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Cat Sedatives for Travel: Should I use them?

Cats tend to be creatures that appreciate home comforts and routine. Unlike dogs, it isn’t often that cats travel outside of the house, usually only for vet appointments. Because they aren’t used to it, this of course makes traveling a little scary for some cats. If you have an upcoming trip and know that your cat tends to get stressed and anxious when traveling, you may be considering using cat sedatives for travel. 

However, experts advise avoiding the use of cat sedatives for travel, so it’s very important that you consider all of your options first. There are many dangers of sedating and tranquillising cats, so it isn’t something that should be taken lightly. 

In this article, we will outline which cat sedatives for travel are available, the dangers of using them and the alternative remedies for travel anxiety in cats. We will also share some travel tips for a stress-free trip. 

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The underlying problem: Travel anxiety in cats.

Anxiety—that feeling of nervousness, unease, or apprehension that we are all familiar with. Sometimes anxiety is perfectly normal, but it becomes a problem when it is severe or frequent enough to have an adverse effect on the cat’s or owner’s quality of life.

Depending on your cat’s temperament and travel experience, your cat may experience some stress and anxiety when traveling. Of course, a cat who is well traveled is far more likely to be a lot calmer when traveling. However, cats who have not had much experience traveling, in cars, on trains, on planes, are far more likely to find the experience stressful.

The following are signs and symptoms that your cat is stressed and anxious while traveling:

  • Change in mood
  • Aggression
  • Excessive meowing or vocalisation
  • Change in appetite or weight loss
  • Increased lethargy
  • Vomiting

If your cat does get anxious when traveling, don’t worry, there are many fixes, which we will discuss in this article. 

Why do cats get stressed when traveling?

There could be many different reasons that your cats gets stressed or anxious when traveling.

It could simply be that your cat hasn’t travelled much in his or her life and finds the experience unfamiliar and therefore rather scary. Cats who aren’t often exposed to long car rides, busy trains and train stations, and even airports, are more likely to find it stressful. This is particularly true if they were not exposed to it when they are young.

When a kitten or young cat is exposed to many different environments and experiences they tend to grow into a well-adjusted, balanced and calm adult cat. Therefore, a cat who was not exposed to many different environments when young is more likely to be fearful of new environments and in turn find traveling quite an ordeal.  

Alternatively, your cat may have associated traveling to a bad experience. I could be that maybe he or she has associated a trip in the car, to something scary like a visit to the vet, or an accident. 

What to do about travel anxiety in cats?

Behavioural modification and gradual exposure to travel is the best way to deal with travel anxiety in cats. It does take time, but it is worth it in the long run.

Rather than using cat sedatives for travel, which has many dangers we will outline below, it’s important to try train your cat to stay calm in different environments. Both you and your cat will be far happier for it.  

These protocols involve teaching a cat how to stay calm when they are exposed to certain triggers, such as a busy train, airport, or a long duration in a car. 

The safest way to manage travel anxiety in cats is to gradually increase your cats exposure to these triggers and the use of positive reinforcement. The word ‘gradual’ is key. You want to take baby steps to teach your cat that traveling isn’t so scary after all.

For example, if your cat struggles with rides in the car, you should start by simply introducing him to the car for a short period of time, even without actually leaving the driveway or the pavement. Get your cat to spend time in the car, and give him plenty of treats so that he slowly starts to associate the car with positive things. Once he seems more comfortable in the car, you can start taking him for short trips around the block. Over time you should be able to increase the duration of your journeys. 

The following are all things you can do to create a positive association to traveling:

  • Treats. Lots of treats!
  • Fresh air
  • Using your cat’s favourite toy or blanket
  • Calming music
  • Make the destination fun! If your cat is scared of car rides, take him on a short ride to his favourite place

Although there are cat sedatives for travel available, both over the counter and through the vet, they aren’t recommended unless your cat’s travel anxiety is severe and travel is unavoidable.

How to tell if cat sedatives for travel are required?

As mentioned above, the best way to deal with travel anxiety in cats, is through increased exposure and positive reinforcement. This does take some time as you want to gradually build up a positive association to either the car, train, or even airport. 

However, if you have already tried various training methods and your cat is still showing signs of stress when traveling, you may want to consider your alternative options. 

The following are signs and symptoms that your cat is stressed and anxious while traveling:

  • Change in mood
  • Aggression
  • Excessive meowing or vocalisation
  • Change in appetite or weight loss
  • Increased lethargy
  • Vomiting

If your cat is showing these signs and seems to be severely distressed when traveling, take him to the vet. Talk your vet through the symptoms and they will be able to advise you on what is best for your cat. 

What cat sedatives for travel are available?

There are a range of dog sedatives for travel available, each suitable for differing levels of anxiety in dogs:

  • Natural remedies (mild anxiety)
    • herbal stress relievers (lavender and chamomile)
  • Over the counter cat sedatives for travel (for mild anxiety):
    • Feliway – a natural product that mimics pheromones
    • Valarium or products containing valarium such as Pet Remedy and Calmex
  • Prescription anti-anxiety medications (only for severe anxiety):
    • Buprenorphine (brand names: Buprenex, Simbadol)
    • Gabapentin (brand name Neurontin)
    • Alprazolam (brand names Xanax and Niravam

Before giving your cat anything, it’s always best to seek advice from your veterinarian. Your cat’s veterinarian can determine which sedative is best for your cat based on the symptoms that your cat shows and your cat’s overall health.

Whichever medication is prescribed, ensure you closely follow the dosing instructions that are provided and never give your cat more sedative than is recommended. You should also always talk to your veterinarian about any questions or concerns that you might have.

Why you should NOT use cat sedatives for travel.

Sedation essentially puts the brain to sleep. Previously, both owners and pet health professionals thought that the most efficient way to treat anxious cats was to simply “knock them out”. If they’re asleep for the journey they won’t know the difference right? However, it’s not as simple as that. 

Over the years, medical research has taught us that using cat sedatives for travel is actually rather dangerous.

Firstly, cat sedatives for travel can actually cause your cat to panic more. When a cat is sedated or tranquillised, their ability to think and process is hindered. The wooziness can confuse and worry your cat, which could cause them to panic. Additionally, a cat that has been sedated also won’t be able to stand up right and maintain balance. Not only will this add to the confusion and panic, it could of course increase the chances of injury. 

Furthermore, cat sedatives for travel affect more than their brain and balance. Using cat sedatives for travel will reduce their heart rate, respiration, and body temperature. This can cause problems with breathing and maintaining your cat’s body temperature, particularly if your cat is a snub-nose breed. 

Lastly, although it is rare unless the dose of sedation was too high, cat can also become dehydrated.

The intensity of the risks listed above are increased when flying. In fact, airlines generally won’t allow cats to fly under sedation nowadays. This is because the increased altitude pressures can increase the likelihood of respiratory and even cardiovascular problems. 

No loving pet parent wishes any of the above on their cat! That’s why the American Veterinary Medical Association strongly recommends against using tranquilizers and sedatives. 

What are the alternatives to using cat sedatives for travel?

Natural remedies

Like humans and dogs, any cats respond really well to various herbal stress-relievers. However, of course every cat will respond differently, depending on their size, weight, breed and temperament. What works for one cat may not work for yours.

In the same way that chamomile tea has been found to relax us humans, it’s also a good way to help calm cats. Chamomile helps the brain relax without dangerous side effects that cat sedatives for travel can have. In fact, there have been studies to show that it has a relaxing affect on many different animal species. 

The scent of lavender oil has also been tested in cats – studies have found that it has a relaxing affect. You don’t want your cat to ingest the oil, so you can just give your cat a little whiff of it before travel, or put a drop of oil on your cat’s travel blanket.

Valerian is another herbal remedy often used by humans to treat insomnia, is also recommended for cats. Rather than affecting the brain directly, Valerian helps to reduce tension and anxiety. 

Over the counter options

Some nutritional supplements have been found to have a relaxing affect on cats. These include L-theanine, melatonin, or s-adenosyl-methionine which can all be bought over the counter. 

As mentioned above, Valarium relaxes both pets and humans. There are a few different over the counter products that contain Valarium, such as Pet Remedy and Calmex

Alternatively, you could consider using products that contain pheromones. These can come in collar or spray forms. The collar, which looks like a flea collar, produces the hormone pheromone that mama cats produce to relax their kittens. Cats also produce pheromones to relax and reassure other cats. The collar is a natural way to help keep your cat calm during travel. Alternatively, you can spray your pet’s carrier with pheromones. There are a few over the counter products that contain pheromones, such as Feliway wipes and sprays

Body wraps have been proven to help some cats feel calmer in stressful situations. The hug-like effect of a wrap, such as a scarf, provides cats with calming reassurance. Some pet owners simply use scarves to wrap around their pets. Alternatively, there are some products that have been specifically designed to reduce anxiety in cats, such as the Thundershirt. 

It’s important to note that you should always seek advice from your vet before giving any remedy to your cat. Nowadays, many veterinarians will prescribe herbal or “alternative” options for pets. Additionally, it’s vital that you always follow dosage instructions. 

Tips for traveling with cats with travel anxiety.

1. Spend time to train your cat to stay calm.

As mentioned above, the best way to deal with travel anxiety in cats is to manage their behaviour. Take some time to gradually expose your cats to traveling, providing plenty of positive reinforcement with the use of treats and affection.

Not only will your cat benefit from the time you put into this, staying calm is a requirement if you are planning on taking your cat on a flight. In order for cats to travel in the cabin with their owners, they must stay calm on the flight otherwise they risk being sent into the cargo area of the plane. 

2. Exhaust your cat before travel.

Try to exhaust your cat a little by increasing the level of activity before your trip. Have an extra play session before you trip.

A sleepy cat will be less prone to getting stressed out when traveling. Exercise also helps shed some layers of anxious energy.

3. Limit access to food and water before travel.

Limit your dog’s access to food. Therefore, it’ll be less likely that they will need to defecate or urinate when traveling. 

Additionally, some cats may experience motion sickness if they eat just before traveling.

This is particularly important if you are taking your cat on a flight. Air Canada suggest feeding your cat four to six hours prior to departure, as a full stomach may cause discomfort during travel. 

4. Get your cat used to it’s travel carrier.

This is super important if you want to ensure that travel is as stress-free as possible for your cat.

Cats feel much more secure when traveling in a carrier, as it provides them with a safe place. However, it is important to spend time to get your cat get accustomed to it. You want your cat to be completely comfortable spending long periods of time in their carrier.

This will take some time, especially if your cat is not used to being confined in a travel carrier. When first introducing your cat to its carrier, never force them in and immediately close the door. This may lead to a negative association with it which in turn may cause them to fear the carrier. 

Instead, let your cat explore the carrier by itself, with the door open. You can lure your cat into their carrier with plenty of treats, and let him/her play and sleep in there as much as possible.

It’s also helpful to do some practise runs in the carrier. Take your cat to the cafe in the carrier, or out for some car rides. 

For an added sense of security, pop some of your cat’s favourite toys in their travel home, for extra comfort.

5. Familiarise yourself with the airport/train station that you are departing from and arriving to.

This of course only applies if you are traveling by train or plane.

Most airports will have a dedicated area for pets and service animals to rest. It is actually a legal requirement that all U.S. airports have pet-relief areas available for working animals and pets to rest. Take some photos of the airport maps, so you don’t have to wander around on the day trying to find a resting place.

6. Leash train your cat (recommended if flying).

Although it isn’t usual for cats to wear harnesses and walk on a leash, in order to fly with cats in cabin they may need to be harnessed and leashed. It’s important to take time to leash train your cat before your flight, to minimise stress.

Most of the time your cat will be required to remain in their carrier, at the airport and on the plane. However, when passing through security and customs you may need to take your cat out of the carrier. 

Additionally, most airports have pet relief areas for cats and dogs to stretch their legs and go to the toilet.

Spend some time getting your cat used to walking on a lead at home. We recommend simply letting your cat wear a harness around the house for a while, before getting them to walk on a lead. That way they can get used to the feeling of wearing a harness. 

7. Pack all the essentials. 

Get everything organised the night before your trip. This will make the whole journey much less stressful for you, which will in turn make your cat calmer. An anxious cat is more likely to feel calm if it’s owner is calm. 

If you are crossing borders or getting on a flight, you will need a number of documents. The documents required will vary depending on which airline you are flying with (if flying), and where you are traveling from and to. But generally, you may require any of the following:

  1. Microchip certificate
  2. Rabies vaccination certificate
  3. Animal health certificate 
  4. Additional vaccination certificates
  5. Rabies titer test results
  6. Parasite treatment certificate
  7. Import permit

This is just a guide on what is required, please check the requirements for your specific airline and destination country. 

Supplies are key to a stress-free trip. Here’s what we suggest bringing:

  • Your cat’s food
  • Favourite treats
  • Collapsible food and water bowls
  • A leash (highly recommended if flying)
  • Plastic bags and hand cleaners in case of accidents
  • A toy
  • Cat’s favourite blanket

When traveling with an anxious cat, we recommend bringing their favourite toy and blanket. Both of these will provide them with a sense of security. A blanket also comes in handy as you can use it to cover your cat’s carrier. 

Bottom Line

So, if your cat gets particularly stressed or anxious when traveling, don’t worry there are many ways to manage this. As cat sedatives for travel can actually be quite dangerous in many ways discussed above, it is best to stay away from them unless your cat gets severely stressed and travel is unavoidable.

As we have discussed, there are many alternative methods to managing travel anxiety in cats. Firstly the best way to manage it, is to train your cat to stay calm in different situations, through positive reinforcement and gradual increased exposure. Additionally, there are many natural remedies and over the counter medications that could help calm an anxious cat. These include, chamomile, lavender oil, valerian and anti-anxiety wraps. 

If you feel you have tried everything you can to help your cat stay calm while traveling, then there are cat sedatives for travel available. In these cases, you will need to visit the vet to discuss your options. It’s vital to seek your vet’s advice when giving your cat any medication, and always follow dosages accurately. 

Happy and safe travels! 

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