Orange tabbies probably evolved past desert survival.
May 27, 2012 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Moving across the country with two cats and a car full of stuff. It's a three-day drive, including hot weather and desert. What are your best practices and pro tips? Buddy cat pictures inside.

On Sunday, I'm moving from Chicago to Tucson, Arizona to start a new job. My furniture and most of my stuff is getting there via professional movers. My father and I, along with the Weasleycats (Fred and George, previously on AskMeFi), are taking my Pontiac Vibe hatchback, which will also have the necessities of the trip and a few things to make it through the first few weeks while I wait for my stuff to catch up to me (up to 3 weeks). We will likely drive this route with overnight stops in St. Louis and Amarillo, and one night in a hotel in Tucson.

I'm mostly worried about getting my furry devils to Arizona safely. I've moved locally with them before, so I have a pretty good sense of adjusting them to new places. They've also taken several 6-8 hour car trips, but only between Chicago and St. Louis. They've never been sedated for the trips. George typically falls asleep in his carrier, but Fred doesn't travel well and cries for most of the trip. On this trip, the seats will be folded down and the car will likely be packed to the brim with boxes and bags of stuff that can't go with the movers. The cats will be in the back, right behind the front seats and within easy reach.

Things I've done so far to help them prepare for the move:
-They each have a harness and we've been practicing wearing them around the house. They'll wear the harnesses in the car, and when it's time to take a potty break, I'll open their carriers up in the car and attach the leash before opening the car door.

-I planned on buying three disposable litter pans for the trip and using one per day. I figured that I'd use one per day and take them out (on the leash) to use when we were stopped (for gas and human potty breaks). We'll also bring that one into the hotel for the night and then throw it away in the morning.

-Explained to my father that we aren't going to be able to make touristy stops (and if we do, someone has to stay in the car with the A/C running).

-Made reservations at pet-friendly hotels at all of our stops.

-I've decided that I'm definitely not comfortable sedating them, because I worry that they might get sick and wouldn't be able to tell me. We'll feed each night in the hotel, but won't free feed so that they don't get sick in the car the next day.

We'll likely run the A/C pretty hard in the car. We'll provide water to them several times a day. What other things do I need to do to keep my boys as comfortable as possible? Should I be thinking about soaking wash clothes in cool water and keeping them in their carriers? Are there things I'm not considering that I should be?
posted by honeybee413 to Pets & Animals (29 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I did Michigan to California, similar drive under similar circumstances. One cat was fine, the other ended up needing subcutaneous fluids halfway through. She refused to drink, got dehydrated, and was feeling sick and refused to drink even more.

Basically, just keep an eye on them. You can tell if a cat is dehydrated by pinching the skin together near the shoulder blades. It should spring right back. If it is slow to return, they're dehydrated.
posted by zug at 9:32 PM on May 27, 2012

This is solely based on my experience, but I thought I'd throw it out there. With my cats, potty breaks on stops for gas and such don't work. As a general rule, cats don't pee on command, and taking them out of their carriers at any time during the trip (except in hotel rooms) seems like a very risky proposition. When I moved from Seattle to Chicago, and Chicago to Phoenix, I put a small litter box in each carrier (like a tupperware or something). This worked well and there was no risk of a stressed-out cat escaping on a potty break. Just a thought.
posted by bolognius maximus at 9:37 PM on May 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

I've done a two day summer trip with two cats. I had small litter pans in their cages and offered water during the trip. But they were not interested in using the pans while in the car, nor drinking anything. Although mine were medicated, so that might have been why.

I just threw towels over the cages to give them shade and didn't seem to run into any problems. However, I was crossing the Plains states and not the desert so wet towels may be a good idea.

What you have there so far seems like good things. One thing I might add is to make sure that you block off routes to underneath the bed or other furnishings in the hotel room if you can before letting the kitties loose. Trying to drag an unhappy feline out from under the bed or dresser when you want to get on the road will be a big pain in the ass.
posted by weathergal at 9:46 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd plan to pick up cheap ice packs in supermarkets daily, wrap 'em in towels, and put them in the carriers, just as an extra protection against overheating. And bring a baby syringe, as in a pinch you can encourage a recalcitrant cat to drink with gentle little squirts.
posted by Scram at 9:52 PM on May 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

When I did a cross-country move (and, indeed, when I take all three of my cats anywhere at the same time), I put the cats into a crate designed for a medium-sized dog. One of my cats is high-maintenance, one is very mischievous, and one is very easy-going, and they are able to keep each other calm. They pretty much always curl into a big pile together; during the move, they slept for the majority of the time they were in my car each day, and had no interest in water when it was offered. At the hotels, I put the litterbox in one part of the bathroom and the crate in another, and they ended up sleeping in the crate together for most of the night as well. Of course, ymmv depending on your cats' personalities, but I know that mine would freak the heck out if I took them out of my car in a strange place, and they definitely wouldn't pee on command or anything.
posted by shamash at 10:13 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you can, try to keep the carriers out of direct sunlight or at least covered. I drive a similar hatchback and even with the AC blasting, I can get pretty hot on some legs of that trip (I've done the Oklahoma City to Flagstaff leg of I-40) since I'm driving in a giant metal and glass box in the desert. It's like sitting under a magnifying glass. And I don't wear a fur coat as a matter of course.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:28 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Similarly, you might try to do as much of the driving as possible during the late night and early morning (this is also vastly preferable traffic-wise, though it wreaks havoc with dining options).
posted by box at 11:12 PM on May 27, 2012

I *just* made a roughly 1900 mile trip from Mississippi to New Mexico with Mr. Mister about three days ago. My hatchback has a privacy panel which I pulled over and put his litter pan back there with his carrier. He could go in and out as he pleased (the privacy panel kept him in the back.) He did use the pan in the car, but I think that's because he had a bit of room. Mr. is a pretty laid back cat though, so there's that.

If you're running the AC in the car, you should be fine.
posted by patheral at 11:15 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

My wife and I bought a small rabbit hutch and put our two cats in that, in the back of sedan. This held a small litter box in the corner, etc. The one night we stayed in a hotel, we carried the hutch into the room.

They'll wear the harnesses in the car, and when it's time to take a potty break, I'll open their carriers up in the car and attach the leash before opening the car door.

bolognius maximus is right. Cats don't pee on command, and transitioning the cats in and out of the carriers adds complexity and risk.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:06 AM on May 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have traveled from 29 Palms, California to Toronto with 3 cats. I never took them out of their carriers when they were outside. They went from car to hotel room in carrier. I even covered the carriers while we were going in and out of the car so they wouldn't be nervous.

I very, very strongly advise against using harnesses on your cats at rest stops. A startled cat has the power of a small jet engine. If a dog chases them, the harness is useless. Even a loud noise like a backfire can scare a cat enough to get away. It will happen very fast and and you are right there next to a busy freeway. It's a recipe for disaster.

If you put them out in a rest stop they will be too nervous to go with all the noise and people and strange smells. I kept small litter pans in their carriers and I had a covered carrier in the car. I let them out of the carriers and they would use the box in the car and then I'd put them back inside.

If you have AC in the car and are comfortable your cats probably will be too.

Good luck on your move!
posted by Melsky at 3:40 AM on May 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

I concur that taking the cats out on harnesses at rest stops has the strong potential for disaster. You are much better off putting a small litterbox in the carrier and/or taking rest breaks by parking in the shade (air-conditioner on) and putting the cats inside their litter box in the car with all windows/doors closed. And when you get to your motel(s), first shut cats inside bathroom with litter box so they can use it / freak out in small space.

Recently I drove my cat cross-country and used a pheromone collar meant to soothe him. It was his first long drive so I've no idea what effect if any it had, but he was quiet and docile the whole trip. Except when he tried to shimmy up inside the dashboard when I wasn't looking, so keep an eye on yours.

If you've time to introduce a new litter box, my cat uses the Clevercat box, which can remain upright in the car. (Any plastic box + hole in lid is fine.) I let him out while driving to use the box occasionally, but he preferred riding inside the familiar space instead.
posted by nicebookrack at 5:57 AM on May 28, 2012

I've driven a cat from Wyoming to Wisconsin (as well as cats on multiple all-day trips). This is what I've learned.

1. Reservations are great, but have backups. We used Pets Welcome to build our list of potentials along our route.

2. Many of the attractions on Roadside America are perfect for "seeing something" in 3 minutes, break up a long stretch of road, and can be done without turning off the car, or parking under a shady tree while you pop out to stretch your legs and get a full look at a giant concrete or metal moose. Plus, they're good opportunities for letting the cats out in a closed car so they can stroll to a litterbox and decide that, no, they can hold it until they are out of an infernal machine (needless to say, newspaper in the bottom of the travelling container is a good idea).

3. Have the nervous cat within hand's reach of your passenger, who can pet or stroke the cat. If your stuff can be configured this way and your passenger is amenable, someone sitting next to the cats in the backseat might be more comforting than having someone reach back from the front seat.

4. Test the cat to see if they like seeing out the window or not as you drive. Some cats calm down with a view, but it freaks other cats right out.

5. Play music for the cat. I don't know why, but most of the cats I've driven in cars like the blues, old-school vocalists, or string sections, and whine less when it's playing. You may have to experiment a bit.
posted by julen at 6:06 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have taken my cat on two long-distance moves; one two-day move from Indiana to Florida and another from Florida to Massachusetts that took three days. I just wanted to echo the sentiment that kitty bathroom breaks are probably going to have to be in-car rather than out-of-car. My general policy was that kitty stays in the car except when in the hotel room, and stays in the carrier whenever the car is in motion.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:14 AM on May 28, 2012

Three cats from LA to the Midwest. Separate cages. No pee breaks. Some yowling. No accidents. They ate and drank a bit in the hotel rooms and used the litter tray and were oddly relieved to get back in their carriers in the morning. We spread one of those silver reflective shields like this across the carriers to keep the sun off them. They did fine though like us all they were glad when it was over.
posted by firstdrop at 6:26 AM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I took my boy with me on my three and a half day trek across country to our new home. I was in a 14 year old car that could barely make 35 when put to a hill. It was gruesome and we were equally terrified.

He had free access to a kitty litter pan the entire trip and absolutely refused to use it, or eat or drink, while in the car. He was fine with using the kitty litter at hotels when we stopped. Like others have said, please be careful about the harness thing -- it seems unlikely that they'll go for the potty break thing and there are risks attached.

Also be careful of the beds in the hotels, if your guys are the kind who crawl inside things -- some of them have areas in the back or underneath where they can, you know -- crawl inside. Put your do not disturb sign up the second you get in so no maid service or whatever opens the door while you are in a shower and lets a cat out.
posted by instead of three wishes at 6:39 AM on May 28, 2012

Make sure you have lots of extra water and some sort of shade prepared for the unlikely event that your car breaks down mid-desert. When we were moving my cat cross-town, our car broke down, and it was a good 95 degrees out and everyone was miserable and I was afraid Triceratops was going to dehydrate. I can only imagine what that would be like in the middle of Arizona.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:13 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Please reconsider letting your cats out of the crates at all, except at night in a locked hotel room. Anecdotal evidence aside, any time your cats are out of their crate, it increases the likelihood that one of them will escape. And no matter how firm a handle you think you have on your cat's personality, you have no way of knowing how it will react on this particular trip. I drive animals for rescue groups, and have had cats escape on me. It's the worst feeling in the world to watch one gallop off, knowing that it is your own fault.

Make sure that your cats are chipped and have collars with tags. And double-check that the phone number associated with the chip, and on the tags, is your current cell phone that you will have with you on the trip. Then take several clear photos of your cats from many angles. You might even go so far as to put together a list of animal controls, police departments and rescue groups located along your route, just in case you need to contact them.

Good luck!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:28 AM on May 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: We do a 12-hr drive with our solo cat, with a litter pan in the footwell. Cat is in his carrier when car is moving, we let him out of it, within the car, at rest stops. We stop more often than we otherwise would - probably every 2 hrs. Car doors are never open unless he is in his carrier.

Typically he will use the litter box once during the trip, much less than his usual average. When he uses the box, we wait til it's time to put him back in his carrier, put him in, and then scoop the litter and discard the discardables while we're still at the rest stop. We bring a litter scoop, plastic bags, paper towels and hand sanitizer for this.

He doesn't drink, although we offer "running" water (pour slowly from a water bottle into a shallow Tupperware) every time anyway. We don't usually sedate him, although we gave him 1/2 of a benadryl the first time we moved him and it seemed to be fine.

He is most bothered by changes in momentum or direction - so he'll cry when we're speeding up, slowing down, or in any kind of turning situation. But once we're at speed on the highway he settles down. I mention this just in case it helps you to mitigate your cat's distress by choosing routes with the smallest transition periods.

I will underline that you must never leave them alone in the car - the one time our cat was overheating happened very fast and with no warning. We were at a rest stop, cat was out of his carrier, and I was in the car, but had turned the AC off while my partner ran in to use the restroom. It was not a particularly hot day. Even though the temperature was fine for me, the cat suddenly went into distress, panting with a faraway look in his eye, producing a small amount of froth at his mouth - this was just in the minute or so it took me to clue in and get the AC going again.

I wonder if you can get temporary stick-on window-darkening/tinting plastic sheets to cover all three rear windows. You are right to be very vigilant about them overheating.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:52 AM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I moved from Iowa to California with my cat, and it was fine - my cat stayed in her carrier in the car all day and I let her out at night in the hotel room. Can't say she enjoyed the trip all that much, but it worked out fine.

I was moving, so my car was jam packed full of stuff, but what worked really well was that I put the cat carrier in the back seat and packed stuff around it. By the time everything was packed, there was a solid layer of stuff above and around the carrier that provided very effective insulation. I was driving through the west in July, and my air conditioning (which isn't great) couldn't really keep up enough to keep me comfortable, but it stayed very cool in the cat carrier. I could stop places and dash in and out, and as long as I parked in the shade, it worked fine.

Ancillary benefit: my cat meows nonstop on car trips, which would have driven me crazy, but the "stuff layer" muted it pretty effectively. :-)
posted by captainawesome at 12:28 PM on May 28, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the helpful tips. I'm reassessing some of our travel plans now.

I won't let them outside of the car at all until we're at the hotel for the night. We have been doing some harness-and-leash tests in quiet areas around the apartment we're in now, but an unfamiliar environment changes everything.

Instead of putting them in their individual carriers, I'm considering trying to rig a couple of laundry baskets together and then putting them in that together with a small litter pan. I'm also going to invest in some puppy pads and wrap some icepacks up in paper towels. We'll probably still do the ice-cold washcloth bit, too, at least through the Amarillo-to-Tucson leg.
posted by honeybee413 at 4:53 PM on May 28, 2012

honeybee413: "puppy pads and wrap some icepacks up in paper towels"

Puppy pads make great wraps for ice. :-) So do disposable diapers, although some of them can be too thick, negating the cooling factor.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:02 PM on May 28, 2012

I should completely think through my response before I post, sorry! You can also freeze disposable diapers by themselves and use them as cooling pads. (I've used one on a sore knee.) Keep a cooler filled with ice (probably easier to find than a freezer for freezing cold packs), and periodically swap out a cool pad/diaper/cloth.

FYI, in a heat-related emergency while on the road once, I bought a bag of ice and a towel, and laid the cat right on it. Seemed to work - the cat was none the worse for wear.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:08 PM on May 28, 2012

I'm considering trying to rig a couple of laundry baskets together and then putting them in that together with a small litter pan.

Word of warning: I took my two chill cats on a three day road trip from New Mexico to Washington and even though they were on the seat next to me and I never saw them freaking out, they shredded the shit out of their carriers. Another day and they might have ripped them open. A laundry basket would NOT have survived that. Maybe a large dog crate (a catproofed one, for their toesies) would work better?

My trip was through the desert in August, and my cats wouldn't eat, drink, or excrete until we got to the hotel, and my messing around with ice cubes and towels and treats just annoyed them. They did appreciate when I stuck my hand in the carriers and let them gnaw on it a little in revenge. They also hated hated hated Lady Gaga. But seriously, they'll probably be okay, even if they don't eat or drink for 6-8 hours at a time. Oh, and to spare me from eating all my meals in the car with them, I just took their carriers into restaurants with me. No one batted an eye, cats were air-conditioned, and I had company.
posted by ke rose ne at 7:40 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

They did appreciate when I stuck my hand in the carriers and let them gnaw on it a little in revenge

We gave ours a few low calorie cat treats, (to which their systems were already habituated). It was a decent way to distract them.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:03 PM on May 28, 2012

Purely an anecdote, may not work with your cats if they are particularly active or curious, but when my mother drove our two (somewhat elderly) cats from Nebraska to Washington state, she was opened their cages and one alternated sleeping in her lap and on the dashboard, she put a towel up there after it initially climbed up. I'm sure this goes against all accepted cat-in-car safety rules, but it worked for them and the cats really enjoyed looking out the windows and being more in control of their movement and surroundings (they were never great closed in carriers because that just meant "we're going to the vet to get shots"). Obviously if it's hot, it's easy to overheat on a dashboard, too.
posted by dahliachewswell at 9:16 PM on May 28, 2012

Be very careful with harness. I lost a favorite (formerly feral) kitty because I trusted a harness approved and fitted by the vet. The little bugger just turned himself inside out and left the harness dangling from the lead--never even pulled back on it. And this was after weeks of harness training and walkies to prepare him for an upcoming move!

This happened in my in-laws' back yard. Although we never saw him again, and no one ever reported him via his chip, I often wonder if he's still around. For forty years, the in-laws were plagued by raccoons. The week after the cat got loose, there were no more dumped garbage cans or stolen cat food, and they haven't seen the raccoons since. Zeke was a terror.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:02 AM on May 29, 2012

I moved three cats from Arizona to Oregon in August. My car did not have AC, so we drove at night. It was much, much cooler and no traffic at all!

I also thought I could "rig a couple laundry baskets together" for the one feisty creature. Do not make the same mistake! By the end of the trip we had resorted to tying the broken pieces of plastic together with our shoelaces.
posted by ilona at 11:42 AM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Now that we're all safely here in Tucson, I thought I'd share what we ended up doing:

Due to space constrictions, both cats ended up in their own carriers and stacked on top of each other (which I wasn't happy about, but it was pretty much unavoidable). Lined each carrier with a puppy pad. In the car, I was able to reach back and stick my fingers through the spaces in their carriers. We used the disposable litter pans (one for each night in a hotel and one for right after we got to the new apartment). Cranked the A/C.

We left at about 8PM on the first and second days and drove for about 6 hours. Day two, stopped at a Super 8 in Tulsa. The cats started crying about halfway through the trip. First night in the hotel was a disaster (couldn't get the cats adequately settled, dad wanted them in the bathroom, cats cried in the bathroom to be let out, were let out and promptly started trying to scratch up the hotel beds, and so on). One of the cats missed the litter pan - we subsequently put the pans in the bath tubs and/or on top of a puppy pad.

On our long day, we left Tulsa and drove to Las Cruces, NM. Stayed in a La Quinta, which was way better than the Super 8. Packed the cats up, each with a half-frozen bottle of water, and put a white towel over the top of the carriers, making sure to allow still for adequate ventilation. Checked them every time we stopped for gas, gave water a couple of times, which they didn't take. They drank a lot of water in the hotels, though. Thankfully, no accidents in the car.

The third day was short, left in the morning to avoid the desert heat and set them up ASAP in the new apartment. Everybody's doing well, although they did run in terror from the giant drain roach in my shower - no predatory instincts whatsoever.
posted by honeybee413 at 1:04 PM on June 9, 2012

Thanks for the followup - glad to hear you all made it!
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:55 PM on June 9, 2012

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