Can A Cat Ride In A Car Without A Carrier?

Whether it’s a short ride to the vet or driving across the country, driving with a cat is a royal pain in the ass with constant meowing that’s distracting. The problem is that Charlie associates being in the carrier with a negative feeling. So, I wanted to let him roam the car, but I wasn’t sure if a cat can legally ride in a car without a carrier.

And the short answer is, yes, it is legal for a cat to ride in a car without a carrier as long as the cat is properly restrained and is not a hazard to the driver. Let me explain further what I found in my research and then take a look at how to travel safely with your cat in the car without a carrier.

Can a Cat Ride in a Car Without a Carrier?

To expand on the short answer above, according to DMV.org, a site that simplifies and consolidates driving-related state laws, a dog or a cat can ride along in the car as long as he/she is properly restrained.

If there is an airbag in the passenger seat, your cat can only ride in the backseat but if the passenger seat does not have an airbag, then your cat can ride in the front passenger seat.

And being properly restrained includes being harnessed so it doesn’t have to be in a carrier.

What you cannot do is to have a cat roaming around freely in the car such that your cat can go on the dashboard or in your lap or possibly where the foot pedals are.

Most state laws don’t have a specific law stating that it’s illegal to have an animal roaming around freely, but cops can give you a ticket if they see your cat as a possible hazard to your driving. This is under the law where it deem it illegal to be a negligent driver, and the definition of a negligent driver is in the eyes of driving laws is:

A person is guilty of negligent driving in the second degree if, under circumstances not constituting negligent driving in the first degree, he or she operates a motor vehicle in a manner that is both negligent and endangers or is likely to endanger any person or property.”

As the last sentence says, if your cat roaming around your car could possibly put you at risk or other people in danger, then you could be stopped and fined.

Cat Harness for Car

Okay, so disclaimer that although I’m a super cat lady, I’m not the law by any means, so do it your way but I’ve had plenty of experience driving with my cats, so I have some things to say here on how to drive with your cats without a carrier with the safety of both you and your cats in mind.

To qualify what I’m saying, when I lived in Los Angeles, I drove to San Diego every weekend to live with my sister over the weekend while I airbnb’ed my apartment to strangers to make a few bucks. That was about 3 hours of driving each way. I did this for about a year. I definitely put on the mileage on that bad boy Hyundai Elentra!

Then, when I got a job on the east coast, I rented a minivan, packed up my stuff and with my 2 feline roommates, drove across the country in 5 days.

For my weekly driving trips in my four-door passenger car, I initially had both Charlie and Nala in their own carrier. It became unbearable to have to listen to Charlie meow nonstop for 3 hours straight.

So after a few weeks of this, I decided to put a harness on Charlie and tied the leash onto the headrest in the back seat. The length of the leash was only long enough that he could jump down to the feet resting area of the backseat but he couldn’t come to the front.

Can A Cat Ride In A Car Without A Carrier

Wow, what a difference it made. Charlie chilled in the backseat only sometimes meowing when he woke up from his nap. He sat beside Nala in her carrier. Later on, he was promoted to the front passenger seat but the leash was shorter so that he could only stand and lie down in the front passenger seat and couldn’t reach the gears.

Now, Charlie is an 18-pound cat, so your regular old cat harness that you get at the pet store was too tight on him. So I bought this Gooby X-harness for small dogs, which fit a little funny but was a much better fit than the largest cat harness sold at the pet store.

For the long distance cross country driving over 5 days, we had the carriers open so they could go in there anytime but the harness was attached to the head rest or the side handle on the door so that they wouldn’t be able to distract the driver.

cat harness for car

Drive with Another Person in the Car

If you feel uncomfortable driving on your own with your cat out of the carrier in the backseat, having a passenger hold the cat may be calming for the cat. When my parents came to visit me, my mom sat in the back and held Nala. She found it comforting and fell asleep in my mom’s arms.

cat in car without carrier

Use a Carrier to Transport TO and FROM the Car

While I found that both my life and Charlie’s life are improved when Charlie travels in the car without a carrier, I learned the hard way that I must use a carrier when I’m walking to and from the car with the cats.

With Nala, she managed to jump out of my grasp, wiggle her slender body out of the harness and run into the hedges. With Charlie, any slight sound scared the bejesus out of him and he would squirm and contort his body in every which direction with his claws out in order to get out of my grasp. Needless to say, I looked like I got a haircut from blindfolded Edward Scissorhand.

So, bring your cats in the carriers to the car. Close the car doors and then let your fussy cat out of the carrier and tie your cat’s harness to the headrest.

When you get to your destination, get into the backseat, close the car doors, put your cat in the carrier first before you leave the car to walk over to where you’re going.

Also, don’t forget to loop the car seat belt through the carrier handle and fasten the seatbelt. You don’t want the carrier to hit your cat while you’re driving.

Cat Collar and ID Tag

I want to remind you also that even if you plan on using a carrier to walk to and from your car with your cat, make sure your cat is wearing a collar and an ID tag. The last thing you want is your cat darting out of the car while you prepare to sit in the backseat.

If your cat is not microchipped, then I highly advise you to do so. Both Nala and Charlie came microchipped when I adopted them from the shelter. But it doesn’t end there. You have to register the microchip. I did mine with 24petwatch.com. I got $50 off on Petco when I registered with them.

Admittedly, I had gone 3 years without registering their microchip. Then, my sister found a cat hiding under a car in the parking lot of an apartment building. So she took the cat to the vet and they tracked his microchip. His owners had been looking for him. My sister found him about 10 minutes away from his home, which was an apartment building, so there would not have been a way for the owners to find him on their own.

Get your cat microchipped and register it!

Keep Inside of Car on the Cooler Side

The rationale for keeping the temperature inside your car on the cooler side is two fold. First, your cat will get very uncomfortable very quickly if it gets too hot. Charlie was panting one time because I realized the A/C wasn’t flowing to the back because someone I was giving a ride to in the front passenger seat had closed the vent on their side of the A/C. (I was furious!)

The second reason is that if it’s colder, your cat will huddle his/her body and sleep in order to preserve body heat.

Stop For Treats and Water

If your car ride is going to be longer than 3 hours, I suggest you make stops every few hours to give your cats some treats and water.

Pheromone Spray or Collar

One other thing I did was to spray the inside of the car and the carrier with pheromone spray about 30 minutes before putting the cats in the car. To be honest, it does seem to have a calming effect but only for about 30 minutes and then either the spray evaporates or Charlie got used to it.

For the cross country long distance car ride, I used this pheromone collar on Charlie. I put it on him 30 minutes before we left. It actually worked a lot better than the spray and worked for a few hours. But it gets messy because of the powder on the collar. Use with caution.

Melatonin to Calm Your Cat Before Car Ride

I also gave the cats two melatonin chewables 30 minutes before the car ride. I’m not sure how effective it is. But besides the effectiveness, the problem was getting Charlie to eat it. Nala actually liked the taste of it but she wasn’t the one who needed it. Charlie would smell it and walk away disinterested.

Play Soothing Music

IF your mental state can handle listening to soothing music for cats for however long the car ride is, then I encourage you to play cat-specific soothing music to calm a scared cat.

Summary

First and foremost should be the safety of you and your cats. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to hear your cat meow in the back and hate every second of the car ride. But if your cat has a tendency of wiggling out of his/her harness, then it’s probably best you keep your cat in the carrier.

If you’ve had a few practice runs with someone in the car to help you and you’ve deemed that your cat can safely stay in his/her harness without a carrier, then go ahead and attach the leash to the headrest and make sure it’s not long enough for your cat to explore areas beyond his/her seat.

Make sure your cat has proper identification, including a collar and an ID tag along with a registered microchip.

If all else fails, bring the vet and the world to your cat. We are, afterall, at the mercy of our cats. I hope you found this article helpful. Good luck.