Cats on Wheels


August, 1999

 Barbara Foley

(Yes, finally an article on RVing cats!)

If you are a regular visitor to “Traveling with Pets,” you know I have sadly neglected cats in my articles. It is not that I don’t like cats. But my experience is with dogs, and I only felt credible in giving advice about them. I have, however, received many off-line requests for specific information on traveling with cats, so I am writing about them now. I have conferred with several cat authorities too, but if you “cat folks” see anything glaringly wrong or have some additional advice for me to pass on, please let me know.

I often see cats sunning themselves on the dashs of RVs, so they obviously make wonderful traveling companions. And let’s face it, I’ve never heard of any cat-owning RVer being asked to leave because the cat was barking! So, since we enjoy having our pets with us as we travel, our focus should be on making the experience pleasant and safe for our feline friends. My tendency is to concentrate on safety first, then on pleasantness. We, therefore, want to ensure our cats are not injured during travel, escape, or fall prey to other animals. Once we are sure they are safe, we can concentrate on the pleasantries.

I believe all traveling small animals should be crated for their and your safety. Sudden stops or accidents in ordinary cars can send uncrated pets flying like missiles–then compound that with the spacious interiors of today’s RVs and you get the picture. Loose animals can crawl under the driver’s feet or on the dash impeding safe operation of the vehicle. If for any reason you had to exit the vehicle quickly, it is much easier to grab a cat’s carrier than to search about for your cat when seconds count. Crates (also called “carriers”) need not be elaborate or expensive. Although I prefer wire crates because of their sturdiness and greater air circulation, most of my cat friends use the plastic type, which is less expensive and not as heavy. If you are traveling, do not put the crate on the furniture unless you can strap it in with the seatbelt or something to prevent it from falling off during a sudden stop or nasty curve in the road. And please, please, make sure there is plenty of ventilation in the crate’s design. Do not use the cardboard type carriers often used to transport your cat to the vet as these are designed for temporary, quick trips and lack the added ventilation needed for longer trips. For more tips on crates, see a previous article entitled “The Right Tools for the Job.”

If your cat is normally a stay-at-home cat with the traveling experience of an occasional trip to the vet, you may need to actually train your cat to travel in his or her crate long before your embark on your RVing adventure. Understandably, many pets have a negative view of going in any vehicle if their only travel experience is to the dreaded vet! So, what we have to do is essentially teach the pet that traveling is not so bad after all. If your cat is already used to being crated, gently place him in his crate and take him to your car. (Avoid jostling him in the crate as you walk. Taking him for a ride after he has basically been in a “washing machine” between the house and the car is certainly not a positive start!) Place his crate in the car and secure it with the seatbelt and take him for several short trips around the neighborhood. If he cries, avoid soothing him because this is really praising him for bad behavior. Just let him cry and ignore him. If he stops crying, praise him for good behavior. After he is safely home, to reinforce the pleasantness of the experience, you can play with him or just pet him after he is released (assuming he doesn’t dart to the hinterlands!). Make your trips increasingly longer, until he is comfortable with the idea of traveling. Then you can try the RV.

To get your cat used to a crate, place the crate in your home in an area he frequents. Leave the door open for several days. Cats love to investigate. Hopefully, he will investigate it and claim it as his own. While he is checking the crate out, be careful not to bump the crate or do anything to make the cat wary of it. You can also try placing his food or a special treat inside the door of the crate. Once your cat has accepted the crate, close the door about halfway (but still leave it open enough that he can walk out freely). Assuming all is going well, work up to the point that the door is gradually closed but not locked (so he can push on it to leave). Finally, over time, get so you can actually latch the door. Let him out as soon as he wants out. Then gradually lengthen the time before you let him out until he will quietly wait to be released. If your cat becomes frightened during this process, just back off a few steps and try again. (If you choose the wire crates, sometimes draping a towel over the crate top and sides makes the crate more den-like.)

So, by now we have a cat who is happy to be crated (or at least is not yowling!) and we have gotten him or her used to being transported. We are now at our destination or first stop and are faced with the challenge of preventing the cat from escaping from the nearest door or unscreened window. Keep the cat crated until you can give him your undivided attention. Your cat should wear a Figure 8 harness with your name, address, phone number (cell phone as well), etc., on it. I would also wrap some duct tape around one of the harness straps upon which you can write in waterproof ink the name and phone number of the campground in which you are staying, along with your site number, if you know it. Even if your cat NEVER ventures outside, never say never! He could become frightened and dash out. Without identifying information, he could be lost forever. (See a related article “My Pet is Missing.”) You just never know . . . .

If your stop is merely a bathroom break for everyone, let your cat visit his litter box and get a drink while someone makes sure he cannot escape by the kids perhaps returning from the visitors’ center. Afterwards either return him to his crate or clip a lightweight leash to his harness until the doors are safely closed. Even if you don’t plan to walk him, you would therefore have something to grab onto should he try to bolt. If you plan to take your cat outside, train him to walk on a leash. Unless your cat is already used to walking on a leash, leash training will probably be satisfactory at best. Do not expect your cat to trot beside you like a dog. Unlike dogs, cats do not seem to respond to coming forward to get an offered treat or toy. I DID train a young cat to walk on a leash. It was not wonderful, but she was kept safe and did get used to it eventually. Here’s how I did it: I used a Figure 8 harness and a lightweight leash. I walked forward holding the leash. Of course, the cat refused to walk and sat down. I kept the leash taut and I did not pull. I tried to lure the cat forward to no avail with a treat. I just waited. The cat eventually got tired of that and trotted forward about four feet as which time we repeated the whole process of stop, tension, wait, trot, stop, tension, wait, trot. It was not a very rewarding experience for either the cat or me, but we eventually got from A to B on our little walk about the neighborhood. The next time, things went better and better still the next time.

Once at your camping site, you don’t want your cat to spend the entire time locked up in your RV unless he prefers that. Assuming he would prefer to enjoy the outdoors like the rest of us, your next challenge is how to keep him from wandering off and/or falling prey to other animals in the campground. Pet supply warehouses make multi-story cat cages with nice perches which could serve as a very nice, SAFE environment for your cat outdoors. We RVers don’t want to lug cumbersome things around, so be sure to consider portability and where to store the cage before buying one. As an alternative, consider getting an exercise pen made for dogs. They are great things! (No, I have no financial interests in dog equipment!) Exercise pens (affectionately called “x-pens”) are essentially portable, fold-up dog pens (but not the kind you see at home improvement stores). X-pens are made of wire and have eight 24-inch wide interlocking panels which fold up accordian style. The panels can be gotten in from 24-inch to very tall heights. A 24-inch high x-pen should be fine for a cat. Since the pens are interlocked, you can set the pen up merely by unfolding it and arranging it any configuration you wish. To contain a cat, I would advise purchasing the available wire top as well (easily attached with snaps). X-pens are made for transport and fold up accordian-style in seconds (no tools!) to less than 2 inches thick. So you basically have a 2-foot by 2-foot by 2-inch item to store–not shabby! For my dogs, I erect (once again, no tools!) their pens under my RV’s awning so they can share the shade right next to me. For cats, I would recommend the closely positioned wire offered by Kennel-Air as cats seem to have the uncanny ability to make themselves paperthin to squeeze through larger openings. A floor is not necessary as the weight of the pen prevents escapes under the bottom, but if you worry about that you can buy simple anchors. My dogs enjoy a rattan mat under their pens. It keeps them clean and when I get home I just throw it over the clothesline and hose it off. (For sources of x-pens, see the related article “The Right Tools for the Job.”)

Place your cat’s litter box in an out-of-the way place but one he can freely access and of course keep it scrupulously clean. If your cat enjoys the outdoors, also place a litter box in his cat cage or x-pen. Always travel with your cat’s medical records in case he should need medical attention during your trip (you never know!). Some campgrounds are requiring evidence of rabies vaccinations for dogs. Since your cat could come in contact with other animals, I would vaccinate him against rabies as a precaution. Discuss this with your vet. If you plan to travel extensively, try to feed your cat a brand of cat food that is readily available nationwide. This avoids upset systems from abrupt switches in food. If your cat is particularly sensitive or fussy, you may also need to carry a supply of “home” water readily available in a non-spillable container. Hairball medication and flea/tick deterrents are another considerations to make your cat’s travels pleasant.

Finally, make sure not to leave any animals alone in your RV if it becomes too warm. Do not rely on your air conditioner because it can malfunction or its power supply be compromised while you are away. (So far, I have seen area power outages, tripped campground circuit breakers, and malfunctioning generators. One friend lost seven show dogs.) Animals will overheat in a very short time in a closed-up RV on a warm day with tragic consequences.

Well, that’s it for my cat article. I hope you find it informative and helpful. Hurray for all those travelin’ cats on wheels out there! See you at the next rest stop . . . .

All articles Barabara Foley.