A family friend of mine used to bundle his cat into a pillow case to “soothe her stress” on long car trips.
An older relative I know once fed her dog Valium (from her own personal stash) before popping him into the car for the long weekend.
My own tricks for travelling with pets are for less, erm, controversial. But nevertheless, my cat avoids his food whenever we take him anywhere new and lets us know of his displeasure by finding new and creative substitutes for his litter tray.
ABC Life asked experts to outline their golden rules for road-travelling with your pet. So if you’re planning to take your pet in the car anytime soon, here are the guidelines worth keeping in mind.
Get your pet used to the car
Does your pet seems skittish at the first hint of car travel? It could be they have negative associations with the car, based on past trips to the vet or boarding kennel.
The solution is to get your pet used to the car gradually, says Sandra Barnard-Nguyen, a Sydney-based veterinarian.
“You pop your dog in the car when it’s just parked in the driveway, give them a couple of treats, get them out again. Then you increase the amount of time they’re in the car — take them to the shops and back again,” she says.
“Even if the park is two minutes down the road, put them in the car and drive them to the park so they learn the car isn’t scary,” adds Brisbane-based Anne Chester, chief veterinarian at the RSPCA.
This method works with cats too, according to Richard East, who travels the country in a campervan with his cat Willow.
“You can spend time with them in the car while it’s stationary, giving them lots of pats and lots of treats,” says Richard, who published his book Van Cat Meow under the ABC Imprint.
“It might be a case of enticing them into the car with treats.”
Sedatives, antihistamines and other ‘chill pills’
Anxious pets may benefit from a prescription for sedatives, but don’t break open your own personal supply of Xanax. You definitely need a prescription from a vet.
Just be careful about giving your pet sedatives for the first time on a long car trip, in case they don’t react well.
“You might want to have a practice run with those when you’re closer to home,” Dr Chester says.
As for dosing your pet up with a “drowsy” antihistamine, Dr Barnard-Nguyen warns against it.
You might instead like to try buying a natural product such as pheromones, which Dr Chester says “can be worn on bedding or on the collar or a bandana around the necks, for both cats and dogs”.
These products can help calm and soothe your travelling pet both during the trip and once you arrive at your destination.
Packing for pets
Familiar items and smells will soothe your pet during your travels, so consider laying the pet’s blanket and a favourite toy in its crate for the trip.
“And if they’re particularly attached to you, you can put a T-shirt you’ve worn in there,” says Dr Barnard-Nguyen.
Those items will also help your pet feel at home once you reach the destination.
Remember to pack your pet’s regular food rather than planning to pick up a random brand at the local shops once you reach your destination: a new diet will only unsettle your pets further.
It’s a good idea to lay some liners at the bottom of the crate, and pack extra liners, garbage bags, a paper towel and a spare blanket in case of any in-car toilet accidents.
For cats, if you’d rather not have a kitty litter in the crate or you don’t have the space, you can also take a litter tray or a large container with a lid, and give your cat a chance to relieve itself during rest stops.
“We let them walk around the car while its still stationary and if they need to go, they can go then,” Hasara says.
Beware free-roaming dogs and cats in the car
Pets should be restrained while travelling — to keep both you and them safe, and to avoid possible fines or demerit points.
The exact rules and fines differ slightly between states and territories, but generally it’s against the law for an animal to cause the driver to be not in full control of the vehicle, or for drivers to drive with a pet in their lap.
Various laws also specifically prohibit people from transporting dogs unrestrained on the back of utes or other open vehicles.
Your dog might love the feel of wind whipping on their tongue, but vets warn against allowing your canine friend to ride with their head out the window.
“It’s a safety issue, and also it’s just going to irritate their eyes,” says Dr Barnard-Nguyen.
Letting your pet ride in the front seat is also a no-no because exploding airbags can cause terrible damage to dogs or cats if you’re in an accident, she adds.
(And in case you were wondering, the cat-in-a-pillowcase trick is “totally inappropriate” and probably terrifying for cats, Dr Chester says.)
Your best bet for restraining travelling dogs: a crate, or a harness that connects to a seat belt. Cats should travel in a crate or carrier, ideally with a lightweight sheet covering three of the sides, says Dr Chester.
For longer trips of over four hours, consider using a larger crate that can fit food (unless they get carsick), water and a litter tray for cats.
To prevent spillage, Richard recommends using “a little container, with a little circle cut in the lid — the hole’s just big enough for my cat to put her little snout in”.
Dealing with car sickness
Just like humans, pets can get car sick. Luckily, there are solutions.
“You can fast your pet, so if you’re going for the day don’t give them their morning meal,” says Dr Barnard-Nguyen.
“You can also get anti-nausea medication from your veterinarian to help them feel less travel sick and make their journey easier.”
Hasara recommends taking breaks from long car trips to let your carsick pet breathe.
Her cats Lumos and Noxie don’t like windy roads, so she schedules in breaks at rest stops away from the road, where her harness-trained cats can spend a few minutes out of the car.
Where can pets travel?
Finding pet-friendly accommodation isn’t always easy.
Many hotels or bed and breakfasts advertised as “pet friendly” actually require you to keep your pet outside, which isn’t suitable for all pets, Hasara says.
So make sure you check the fine print before accidentally booking somewhere unsuitable for your furry pal.
Some Airbnb properties will let you travel with your pet — but it’s best to get in contact with the owner before booking and get clear on the rules.
“I’ll also [let them know] we always come with a mini scratching pole, a kitty litter, and the cats are harness-trained,” she says.
Keep in mind that national parks, historic sites or Aboriginal areas are out of the question when travelling with pets.
And wherever you’re travelling, consider keeping your cat inside to protect the local fauna.
“If you’re taking a cat into an unfamiliar environment you’ve got a responsibility for the safety of the cat but also to the environment — you don’t want them roaming around and hunting animals,” Richard says.
Once you arrive
First thing on your list once you arrive at your destination: check for hazards.
You’ll want to keep your pet away from insecure fences (or fences built on sand that a dog can dig under), and objects that might pose a danger including old bones from past pets, chemicals or rat poison. For older dogs, consider bringing a kiddie gate so you can block off stairs that might hurt your pooch, Dr Chester says.
It’s also wise to fit your pet with a tracker — a GPS-like device that can monitor their whereabouts — and to ensure its microchip details are up to date, in case they do find a way to run away.
“It doesn’t have to be expensive, it can just be one of those key tags.”
For cats, it’s a good idea to start your pet off in a secluded room while they get used to the new surroundings. Lay down their familiar bedding and bowls filled with familiar food, and consider providing some boxes to hide in.
Your cat should stay in the isolation room for “as long as it takes for the cat to calm down”, says Dr Barnard-Nguyen.
“Sometimes it will just take a couple of hours.”