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How to Train Your Pet for Life on the Road

A pet expert helps harness travelling with your furry loved one

An orange and white cat on a red leash looks to camera while standing in a grassy field

Search the internet for “cats travelling in cars” or “adventure dogs” and you’ll be rewarded with adorable pictures and videos of pets venturing around the world in automobiles, campers and RVs alongside their humans. It looks so easy online, but the reality is that training a domestic pet for life on the road can be stressful for everyone involved, especially if proper steps aren’t taken.

Having lived and travelled across Canada in a campervan with my orange and white male cat, Mewan Felepchuk-Molnar, I can attest to the fact that it takes time and patience to get a furry family member comfortable with this lifestyle. Sometimes, there are accidents (read: puke or poop), but acclimating him to our nomadic lifestyle has been rewarding; nothing beats waking up to fuzzy snuggles in the back of our 1983 Volkswagen Westfalia.

To help better understand the basics before gallivanting around the globe with your four-legged friend, we turned to Pam Johnson-Bennett, an award-winning animal-behaviour expert who’s based in Nashville, Tenn., and specializes in cats. She shares 11 tips to consider prior to any extended travel adventure.

First things first: microchip your pet

Visit your vet and have your pet microchipped. Should your cat or dog wander off—which you know they will—you can track them down, rather than shaking a bag of treats and shouting for them in the middle of a campsite.

An overhead shot of an orange and red cat on a red leash looking out the open car door at the gravel below 

Get ready to leash and harness-train

Most dogs are leash-trained from a young age, and learn to walk with their owner(s). Cats, however, are less likely to have ever used a harness. “Start getting your cat comfortable with being on a leash long before you plan to travel,” says Johnson-Bennett, who recommends that training start inside the house where they feel at ease. “Don't even attempt to take a cat outside of the house who isn't completely comfortable with being on a leash,” she adds.

Also practise how to carrier-train

Pets should be at ease going inside a carrier or crate before travelling. Johnson-Bennett notes that the sight of the carrier can create panic for some, so find a spot inside and leave the carrier out beforehand. “Do training sessions where you put treats around, on top of and inside the carrier,” she says.

Don’t forget to line the carrier

For your pet’s comfort, line the carrier with a towel or sheet so it’s a soft and safe space they want to be in. “It will also absorb any elimination accidents,” says Johnson-Bennett, who recommends having extra towels packed away to replace ones that get soiled.

A woman and orange and white cat are seen sitting inside a camper van, the woman preparing a meal and the cat looking back at her 

Assess their personality

The reality is that not every pet is suited for travel. Animals are territorial and enjoy familiar settings, says Johnson-Bennett, who recommends always putting your pet’s emotional and physical welfare first. If it isn’t going to work, don’t force it.

Start slow and acclimatize them to the vehicle

Pups who are used to short drives will automatically hop in a vehicle, but other furballs may be more resistant. Johnson-Bennett says the biggest mistake pet parents make is not acclimating their animal to the whole process. Take your time and start slow.

A man and woman stand outside a burnt orange camper van, their orange and white cat prowling in the filed beside them 

Baby steps and patience are a must

To get your pet happy about vehicle time, follow these steps:

First, take them out to the vehicle inside of the carrier, but don’t start the engine. Just let them hang out and get used to the new sights and smells. Do this over several days until they get used to the new space.

Next, turn on the engine when they’re inside of the vehicle; let it run for a few minutes, then, shut it off. Again, repeat this action over several days.

Once your pet is showing signs of being relaxed with the engine on, go for a short drive around the block. (Prepare for potential poop or puke.) Repeat as many times as necessary over weeks or even months.

Pay attention to the water

Some animals are as finicky about their water as they are about their food brand, and switching it could throw them off. “If you’ll be travelling a long while, you'll be able to gradually mix in new water with the familiar one [which you can stockpile and carry with you],” says Johnson-Bennett. Not all pets are that picky, but it’s important to consider the possibility.

An orange and white cat lounges on the marble countertop inside a cozy camper van 

Always carry your pet’s medical records and prescriptions

Expect the unexpected and carry medical documentation and/or a list of your pet’s prescriptions, just as you would your own. “In an emergency, it'll be easier if the new veterinarian already has all the medical records on hand,” says Johnson-Bennett.

Have a current photo of them on hand

Likely you have an embarrassing number of photos of your furry friend on your smartphone already, but if not, make sure to take a few before you travel. In the event your pet gets lost, an up-to-date snap will better serve you when creating flyers and/or sending pictures to local shelters for help.

An orange and white cat looks directly at camera from inside a camper van, a woman behind 

Never leave your pet unattended in extreme weather

It should go without saying, but never leave your cat or dog in a vehicle when the weather is hot or cold, even if just for a minute. Pets don’t sweat the same way humans do, and are unable to regulate their body temperature.

Lastly, and specifically for cats…

Get a handle on the litter box situation

There are loads of small, foldable or disposable litter boxes on the market these days. Just like in your home, make sure your cat knows where it’s meant to relieve itself. Also, keep doggie poop bags on hand; you can minimize odour by easily scooping waste out of the litter and sealing it in.

A woman sits just inside the door of an orange camper van parked in the wilderness, a man crouches just outside the van petting an orange and white cat on a long red leash 

Sniffing out road-trip inspiration?

From a less-travelled coastline in Nova Scotia to road-trip-worthy sights in the Yukon, there are plenty of new destinations waiting to be explored across Canada. Never forget, travelling always feels safer when you’re a Member.

Image credit: lietco.com