Fear Free Means Happy Paws: Car Travel for the Anxious Pet!

It doesn’t matter how positive or happy your pet’s destination may be if they are afraid of how you get there. You can have the best Fear Free vet in the world, but if Fido is stressed out in the car, it will take work to bring him back to his “happy place”. Here are some great tips for setting the stage for happy traveling!

It all starts before you get in your car.

First things, first: You should be able to recognize signs of fear and stress in your pet! This will help you react as needed to help your pet throughout your trip. Here are recognizable signs for cats and for dogs.

Secondly, make sure to start them out in a happy place: 

For Cats: 

Think about your carrier, because the wrong one can make them even more stressed while traveling. Hard carriers are preferred for support (doesn’t need to be plastic, just not flimsy), and having a removable top is great! Choosing one with front and top openings is very helpful once you reach the vet, because they’ll have easier access to Kitty without forcing them to come out if they don’t want to. Also make sure they’re large enough to lay comfortably and turn around in. This one is a great option, but the Sleepypod Bed is my personal favorite!

Once you have your carrier, don’t hide it! It’s going to be what your cat uses in the car, so you definitely want them to spend as much time in it as possible. Leave it out in a place that Kitty likes to lay or relax in. I like to leave it elevated off the floor and a blanket inside with a spritz of pheromone spray. Sometimes the top is on, sometimes not. Kitty eats next to it, gets treats in it occasionally, and if/when she gets a new toy, it always starts there. Soon, this carrier will be your cat’s favorite place to hang out in. 

For Dogs:

Same thing here! You need to choose the best restraint for your pet. I know a lot of folks leave their pups loose in the car, but 1) it’s simply not safe, and 2) Fido can get more and more stressed out if he doesn’t feel secure. Same as above, the correct size crate or carrier works well for small dogs (make sure it has non-slip lining). You want to follow similar steps as above so that your pup is familiar with it and actually likes to hang out in his space!

For some dogs, look into a harness or seat belt. Just like for kids, you want to make sure they’re properly fitted. There also isn’t a requirement for safety testing doggy car travel products, so the quality varies; you can check with Center for Pet Safety for information on certain products. This one is CPS Certified!

Just as you ‘train’ your cat to use its carrier, you want to condition your pup to his harness. Just throwing it on and jumping in the car may make him even more scared because he has no clue what’s going on. Start in the house for short periods of time, then longer periods, then in the car for short rides (5 minutes). Reward for calm behavior (high value treats, food in toys, self-feeding devices). Do NOT force or punish if they get nervous with it on! Take a step back; giving them treats when they smell it, treats when they touch it, and when they put their head in the harness on their own.

Ready to go?

Prep your crate and carrier if you’re using one. Add your pet’s favorite blanket or towel with a spritz of pheromone spray (usually 15-30 minutes before you leave). If your pet usually does great in the crate/carrier at home but gets slowly stressed for longer drives, you can try a Thundershirt (for cats/for dogs). Don’t pull Kitty or Fido out of hiding, encourage them to walk into the carrier on their own. If pups are used to a bandana, you can add pheromones to that as well.

Make sure your car is ready with calming music (just make sure you don’t fall asleep). Great options include classical or species specific music (such as iCalm or Pet Tunes Cat/ Pet Tunes Dog).  I’ve used the Pet Tunes speakers in many ways, and love them. You can read more about them HERE! Ultimately, you want to limit as much stimuli as possible and keep things dark and quiet (or with appropriate music). Sun shades on the windows are helpful.

  • DO: Carry the carrier from underneath (securely), cover with towel/blanket, keep it elevated, and minimize movement.

  • DON’T: Carry by handle and swing carrier around.

Carrier/crates should be on the floor behind passenger seat if possible, or in the back of the car (as long as you have easy access- no trunks, please!). If a carrier has to be on a seat, make sure it’s not up front near an airbag, and the front is facing the back or car door. Avoid transporting cats together, as that tends to cause more stress. Dogs in harnesses and seat belts should be in the back seat, away from airbags.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s a great idea to practice short trips before going on longer ones! You can use treat dispensers to help distract pups if they start getting hyped up.

Returning home, safe and sound.

Most pets do just fine when coming back home from a car trip, but every once in a while a strange smell or two might distress kitty companions and cause aggression towards their family members . This is called Non-Recognition Aggression Syndrome and happens most often after trips to the vet where one of the pets stayed home. To avoid possible problems, re-introduce them just as you would if you were bringing in a brand new cat; slowly. Remove triggers like food bowls or toys, and let your cats smell each other and get reacquainted through a gate or fence. You can even rub all kitties involved with the blanket that went to the vet with you so they have a similar smell. Sometimes it takes a little while, but it’s worth the time to avoid a bad situation!

  • Don’t punish your pet for their reaction, or encourage lots of play when they’re unsettled. 
  • Don’t ignore any signs of stress. If your cat or dog is acting stressed, he’s trying to tell you something.

Remember that every pet is going to be different, and may need a little less or a little more help & encouragement. Don’t hesitate to talk to your vet if you’re not finding success; they’re on your team!


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