What's the best method to get this anxious kitty across the ol' USA?
April 9, 2014 12:16 PM   Subscribe

Special Agent Dale Cooper is a very sweet, loving and lazy kitty. He is very happy living the simplest of lives - by day he lazes at the foot of my bed. He takes odd breaks to snack, or lie in his cat lounge. Every once in a while, when he needs to shake it up, he takes an adventure-tourism vacation to lounge on the bathmat. I am currently anticipating a job offer that will take him VERY far out of his comfort zone - clear across the country. Previous travels have been traumatic for Agent Cooper and his traveling companions (namely me, but also anyone in a small radius). I'll explain at length inside - warning: it's a little, but not terribly, gross.

No matter what, I am likely moving to another city to further my career in the next few months.

My very beloved cat Agent Cooper entered my life nearly 2 years ago now, when he was about a year old. He was a pretty traumatized alley cat who had just lived through a difficult Boston winter, and was very grateful to come to my home and be a lazy indoor kitty. He's very attached to me and gets pretty stressed if I leave him alone for more than a day. The moment I picked him up from the shelter, the 20 minute ride to my house was a nightmare. He is a stress pooper - and it is shockingly smelly. He foams at the mouth and he cries and does this kind of panicked kitty scream, urgently begging me with his meows to make the terror stop. It is heartbreaking as well as a full on olfactory assault.

I thought maybe it was just the stress of having been at, getting used to, and then leaving the shelter, but last year we had a few vet trips and they were exactly the same. The reason for the vet visit, in fact was that he was backed up and had not pooped in days, but the moment we got into the car, he found a way. We had several trips and they were all the same, both to and from the vet. He never seemed to get used to it. To be fair, no trip we took to the vet ever ended in anything enjoyable for him, but the reaction he has to traveling is VERY extreme, every time.

I understand you can sedate and drug a cat, but that some airlines might not allow it. I'm also not sure if it would even work. One of the vet trips required that he be sedated, and he was completely out of it, with his little kitty tongue lolling out of his mouth, but he STILL managed to clue in to the fact that he was in the horrible no good terrible carrier and that it was time to poop, foam at the mouth, and scream and cry for rescue.

So - my question to you, cat owners of mefi, is HOW THE HELL am I going to get this poor little guy to a new city? I think a flight would be the most traumatic of all (even though he will be with me) - but the shortest trauma. I also have to admit I do not want to be that lady on the plane with the stinking, screaming kitty poopmonster. Is flying out of the question? I read this question with lots of good suggestions, but has anybody had actual success flying with a cat this anxious, or should I resign myself to driving now?
posted by pazazygeek to Pets & Animals (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'd try a few things.

1. New carrier. Check out your airline and see if they sell an approved kitty carrier (Southwest does.)

2. Put the carrier out in the living room, line it with a fuzzy towel (the bath mat?) throw treats in there. Every time he gets into the carrier, something awesome happens!

3. When he's good and ready take him for some trips that don't terminate at the vet's office.

4. Get a harness, and put him in the carrier (you'll want one if you're flying anyway.) Take him to a park and let him cavort around. Or hang out. Or whinge to go back home.

5. Take him to Petsmart to sit in the cart, in the carrier and check out the world.

6. Kitty Xanax. If your cat has situational anxiety, perhaps your vet can prescribe a de-stressor.

7. Try Feliway, it may mellow your kitty out.

I think that if you can get him to chill in the carrier, that he may enjoy a cross country car trip. Well, perhaps not enjoy, but endure one, with little fuss, muss and bother.

If you can get him to the point where he's not a mess in the car, you can fit out the backseat with a huge kennel of sorts, and make his trip downright pleasurable.

Try a little of everything. But I'd ditch that old carrier, stress poop and pheromones have probably destroyed it, and even if you can't smell it, Agent Cooper can, and he HATES it!

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:44 PM on April 9, 2014 [10 favorites]

I drugged both my cats for their cross-country flight; they traveled in the cabin with us, not in the baggage area, which is probably where airlines forbid sedated animals. One of the cats was extremely anxious (I still have scars from getting her into her carrier), but she survived the trip. Can you do some test runs with drugs (types, dosages) before your trip? And call your potential airlines to ask about their rules - mine had to have paperwork proving their health and recent vaccinations.

p.s. your cat is EXTREMELY cute.
posted by rtha at 12:44 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you only break out the carrier when he's going on trips? I leave my carriers lying around and open, so my cats sniff and climb in and out of them at their leisure. It makes them much less stressed about the carriers and more amenable to transport in general. I would put the open carrier in an area well-trafficked by Mr. Cooper with a fluffy blanket or towel and a catnip toy inside. Then just leave it there for weeks and weeks. At the very least he'll be more comfortable with the carrier itself.
posted by Anonymous at 12:46 PM on April 9, 2014

Best answer: You can work on adjusting his associations of being crated and in transit. It might take a really long time, maybe longer than the couple of months you have, but if you start now and work on it every day he might at least be a little improved.

You want him to associate initially the carrier, and eventually the car, and eventually being driven, with being calm and settled rather than the vets, pain, anxiety and fear.

First get him used to the carrier you'll be using (possibly buy a new one if his current one smells of poop and terror): have it out where he can see it. Put some cosy blankets or cushions in there. Let him see it and explore it at his own pace, with no fuss. Once he seems comfortable with its presence, he might start going in there of his own accord, if not, you could toss some tasty treats inside to tempt him in. Once he's spent a few days going in and out comfortably, you can try shutting the door, and then opening it again pretty quickly. Once he seems happy with that, leave the door shut for longer. Then leave the room. Then try picking it up. (All this happening over a period of days, and if he seems stressed at any point, back up a stage and let him stay in his comfort zone a little longer). Then walk around the house with it.

Once he seems fine with being in the carrier at home, put him in it in the car. Just for a few minutes at first. Then for longer. Then with the engine on. Progress to a short drive, and make them progressively longer. If he's stressed at any point, go back some stages again. Hopefully by this point he will be happy in his carrier, and happy on the move in the car.

At the very least you could then consider a cross-country move by car, but bear in mind the logistical problems of that too- he'll need to poo/wee at some point, and you'll have to change what he's sitting on. Maybe you'll need to get him used to being picked up and restrained so you can do that safely in the car. Practice doing the things you'll need to do for a cross country trip, even staying in a motel.

Flying is going to be an unknown situation, hard to adjust him to. To be honest I think air travel is going to stress most animals out- it's up to you whether you think he could handle it. But there are medical options other than sedation, and like you say, it would be over more quickly for him. But if you can get him happy with car travel I think that would be the kindest option for him.
posted by mymbleth at 12:53 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

FWIW, here is a picture of Eartha and Malcom, just hanging out of an evening in their cat carriers.

They're in our living room now, and more often than not, it's a nice place for a snooze for them.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:02 PM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thundershirts makes a version for kitties. Thundershirts have a very good reputation among guardians of anxiety-prone dogs but I don't personally know anyone who's tried the kitty shirt. They also have a 45-day guarantee; if your pet doesn't respond to it, they'll give your money back.
posted by workerant at 1:21 PM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've tried a variety of things with my Sammy Katz and had the best luck with long journeys in cars when I made a litter box available to him, either in a carrier or (dangerous, but with better results for the cat) on the floor of the backseat while he roams freely. The roaming free thing is, again, not super safe and you need someone else to watch the cat because he may or may not try to sit under your feet. Eventually, he always tucks himself into the backseat and sleeps for hours at a time.

Anyway, using this method you can just stop when he poops and bag it and dispose of it. Usually Sammy would poop pretty close to the beginning of the journey.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:28 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was taming semi-feral, super-scared kittens and they were just barely at the stage where they were indoor-only, I had unavoidable out-of-town company who needed to stay for a week. The cats had only ever interacted with two humans and I figured strangers in the house would be a huge trauma.

I had great results with Feliway - it seemed to have the effect of reducing their base level of anxiety. Scary noises would still send them running, but they weren't nearly as terrified during the visit as I'd expected. A friend sprays it into his carrier for vet visits, which has reduced the sad howling.

Obviously this is anecdotal and YMMV; I've read that Feliway affects different cats differently, can have zero effect or even a negative effect, but for me it was a lifesaver. It would definitely be worth experimenting with this well ahead of the trip, to see if it has a positive effect on your (super cute!) kitty. It might be beneficial not only for the trip itself, but also for getting him acclimated to the carrier while still at home.
posted by jessicapierce at 1:31 PM on April 9, 2014

Best answer: I have done multi-day driving trips with my cat(s) for years now and have gotten it down to a science. The trick, such as it is, is getting kitty and you past the freak out stage. The problem with vet trips is the trips are never long enough for this so neither of you know the pattern. I've had worse cats than others, and they do get better with "practice", but every cat IMHO has a pattern and you can manage it better if you know the pattern.
I too had a stress pooper and what i worked out was to line the crate (soft sided one) with puppy pads for easy throw out then replacement. She never pooped until the car had been moving for 5 minutes - i tried numerous times to trick her into letting loose earlier to make my life easier but she was wily that one - so I would pull over, grab the garbage bag and windex I had ready, and clean up the mess. Then, this was key, I would let her hide where she wanted in the car. I had a towel up front if she wanted to sit in my lap and I got used to being really hairy at rest stops, but it quieted down really fast. She would stop howling if I would let her poop once then have her way. We could do 8 quiet hours after that. Into the carrier for hotel/motel and repeat the next day. She would always poop once, I couldn't ever totally abandon the crate, but once we worked out the system we both seemed to stay saner.
I did drug her once and send her on a plane but I think the car was easier on her in the long run. She has passed on, and so have a couple of my next fur balls, and now I have one who is GREAT in the car. This one basically goes catatonic and likes to hide in the crate. But if she needs to pee she does it wherever she is, so the pattern is a little different. I leave the crate unzipped all the time and have a litterbox in the back. If I hear her start whining I know I'll have to clean it in a few but then I'll have a happy cat nesting in my lap or back in the crate for another long stretch.
I also had a cat who liked to play fugative at rest stops, but that's another pocket of stories.
Tldr; you can travel with your cat by car, and I prefer it for mine if it's possible, but be alert and prepared to work with your cat. Put a tarp over everything and have cleaning supplies handy and you just may find it becomes a bonding adventure. I miss my fuzzy PoopMonster!
posted by dness2 at 1:31 PM on April 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

What if you got several fold-flat cardboard cat carriers and did some test drives in those? Drive, poop, remove cat from the carrier, wrap carrier in garbage bag and throw away, repeat. You could at least separate the howling from the pooping and see if he calms down that way. If he does, you could make the trip the same way -- disposable cardboard carriers until the poop was out, then the nice luxey one.
posted by KathrynT at 1:47 PM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In addition to the above
- get your cat to pre-shit himself by taking him for a car ride before the plane flight. He can't soil himself twice, right.....?
- time the food. cats have a short digestion and will poo more easily if they've just eaten.
- talk to him. I also have a stressball cat who 3/4 times will shit his carrier but I find if I talk to him and keep talking then it helps.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:49 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another idea for in the car: driving for 4 hours to move house with my cat (who we had done precisely 0 acclimatising with and who was extremely stressed by the whole moving process), we found that she only stopped crying and meowing when the window-wipers were on (her cage was on the front seat). I'm guessing she was distracted by them, or using them to concentrate on and sooth herself, or was just plain hypnotised.
posted by mymbleth at 2:16 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Excellent cat name! Cute, too!

As another intermediate stage, after Agent Cooper gets used to the carrier a bit, try taking him to the car, parked, not running, for a few minutes at a time. Some animals just really hate the motion.
posted by annsunny at 2:39 PM on April 9, 2014

Best answer: I catsat for a pair of kitties who did the exact same thing, what with pooping and crying, and added hyperventilating to the mix. The first night they were in my house one of them added to her general panic by falling out a first floor window (it was a great night). Emergency run for kitty paxil was made. Kitty was on Paxil for several months until prescription ran out. Flash forward to nine months later, when kitties' owner returned, the cross town car trip back to their old place was accomplished with zero pooping or crying. Their owner swears the cat's whole personality changed, which is possibly due to the different living situations (I tend to be a leetle less codependent with my cats than said owner, long story) but I think was mostly due to kitty Paxil and kitty being able to experience the things that frightened her while drugged, which made her able to cope with them later.

In conclusion: kitty paxil is magic.
posted by theweasel at 2:48 PM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd lean towards making it a car trip and starting the cat on an anti anxiety drug well ahead of time. The maximum in-cabin carrier size for a cat is pretty small, nearer than not to just a sleeve for an adult male cat. That might help a bit (small spaces do calm cats), but it's not very nice. It worked fine for a confident kitten though.

When I moved long distance cross country, my ex feral cat got a cage that was large enough to put a carrier inside, and a litter box. He stayed in there for the duration of the trip, mostly hanging out inside the inner carrier. He also got some tranquilizer or such (I forget which), and did pretty well.

It takes my cats several hours to fully settle in to a car trip, but they all do. Take care to keep them in their carriers while in the car. The carrier will calm the cat and let you focus on driving. A cat out of its carrier is likely to make a beeline for under the pedals, and also make other sorts of trouble.
posted by wotsac at 4:14 PM on April 9, 2014

Best answer: I had to fly cross country with our formerly feral cat who hates everything and everyone except me, my husband, and our house last summer. Our vet recommended a mild sedative, and between that, a thundershirt, and a new carrier, things once we got through security were mostly okay.

If you fly with your cat in the cabin bring the TSA regs stating that you do not have to remove them from the carrier if you think your cat might bolt at the first possible chance. You can also ask to be screened in a private room where the cat cannot escape. I did not know this -- and neither option was offered to me, even after I said I had a very skittish and escape-prone cat and asked what they could do to make this easier -- and wound up with half of TSA joining me in a wild cat chase through the Tampa airport. (I also had a 9 month old with a car seat & stroller to get through security. You will undoubtedly have better luck.
posted by ThatSomething at 5:03 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I took my two cats on a 4-hour JetBlue flight and while the airline was lovely (and TSA didn't give us any trouble) one cat yowled from the moment we got into the car until an hour after we arrived, for a total of about ten hours of yowling. The other was calm enough, but had diarrhea the whole time. I got to bathe her in the airplane bathroom sink twice - it was not awesome. The worst part? They were both on Xanax, which worked beautifully when they were at home.

Not to terrify you, but talk to your vet. The sedation restrictions for all the carriers I looked at were for cargo only. They don't care if you are taking the cat in the cabin with you (which of course would be what I'd recommend.) If I have to do it again, I'm using something stronger. It was a rough day for all of us.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:37 PM on April 9, 2014

Best answer: I moved two kitties across the country in my car a few years ago. They were drugged, but the drugs didn't really help.

What did help (much to my surprise) was the audio book I purchased to listen to as we drove. Once they stopped freaking out about being in their carriers in the car, the drone of the narrator calmed them down and made them sleep. When I would stop for gas and the book would stop they would resume screaming.

My cats are freaks though.
posted by Sheppagus at 10:12 AM on April 10, 2014

Response by poster: Update. You have all given me incredible advice, and I am so grateful!

I am definitely moving, the job offer came through (hooray!) and I've got a pretty short timeline - early May. I'll be taking Cooper to the vet to discuss our options, but in the short term, I've been working on getting him to get comfy with a soft carrier I picked up. I loaded it up with things he likes the smell of, catnip, treats and his favorite thing ever - the cardboard pieces of his cat lounge.


I've gotten him a kitty thundershirt and a calming collar as well, we'll do a test run with a trip to the vet early next week. I'm going to need to decide how to best travel with him after visiting with the vet next week, but I feel much better armed to help him through this move.

Thank you SO much for your advice everybody. I'll let you know how it goes!
posted by pazazygeek at 11:32 AM on April 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh my, that's adorable! Happy travels and congrats on the job!
posted by rtha at 6:43 AM on April 19, 2014

Response by poster: Final update - for those that might be searching for this in the future. Me and Cooper successfully made it to the other side of the country and we're settled in. It was a tough trip, but it was not so bad! We did fly and here are the things that I learned:

1.) It was insanely helpful to know that I could ask for a private screening room with the TSA. That made me feel less afraid that he'd bolt and I'd be chasing him through the airport.

2.) He definitely got scared and peed in his carrier on the way to the airport, but I was able to take a change of pants out of my bag before I went through security. I *do* wish I had remembered to bring some of those pee-pads with me, though. I found a family restroom and did a quick spruce up of me, Cooper and the carrier, before I got on the plane and everything was fine.

3.) I wound up needing to buy a medium Sherpa carrier, because the large was too big for the airline I flew (Alaska). The medium fit under the seat just fine.

4.) The calming treats and calming collar worked great. I did not try the thundershirt.

5.) I thought that it might help to open the top of the carrier from time to time and give him some reassuring pets, but that actually seemed to agitate him more than when I just left him alone. YMMV, but he eventually went to sleep and didn't whine so much.

6.) By far the hardest part was getting him from the airport in Seattle, to picking up my bags, into the rental car and then into the hotel, all alone. So if you are in a similar situation, finding some way to reduce this pain, either by having someone with you to help or by getting your cat settled quickly, I'd recommend it.

At the end of the day, flying was all worth it, it was an unpleasant 6+ hours, but I'm sure he'd have hated it as much in the car which would have lasted days. Agent Cooper loves his new apartment and seems to have taken to the PNW with the same gusto as his namesake. Thank you all so much for your advice and guidance, it really helped things go much more smoothly for both of us!
posted by pazazygeek at 1:24 PM on May 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

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