincerely, Molly Mabry

  6. Hi guys! I haven’t made the move yet. Monday is the big day. I had plans to visit a vet and maybe see about a sedative and getting Ricky microchipped, but this move has kept us so busy and now we’re down to the wire. We definitely have a harness in hand and we picked up some CBD in AZ on a recent visit, so hopefully that helps. I’m sure Ricky will freak out at first, but on the trips to the vet we had to make he does much better outside of the box than in it. And obviously for such a long trip I don’t want to keep him trapped in the carrier the entire time. We’ll be driving from CA to MO, so we’re going to do our best to power through. My biggest worry is him peeing on stuff in the car. He’s had some issues recently with his urination, so we got a bunch of plastic to line everything. Anyway, I’ll let you guys know how it went!


  7. I wish I had seen this in time to offer some suggestions to Vanessa but I hope I can be of service to others who may be planning a long roadtrip with a geriatric cat! We moved from Michigan to Florida in 1996 with an 18 year old cat who had never traveled more than 12 miles in a car (yowling the entire way). The vet was hesitant to offer medication due to her age, and she was not a fan of catnip, so she was entirely without chemical calming. We were traveling in a Jeep Cherokee and towing a small U-Haul, so she had the entire back end to herself. We borrowed a large dog crate for her accomodations and outfitted it with a temporary litter box (disposables were hard to find back then) I fashioned from a small cardboard box with sides about 6 inches high with one section about 8 inches wide cut down to 5 inches to allow her easier access. I slipped this inside a large garbage bag and filled it about 2 inches deep with litter and cleaned the box at every stop. The box was secured to the bottom of the dog crate with double sided tape and litter added as needed. We left a small amount of dry food in a dish for her to graze on but limited wet food and water to when we were stopped. This worked out well for her but other cats might want to have it available at all times. I felt it important for her to be able to move around but not be “loose” in the car for our 1200 mile journey. I kept old towels for padding in the crate and planned to swap them out if she had “accidents” but she never did, although she did make enough noise the first few hours that we could have been suspected of committng murder. We only stayed overnight at one pet-friendly motel and took the entire dog crate inside; she came out of the crate, explored the room, went back in and had her dinner, and promptly went to sleep, happy to be in her “home”. As a bonus, when we got to our new home in Florida, we left the dog crate set up in the corner of the utility room (with the “real” little box next to it) and since it was already a familiar space for her, we feel it helped her settle in more quickly. She spent a lot of time in the crate the first few days, venturing out to explore a bit more each day.

  8. I’m moving from MO to FL in a few months, about a 20 hour drive. I am planning on stopping for the night half way through, but I worry about my two cats on the actual drive. How do they use the bathroom and eat or drink?

  9. Hi guys! It’s been a few months, sorry, but we made it to MO in one piece and Ricky loves his new home. For our setup we situated his litter box between other boxes (as we were moving) so that the box didn’t slide around and situated his carrier behind the seat and made it so he could go in and out if he wanted to. He stayed in the carrier most of the time, but he got a little brave and started walking around and sitting on my lap in the passenger seat. He got a little freaked out a few times and we had to stop him from climbing around by my husband’s feet (he was driving), but mostly he did okay. We had his food bowl in the carrier, but he didn’t eat much or use the litter box at all while we were driving. When we stopped at the hotel for the night he ate and went to the bathroom like normal. We did try CBD to calm him down, but it didn’t really matter since he didn’t eat in the car and we mix it in his food. ?? So all in all, I don’t know if I really have any tips, but I thought I’d share how it went. He did well, but he’s still not a fan of being in the car. ?

  10. Great article. We adopted a “wild” cat that wandered up to our cabin in remote Colorado several years ago. When it was time to head South, we loaded our now somewhat tame cat into a carrier and put her in the back of our Ford Explorer. That lasted about 2 hours. I could not turn the radio volume up high enough. We let her out of the carrier and after an hour she went under the front seat, and stayed quiet for most of the day. A few things we have learned over the years: Always take two sets of car keys. On warm days, we leave the AC running when we stop for gas and/or a break. After fueling, we park out a little ways where it is not obvious the car is running, and one of us has an eye on the car. We always do a scan to see where she is before we open the door. After a few trips, the car becomes the safe haven, and she has had no interest in getting out, but with a cat, you just never know. We put a litter box on the back floorboard. She rarely uses it, but it is there in case. Water – we always have a small container on the other floorboard. Food is withheld, as she won’t eat in the car. Our trip is 12.5 hours on a good day. Getting ready to do another road trip in a few weeks, after nine months of no travel. Hope the now very tame cat remembers the protocol!

  11. I’m amazed everything went so well… My cat barely “survives” a drive to the vet, lol. You must have a really special and patient kind of cat!

  12. My daughter and her partner are moving 9 hours away and I have agreed to drive their 3 cats to them. I’ve got a Toyota Corolla. I was thinking of putting the back seats down, using a large carrier I have, and fashioning a tunnel of sorts that would allow them extra space plus room for a Kitty litter box. (I considered renting a larger vehicle but it’s quite pricey, especially as this will be at Christmas time.) I know this will be a very stressful drive so I found this post and all of the comments to be very helpful. Thank you very much.

    1. Erin, that all sounds great! Nine hours isn’t *too* bad, even for particularly finicky cats. I’m sure they’ll be fine.

      One other thing you might consider is a removable rubber mat or thick moving blanket to lay down to protect your car’s carpeting. We learned the hard way that kitty very easily misses her box when it’s in the backseat. Even though it was only a little bit of pee, that smell is incredibly difficult to get out of automotive carpeting!

      Best of luck with the drive!

    2. Erin K,

      Hello to you. I will be attempting a drive with three cats this coming spring. How did it work out for you? I have a Murano SUV was making of putting the backseat down to and doing as you thought with the large carrier. Also anyone else any advice? I am doing a very long drive from New York to Florida ? I am extremely worried. One of my cats is a Maine coon. The Maine Coon is the best with behavior but I worry for all of them. I want this to be a safe journey for them.

  13. We are moving to Kansas from Idaho in July and need to take 3 cats and a dog in the car with us. We do not want the cats wandering around the car while we drive. Any suggestions?

  14. oh my gosh, thank you for making this blog post.
    i’m contemplating relocating from kansas to maine with my own two indoor hairballs.
    it’s enough to make me just reconsider or worse, fly them.

  15. Many thanks for your article! I have a 9 hour move from North Carolina to Indiana at the end of the summer, and it’ll be the longest my cat has ever been in the car by far. I’ve been scouring the internet for information on how to transport her safely and comfortably. This has been very helpful.

    1. Hey Meredith — That’s great to hear! I’m happy we can help in any way.

      I’m sure you and kitty will be just fine =)

  16. Hey, all!

    So we are planning on moving back to California soon, but in between we have actually taken up bringing our cat on every trip with us. I have gotten him microchipped just in case and he’s gotten so much better in the car just from doing it multiple times. We exclusively use pet friendly AirBnBs instead of dealing with hotels, but I recommend contacting the host before you book because we have encountered hosts that mean ‘only dogs’ when they post ‘pet friendly’. If you’re cool sleeping in the car at rest areas, that’s what we’ve been doing on the drive to and from our destination. We usually keep him in the carrier for a little while after we start driving and then let him roam. Just make sure to lock your windows! While the car is in motion, he typically doesn’t eat but will devour food when we stop for the night. For the parts where we’re exclusively in the car, we’ve taken to getting him food in plastic containers because they are just easier to deal with. Most of the daytime driving he will spend under a seat or tucked under something. He likes to roam around the car at night. We just have to make sure he doesn’t go roaming on the floor on the driver side!

    Anyway, we just really enjoy traveling with our cat and it’s so much nicer having him with us than boarding him.

  17. Hello,

    Thank you for Lizzi story. This was extremely helpful for me. Now Penny and I can do our move from Maryland to Rocky Mount, NC.

    Regal Cameron

  18. Hello to anyone who is reading this. My boyfriend of (28 yrs) & I are getting ready to move from California to Tennessee in about a week. We have 3 very freakish cats. The 1st is Mister Mister, he is pretty old and has some issues with his back legs and so he does not walk all to well, his legs will sometimes just give out. So he’s not real stable when he walks. The 2nd is Misses Misses (or princess), she is probably 4-5 yrs younger and we have had them both since they were little tiny kittens not quite old enough to be away from there mother. The 3rd is Kaia our newest cat, so she is the youngest (the baby) at probably around 2 yrs old or so. Her and misses don’t get along. Kaia is scared of her and misses likes to chase her every chance she gets, because she’s very jealous. They are all skittish, shy, and scare and freak out easily. I need some help because I’m so worried about driving all that way and them stressing out really bad. I know I will probably be stressing enough for everyone though. Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated! Thank you!

  19. I am planning a trip in the future from Indiana to Massachusetts and this article was very helpful. I am very lucky that my Luna loves her carrier. I keep it open and put it next to my bed because she sleeps in it. Also, she doesn’t make a peep when she is in her carrier in the car. My question Is how do I keep her from trying to escape if I need to leave the car for a moment. I don’t want to leave her locked in her carrier while traveling

  20. Thank you so much for the tips! I’m curious on how to keep the cat from the driver side while roaming. Also, was it difficult to find “cat friendly” lodging? My daughter and her husband are doing a travel job where they move every couple of months and Inthink I’m more worried than they are!!

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