Traveling With A Cat In A Car Long Distance (My Journey Driving Across Country With Cats)
I was living in San Diego when I got a job across the country – nay, across the continent – in Toronto. While deliberating whether to accept the job offer, I did plenty of research on whether it was even doable traveling with a cat in a car long distance.
You see, I couldn’t fly with both Nala and Charlie, because well, Charlie is TOO BIG! My only option was to drive.
To be honest with you, I don’t know how I did it. It was 5 days of being high-alert continuously. And guess what, I will be doing it again going back to the west coast in a couple of months.
So, what better way to prepare for another trek across the country than to write down everything I did the first time around! Hope you find this helpful as well.
My Journey Driving Across Country with Cats from San Diego to Toronto
Most people search how to drive across country with cats from LA to New York. I guess my journey is a bit of a deviant from that. Even further the distance and across a border than the ‘ol LA to NY road trip.
Listen, if you’re thinking about driving across the country with a cat or two cats, you have to know that it was a truly stressful 5 days. It does take certain sort of people to do it. The masochistic kind.
After I quit my job in LA, I moved down to San Diego to live with my sister for a while until I “figured things out”. I was and wasn’t in a hurry to get another job. I was feeling the pressure to lock down a steady source of income again, but I wasn’t in a hurry to dive into working full time for someone again.
So, it took me about 4 months of casually applying and reaching out to people I knew that I got a job offer in Toronto.
And then it took me another month to decide whether I wanted to accept.
During my deliberation, I took into consideration how I was going to transport my 2 fur babies, Nala and Charlie across the country and over a border.
Charlie was simply too big to fly in cabin on a plane.
So, the only option for me was… ROAD TRIP!
Traveling With Cats in a Car Long Distance Like a Boss
I knew that I had to plan the trip carefully ahead of time in order to make the long distance car trip as comfortable as possible for my cats, especially Charlie. Every time I drove from LA to San Diego and back with my cats, Charlie would meow the entire time.
How can I make Charlie feel less nervous?
Where am I going to stay?
How often should I stop?
How are the cats going to use the litter box in the car?
There were questions circling in my head for days and weeks leading up to the road trip.
Thankfully, my little brother drove with me, so I wasn’t doing it alone. In fact, that would be my first advice: don’t do it alone. It is incredibly difficult to have to drive for hours and hours with your cats meowing in the back and you helpless in the front.
Next, here are my tips from planning, what you need to get for the car, and when you’re on the road.
Planning the Road Trip With Cats
The first thing to think about when you’re planning the road trip is to look at a map and decide which roads you’re going to take. This is how you should make your decisions looking at the map:
1. Decide which cities to stay overnight.
First, choose a big city to stay overnight. Determining which city to stay overnight will come down to the distance between the cities.
Knowing what I know now from the road trip, I would advise that you plan to drive for about 6 hours at 60 miles per hour, because there’s some traffic and stops along to get coffee and fill up gas. That’s about 400 miles. But realistically, that’s going to take 8 hours of driving time.
Plus, stopping for food and bathroom breaks is going to tack on another 30 minutes for every 3 hours driving.
If it weren’t for the cats, I would’ve been prepared to drive a longer distance, but it’s not good for the cats.
So, choose a big city to stay in that’s about 400 miles from one stop to the next.
We left San Diego, and stayed in Las Vegas, Denver, and Chicago, before getting to our destination of Toronto on the last day of the road trip.
2. Stick to 400 miles a day, which is about 6-8 hours on the road.
The mistake I made was during the third leg. On the third day, I was way too ambitious and thought we could plan to drive for 12 hours and stick to 12 hours. We ended up being on the road for 18 hours that day, and I would not advise it.
- Day 1: San Diego, CA to Las Vegas, NV. [300 miles, 7 hours on the road] Left San Diego at around 10am and got there at 5pm. It was a pretty easy and breezy day. After we checked into the hotel with the cats, we even had time to walk around the Strip a bit and have dinner.
- Day 2: Las Vegas, NV to Denver, CO. [748 miles, 13 hours on the road] Left Vegas at 8am and checked in at the hotel in Denver at around 9pm. It was much tougher than the previous day.
- Day 3: Denver, CO to Chicago, IL. [1,004 miles, 18 hours on the road] Left Denver at 7am and checked in at the hotel in Chicago at around 1am. This was a BRUTAL day. But thankfully, we had planned to stay in Chicago 2 nights.
- Day 4: Stayed in Chicago, IL another night. Switched hotels for the second night, because the original one we booked for 2 nights was absolutely horrid.
- Day 5: Chicago, IL to Toronto, ON. [520 miles, 9 hours on the road] Left Chicago at 8am and got to my new apartment in Toronto at around 5pm. We crossed the border in Marine City, Michigan across the beautiful St. Claire River on the Bluewater Ferry. The Canadian border patrol officer was very nice. But also I presume because I was a returning Canadian resident. Unfortunately, the Bluewater Ferry is closed due to collapse from ice damage. Booo. 🙁 I hope it is back up and running again soon.
3. Book accommodations that are cat friendly.
For a long distance trip across the country with cats, it’s important to book a hotel or an Airbnb that accepts cats.
The process was simple. After I decided which cities I was going to stay overnight, I looked up accommodations on the platforms. I filtered for “pet friendly” and also called or messaged the hotel/host to see if they would really accept 2 cats.
Some accommodations charge extra, so be mindful of that.
I have to admit that at the Hilton in Denver and at the Westin in Chicago, I only paid for one cat, because it was a huge hotel so they wouldn’t have known…
4. Plan each day to leave early between 6am-7am.
It’s worth mentioning that since you’re going to stay in a big city, it’s a good idea to leave before rush hour. A big city when everyone is trying to get to work will delay your whole day by a half hour to an hour.
We hit a bit of traffic getting out of downtown Denver in the morning even at 7am. And in Chicago, we spent about half an hour getting out of downtown as well.
Try to get breakfast on the way at a pit stop after an hour of driving out of the bustling city.
Setting Up the Car for the Cats
For the long distance road trip, I rented a minivan. I think a sedan would’ve been too stuffy for 2 people and 2 cats across the country.
First, I set up the car with a car hammock for pets for the backseat. That way, the cats had both under the hammock and on the hammock to sit and relax. It also provided more stability for the cats rather than just the seat. You can check out the recommended car hammock here.
Second, I also had the carrier under the seat, so that if they wanted to feel secure and hider, they could without being bothered. Since it was under the hammock, they had more privacy. I had both the soft-sided kennel on one side and a hard-sided kennel on the other. You can also check these out on the recommended kennels for long car trips.
Thirdly, I had a litter box setup in the very back seat of the minivan, lodged between my bags. I had the big litter box with the enclosed lid. While I don’t use this in the house, it was necessary to have one with a lid in the car. The cats took turns using it throughout the day. If they pooped, whoever was sitting in the back with the cats scooped it up into a bag right away, so it didn’t stink up the car.
Finally, identity and leash are so important, because you don’t have to accidentally open the car door when you’re stopped at a gas station and the cats bolt out in the middle of nowhere. So, you need a collar and and an ID tag, a harness and a leash. Tie the leash to the seat headrest or the car handle with enough comfortable looseness if you plan to have the cats out of the carrier in the car.
When and Where to Stop During the Day
It’s important to stop frequently for your cats to take a little breather. You can’t really plan ahead of time when and where you’re going to stop during the day for food, gas, bathroom break, etc.
It’s too tedious to plan out this much in detail especially because things are not going to go according to plan. Then you’ll just be frustrated and stressed out for no reason. Also, I don’t know about you, but I can’t schedule mother nature!
There are a few things I did that were very handy. Here are some tips when it comes to stopping during the day.
I relied on the Starbucks app on my phone religiously. It was useful for multiple reasons. First, I used it for bathroom breaks. Second, I used it for coffee when I needed a jolt. Third, they have a variety of options for food.
But most importantly, because Starbucks tends to be ubiquitous in more established cities and towns, it was such a helpful gauge of safety.
Download the Starbucks app on your phone. Starbucks should totally sponsor me for this.
Filling Up Gas
I filled up when I had no less than a quarter of a tank left. Since I was driving through the desert in some places, I didn’t want to end up out of gas in a remote area on the highway.
So when I drove about 2.5 hours, I would check to see how much gas I had, and around that time when I had about a third or a quarter of a tank left, opened my Starbucks app.
If the Starbucks was within the next 20 miles, I would wait until then to find a gas station. If there was no Starbucks within the next 20 miles, I would drive on by and look out for exit signs that had a bunch of gas stations and food joints on them.
Again, safety was important to me, so I wanted to make sure to stop by a busier place.
Lunch and Snacks
Make sure to have a case of water bottles in the car at all times and replenish.
When it came to lunch and snacks during the day, we ate when we stopped for gas.
We killed 2 birds with 1 stone; nay, we kissed 2 birds with 1 pair of lips by filling up where there were food joints as well.
We made sure the cats were either in their carrier or their leash was tied to the car handle or headrest before opening the door.
We got the food to go and ate on the side ledge of the minivan with the door open. We did not want to leave the cats alone in the car.
If you can help it, please do not leave your cats alone in the car.
What and When to Feed Your Cats
Cats might get motion sickness, so try not to feed them too much when you stop during the day.
Instead, feed them some wet food an hour at the hotel before you leave for the day.
Then during the day, when you stop for food, feed them a bit of dry food in their bowls.
Importantly, feed them water every time you stop in their water bowls.
Mix the wet food in the morning with water because they may not drink too much water during the day when they’re on the road.
Then, when you get to the hotel at the end of the day, feed them wet food again. And here again, mix the wet food with some water to ensure they’re hydrated.
How to Calm Your Cats During the Road Trip
This is a tough one… Most cats hate car rides, so even though you can do whatever you can to calm them on the road trip, they’re going to meow. A lot. To a point where you’re annoyed AF.
But, what can you do? They’re family, so you have to deal with it.
Here are some tips to calm them during the long distance car ride though. Methods I employed.
- Have your cat roam outside the carrier in the car – The car hammock for pets that I mentioned above is very handy dandy, because you can let your cats out of the carrier in the car. Make sure to keep the harness and leash on them and tie the leash to somewhere stable in the car.
- Medicine/sedatives – Although I do not recommend medicine to calm cats for travel by plane, it’s a different story for long distance car rides. For travel by plane, vets don’t recommend sedatives, because a cat’s body needs to regulate to the pressure changes, and the sedatives could mess that up. But that’s not really an issue for driving. So, I would recommend seeing your vet about the sedatives for the road trip. I gave Charlie some sedatives half an hour before we left every morning. He hated it, of course, because it’s bitter and chemical-y, but it did help.
- Pheromones – You can use a pheromone spray to spray the car before you leave. Or a pheromone collar. You can check out how to calm a scared cat with the spray here.
- Someone sitting in the back with the cats – If you can, take turns driving and sitting in the back with the cats. Although cats hate to admit that they like your sometimes, they do feel more at ease when their owner is there near them.
- Keep the temperature cool – Have the A/C on at low and regulate the temperature to be around 72 degrees in the car. Not too hot and not too cold but on the cool side.
- Melatonin half an hour before leaving – Finally, melatonin to calm your cat could help. It’s natural, so you don’t have to be as cautious as sedatives. Give them the melatonin chewables half an hour before leaving for the day.
As a concluding note, I just want to say that you should set yourself and your cats up for success. That means planning ahead the important things like booking accommodations that are cat friendly and only planning to be on the road for 8-10 hours max per day.
The last thing you want is to get overwhelmed and so stressed that day 1, you feel like giving up.
An extra day to travel is way better than feeling stressed out and everyone getting sick.
I hope you found this helpful and I will document my journey driving back across the country to the west.
If you do set yourself up for success, then it can actually be a pretty fun road trip! Thanks for reading and good luck.