Tips for Road Trips with Pets

In June, I embarked on a 2,300-mile road trip from Austin to Seattle. I filled my mid-size SUV (Toyota Rav4) with most of my earthly goods, including my three favorite “goods” – my dog, Felix, and two cats, Lome and Tiny.

Felix frolics in Texas wildflowers.
Felix likes to frolic in Texas wildflowers.

Cats are notoriously terrible travelers, famous for moaning and acting like they’re in a vehicular torture chamber. This is obviously unpleasant for both your ears and your heart, as it’s easy to feel like a jerk when your cat seems so miserable.

Prior to embarking on our trip, I “practiced” taking short drives with each cat in the car – I didn’t drive them together because they feed off each other’s fear and the screeching rapidly reaches a horrific decibel level. The first two “practice trips” involved each cat engaging in prolonged shrieking while digging claws into my abdomen as we walked from my condo to the car.

Tiny (fluffy black cat) was so terrified on her first ten-minute trip around the neighborhood that she panted like a dog and peed.

Tiny prefers sleep to leaning in.
Tiny prefers lying around to leaning in.

Lome (white cat) has the vocal chords of Pavarotti and “yelled” for the full ten minute drive. Trying to associate the experience with something positive, I gave them wet food in the car. Lome ate it up; Tiny – not normally one to turn down any form of food – was too stressed to eat – but at least she could now associate car rides with the pungent scent of salmon.

Lome loves baskets.
Lome loves baskets.

At the end of our third traumatic ten-minute trip around the neighborhood, the moaning had dramatically died down for both cats. Lome seemed especially enthralled when it dawned on him that the windows offered an excellent view of squirrels and birds. By our fourth practice drive, the cats seemed genuinely desensitized to car trips, realizing we weren’t headed anywhere awful such as the vet where they would be poked and prodded.

When we left Austin for our first 12-hour day of driving, the cats were both quiet in the car – no more moaning, peeing or other unpleasant theatrics.

Cats aren’t “den animals”, so I didn’t want to make them ride in a kennel all day. Instead, they were outfitted with cat-specific harnesses. My mother accompanied us on this journey, and held the cats’ leashes so they didn’t make poor choices in terms of where to perch, but in general they just sat and gazed out the window.

Grand Canyon grandeur.
Felix felt like the Grand Canyon was a parching version of Mars.

Felix was a perfect passenger. We would stop every two hours to let Felix stretch his legs and do his business. I would also take him on one-hour jogs in the mornings before heading out on the road to “wear him out” (although Felix is actually incapable of tiring – see this post). This exercise also helped me to relax before marathon sessions of driving.

I was surprised at how many motels allow pets, and had no weight or breed restrictions. They don’t allow you to leave pets alone in the room, but that was easy to manage since there were two humans on the trip – one to run errands and fetch food and the other to pet nanny.

Tiny and Lome make themselves at home.
Tiny and Lome make themselves at home.

In the four years I’ve had Felix, I’ve only heard him bark three times. He’s never been much of a guard dog – he gets happily excited when someone knocks on the door, but has never seemed nervous when there are noises outside. On this trip, however, he acted very protective and alert to every sound outside the motel door, and frequently barked or growled while the humans were trying to sleep. It was a new, loud side of him.

Felix thought Jackson Hole, WY, was pretty but overpriced.
Felix thought Jackson Hole was pretty and pricey.

We arrived in Seattle less than two weeks after leaving Austin, having visited some of America’s most scenic sites. They included alien tourism in Roswell, the gorgeous Grand Canyon, arid awesomeness at Carlsbad Canyon National Park, Martian-like loveliness at Zion National Park, majestic mountains at Grand Teton National Park, a pet-lovers paradise at Best Friends Animal Society, and a close encounter with a wild bison in Yellowstone National Park.

The glorious Grand Tetons.
The glorious Grand Tetons.

The trip was far less difficult to take with pets – especially the cats – than I expected. They seemed to enjoy the togetherness and adventure of it all, and I look forward to our next road warrior experience.

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One thought on “Tips for Road Trips with Pets

  1. Pingback: Driving Across America with Pets – Skyline Pet Care and Fitness

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