Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to email@example.com.
Dear Beast Mode,
I’m moving from the East Coast to the West Coast in a few months, and I have a 6-year-old tabby who has only ever left the confines of my two-bedroom condo for a few vet visits. Whenever I’ve taken him in the car, he’s cried the entire time.
Should I drive him across the country in my car, where I have more control over the situation? Or should I take him on a plane for the six-hour ride, where he’ll have to stay in a carrier under my seat the entire time? I love him and don’t want to distress the poor boy any more than I have to!
—Go West, Young Tab
Dear Go West, Young Tab,
Cats are like Julius Caesar. They’re proud, clever, and rather attached to their home territory. Furthermore, Caesar would probably also freak out if you somehow managed to get him on an airplane. This comparison may not help you prepare for your big move, but I hope to have at least inspired in you the brief image of your tabby wearing a toga. Isn’t that fun?
Moving cross-country can be difficult for even the most seasoned human travelers, so I understand why you’re worried about putting your otherwise hermitic kitty through the experience.
“If your cat is healthy, then flying is like ripping the Band-Aid off,” says certified animal behaviorist Mikel Delgado. “It’s going to be louder and scarier, but it’s over quicker. You need to balance out the potential stressors for both situations.”
If you decide to travel by car, you will need to plan pet-friendly accommodations along the way. That means bringing your cat into and out of new environments each and every day. “Cats are often fearful in a new space,” Delgado says. “I’m probably more cautious than most, but consider limiting your cat’s space to just the bathroom when you’re staying overnight somewhere.” A nervous cat will hide in the most hard-to-get-to space, and you don’t want to delay your journey with an hourslong struggle to get your cat back into his carrier every morning.
For long car rides, Delgado recommends using a larger carrier that gives him some room to move around and can also fit a small cardboard litter box. “The thing that gets tricky is if you need to take your cat out of the carrier,” she says. “Some cats may panic, and a loose cat in the car is a hazard—both for the cat and for the human.”
If that sounds terrible, imagine doing it for four days in a row. Plane rides may not be easy, but at least they’re quick. Schedule an appointment with the veterinarian before the move to see if your cat is healthy enough to fly. Depending on your destination, he may need to get vaccinations too, so keep the vet informed.
It’s best to keep your cat with you during the flight (checking him in will be scarier and more dangerous), so invest in a carrier that fits underneath the seat if you don’t already own one. Despite the pressure fluctuations and the engines’ loud roar, being on the plane may be the least stressful part of the trip.
You will need to take the cat out of his carrier as you go through TSA. As far as chaotic and terrifying scenes go, this is right up there with the very worst of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych panels, but there is a way around it. “You can request a private room in some airports ahead of time where you can take your cat out of the carrier,” Delgado says. Give the airport a call a few weeks ahead of time to make sure this option is available.
Whether you decide to fly or drive, take your cat on some short car trips in his carrier before the journey. This is to get him used to the space anew, as he probably associates it with visits to the vet. It’s a good idea to outfit him with a harness so you can attach a leash whenever he’s out of the carrier. Importantly though, don’t leave the leash attached inside the box, since wearing one in an enclosed space can endanger the cat. Delgado also recommends getting him microchipped if you haven’t already. This may seem like a lot, but moving is hectic, and any steps that provide peace of mind will help.
Weigh your options and prepare the best you can. It might not be easy, but at least you’ll know what’s coming. And if things get really stressful, take a few deep breaths and picture your cat in a toga.