How To Drive 1,802 Kilometers With A Cat In Tow (or How To Pull Kitty From A Thorn Bush)

Last Thursday afternoon (12:30 PM EST July 30, 2009) I started driving my kitty Jessie to her new home in Austin, TX with a friend (Jessie’s new Parent).  It was 1,120 miles (1,802 kilometers) and 19.5 hours of straight agony. :)

I’d driven Jessie 1,200 miles twice before.  Once from Central Florida to Metro Detroit, Michigan.  And then 4 months later from Metro Detroit back to Central Florida.  Each of those trips were done in two 8-9 hour spurts, with a night of rest in between.

The Austin trip I decided should be done straight because Jessie is not a fan of carriers or driving.  I thought it would be easier to just get it done as quickly as possible.

But I guess hindsight really is 20/20 because that was wrong, wrong, wrong.

The best (read: worst) part was getting my arms and legs cut to shreds pulling Jessie out of a thorn bush in the middle of dark nowhere Texas at 4:00 AM Friday morning, just 150 miles from Austin.

She Pooped In The Car

Around 3:15 AM Jessie pooped in her carrier. She had been doing well for 950 miles and we only had 170 miles to go. We pulled over to the first gas station we saw, got a key for their bathroom, and took Jessie inside. She refused to come out of her carrier so I pulled the towel she was sitting on out and threw it away. I put down a new towel and we were good to go.

Hey, that wasn’t so bad.

She Peed In The Car

20 minutes later she peed in her carrier.

I pulled over again, but this time there was no open gas station. There was a gas station with open pumps that was pretty well lit so we stopped there.

I took the carrier out of the car and put it on the ground.  As I opened it slightly and reached in to attach a leash to Jessie’s collar she darted out towards the highway.

She stopped right before the road and I ran across the highway to chase her back towards the gas station. But then she ran towards a dark field that surrounded the gas station for a good mile.

Cats are fast.

I thought she was gone forever and felt an immediate sadness.  My body started to feel like Jello.  You know that feeling you get when you have a near-miss car accident?

She would stop running for a second, but even if I’d stop and walk slowly towards her she’d run.  So I kept chasing and, unfortunately, Jessie ran under a 5 foot tall fence.

I hopped the fence and felt a nice surprise.  It was a field full of thorn bushes. I barely saw, mostly heard, Jessie run into a dense thorn bush, about 4 feet in diameter.

She was stuck and my legs were already cut to shreds.

I reached my arms in trying to find her only to feel dozens of thorns piercing my flesh as I frantically thrashed my arms around.

Jessie didn’t move, didn’t make a sound, it was too dark to see her, and I didn’t have a light.

I had my friend run to the car for my cell phone which gave me a bit of light.

Jessie was right in the middle of the bush in a bit of a clearing, but she wasn’t moving, probably due to being scared and in some pain.

I essentially dove into the bush, grabbed a tight hold of her body, and pulled her out. I immediately clipped the leash to her collar, ran towards the fence, hopped it while holding her in one arm (I’m 6’5″ so a 5 foot fence isn’t too difficult), and ran towards the car.

In the light of the gas station we cleaned off all the visible thorns from her fur and examined her face and paws.  Everything looked okay.  She was in an almost paralytic state and didn’t struggle as I put her inside her carrier more easily than ever before.

I proceeded to examine myself and pulled the 2-3 dozen thorns, many of which had broken their points off under my skin, out of my arms and legs.  Luckily I had tweezers (Swiss Army Knife, thanks!).  I wiped myself down with an antiseptic wipe (First Aid Kit, thanks!) and we were on our way.

I still found thorn splinters in my hands 2 days later. :)

What I should I have done differently?

I should’ve pulled out a litter box and had Jessie use it in the gas station after her first accident.

And if that didn’t work and she still had a second accident, I should’ve opened the carrier and leashed Jessie inside the car instead of trying to do it outside the car. My thinking was that since she was afraid to get out of her carrier the first time she would also be afraid the second time. But cats are tricky and unpredictable like that.

Lack of sleep and 17 hours on the road can make decision making less than stellar.

If you’re ever planning on driving a long distance with a cat of your own here’s what I’ve learned driving a cat over 3,500 miles (5,630 kilometers) on 3 separate trips, speaking to 2 Vets, and reading a handful of pet travel information online.

There is no learning experience like real experience, but you’d probably do well reading about my mistakes instead of making them on your own.

Driving a cat is different than driving with a dog. Dogs are leash animals, so stopping to let them out and relieve themselves is usually no problem. They’re also good about coming when you call their name. Cats don’t believe in names. :) My driving experience is strictly with cats so the following tips are for cats.

Pre-Trip

I don’t subscribe to the popular “take your cat on short car trips a bunch of times before your long trip” that I’ve read on countless Web sites. I tried that on previous long trips and what I found is every short car trip was just more stress on my cat. Who does that help? It’s a waste of time and may just make your cat even more difficult on the long trip.

What I do, as much as I dislike it, is give Jessie a mild sedative from the vet about an hour before driving. It’s in pill form and puts her in a drowsy trance for about 10 hours.

Pack your car the night before the trip so when you’re ready to go in the morning you can just scoop up your pet and go. I made the mistake of renting a car from Orlando to Austin and picking it up and packing it the morning of the trip. That wasted about 3 hours of valuable travel time.

Don’t feed your pet a few hours before the trip. That includes water. I fed Jessie a little bit about 2 hours before her first accident, about 14 hours into the trip. I’m still not sure if that was a good move or not, but I wouldn’t do that again.

During The Trip

Make your stops brief and infrequent.

Don’t leave your cat in the car alone for more than a minute or two. If you really need to sit down to eat bring the cat carrier inside.

For the most part your cat will probably sleep for the ride. When she wakes up she’ll probably vocalize her discomfort, but she’ll go back to sleep soon enough.

If you’re on an almost 20 hour trip like I was be sure to stop halfway to let your cat use the litter box. You can find small litter boxes with plastic bag box liners at any pet supply store (and even Walmart and Target). Find an enclosed bathroom and let your cat out inside.  Not doing this was my biggest mistake.

After The Trip

Let your cat out inside her new home, give her a little food and fresh water, and bring out a few toys. Set up the litter box and make sure she knows where it is.

If your cat doesn’t do well in new environments you might want to keep her in one room while she adjusts. Thankfully, Jessie is pretty easygoing as far as new places so she immediately took to her new home. But you should watch your cat over the next few days for behavioral changes, especially lack of appetite.

Conclusion

Don’t be stupid (like I was) and let your cat get free in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. :)

{ 16 comments }

Tanner

So your recommendation is to to feed the cat only at night when the day’s driving is finished?

Karol

Exactly. That’s what I did on the two previous 1200 mile trips. Fed her at the hotel, but took the food away before I went to sleep so she’d hopefully purge it before the next drive. :) She wasn’t thrilled with that situation, but it worked much better than this straight drive to Austin. haha

Merrie

I was led to your article through “Goodlife Zen” and it was timely! I’m leaving tomorrow to pick up my recently deceased son’s cat, Mew. Although only 200-miles away, I want this stressful transition to be done with as little discomfort for her (and me) as is possible ….and your article was very helpful.

Thank you!

Karol

Awww, sorry to hear about your son Merrie. I’m glad the article helped though. 200 miles should be fairly easy since you won’t have to stop for litter-box breaks. (I hope not anyway!)

Steven Ponec

Hahaha. Your article made me laugh pretty much instantly.
“She pooped in the car”
Typical random cat behavior (well maybe not random…but biological)
Got to this from your minimalism guide, which I am currently reading.

And this is actually really good advice for traveling with a cat! I would never think of traveling with my cat – he might go a bit crazy. After all, he absolutely HATES it when we take him in a little box to the vet.
Sad you had to get rid of your cat though :(

Karol

I didn’t get rid of her, she just doesn’t live with me. She is in my favorite city in the world and I will be there often. :)

Allison Christiansen

On the way here (216 miles), my cat pooped in her carrier because she was really scared. (It was storming really badly that day). Now I can’t get her to go into her carrier. I have cleaned it out but I’m assuming she can still smell it. I’m trying to get her used to it before I have to make the journey back (four weeks or so from now). Any ideas on how to get her to go back in there or should I just give up and get a new carrier?

Karol

Hi Allison,

No idea. Getting my cat into her carrier was always an ordeal. I don’t think there is an easy way.

Karol

Jaye

My husband and I regularly travel 1,200 miles with our cat. We use a plastic DOG carrier, line the bottom with newspaper, then set a dishpan filled with litter in the back. There’s plenty of room in the front for the cat to snooze. Her food and water dishes clip to the inside of the door, and we fill these about 1/3 full each time we stop. At the motel (best when traveling with pet), we leave the carrier in the car and just carry the cat and litter pan to the room. We have a small 2-door hatchback and this method works great for us!

Karol

Thanks Jaye. great ideas!

Ashley

Sounds like you love Jessie very much. I have a similar experience with my cat, Riley. I’m living, working, and going to grad school on the West coast of Michigan, but my family and place where I grew up are on the East side. While the trip back and forth is a sliver of your trip with Jessie, Riley’s reaction isn’t any less dramatic. I pick up her food and water several hours prior to traveling and try to trick her into using the litter box before leaving by pretending to clean it out (she’s decided her favorite time to eliminate is after scooping out or replacing her litter). The trip is only two hours (with no stops) and she still manages to both urinate and defecate at least once. Returning from my parents’ she had two accidents. She also cries and howls about once every five seconds, unless I am talking with her and then they quiet to soft mews. So as sane as I must appear to fellow travelers, I proceed to talk to my cat in the passenger seat (in her belted-in carrier) for two hours. My mom know how distressed I get when Riley is so upset and just purchased Feliway. Have you tried this? I was hoping I wouldn’t need to use a sedative or chemical, but I’ve read this product is natural and doesn’t dramatically effect your cat. Glad you caught Jessie and that you both weren’t seriously injured.

Karol

Ahh, I’ve never heard of Feliway, but I have no issues with sedatives. They’re not my favorite solution, but sometimes they’re the best solution. For a 2 hour drive a sedative is overkill though. Couldn’t you just leave Riley at home and have someone stop in daily to check on him? (Assuming you’re not gone for too long.)

Susan

Wow. Sounds intense. My cat would hyper-ventilate in the car and end up rolling down the automatic windows or hide under the seat. Thus we could never take her anywhere but the vet.

I have friends who rub a little lavender oil on the cats paws and they say it works wonders. They also do it when she’s sick or over-active. Calms her right down.

Karol

I have not heard the lavender oil trick. Also, that’s crazy that your cat can roll down the windows. :)

Abby

I am about to drive from Columbus, OH to Dallas, TX with my kitty. I was really stressing about the trip and how she would handle it, but this SERIOUSLY helped a lot – most of what I’ve found has been advice for short trips, but this is going to be a 16+ hour drive!

Thank you!!

Karol

Hey Abby! Glad it helped. :)

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