Basil, the author’s feline companion-in-van life. Photo provided by the author.
Have a cat and want to travel? No problem! With time and patience, most adult cats (and almost any kitten) will adjust to vanlife.
It will be harder to travel with a cat than it is to travel alone, and you will need to make accommodations for the cat’s needs and safety. There will be annoyances, inconveniences, and it will almost always require patience and a good sense of humor. 🙂 If you’re like me, it’s worth every challenge when you love your furbaby.
Know Thy Feline
Hi! My name is Devan Winters from the XsyntrikNomad blog. I am a vandweller and I have two cats. Freddie is a gregarious, hyper, and curious escape artist. He is 7 years old and kind of a doofus. (I say that with love). Basil is 8 years old and a bit of a scaredy-cat. He hisses at people who get near the van (even though they can’t see him through the tint).
Traveling with Freddie was great the first two days. He seemed relaxed and curious. On day three, an internal switch flipped, and he began to freak out. He suddenly wouldn’t leave me alone when I was driving. It was not safe.
After confining Freddie while I was behind the wheel, I quickly learned he was capable of howling for hours…nonstop. After a little more than a week, I knew he was going to struggle to adapt. Nothing I tried would calm him or keep him from desperately trying to get out of the van. Lucky for me, my adult child is the proud parent of Freddie’s sister and was generous enough to take him in. Otherwise, he would be a very unhappy van cat.
Basil, on the other hand, freaked for the first three days, then settled in. He’s become a really awesome van cat.
After living and traveling with Basil in my van for a while, I’ve learned a few things. I hope they’ll help anyone else considering a feline companion in their van life travels.
Location: I’ve found the best location is by a door-it allows easy access for cleaning. Basil’s litter box is in the front passenger floorboard. If I ever have a regular human passenger though, the box will move to a location near the side or rear doors.
Tip: Placing the litter box as far away from where your head rests when you sleep at night is more convenient than you might think, especially if your feline is on a regular late night or early morning pooping schedule. 🙂
The Box: Through the years I have preferred to use a plastic storage container, about the same length and width of a litterbox. You can grab a cheap one at Big Lots or WalMart. This is a particularly handy option when trying to find a size that fits in the space you have.
If you’re putting the box in the back (or think you ever will) hold on to the lid. You can create an awesome enclosed box by cutting a large opening on one end of the lid. In my experience, this eliminates kicked litter (when your cat covers his business) while minimizing tracking a bit too.
TIP: If you do this instead of spending more money on a ‘normal’ litterbox, it’s important to make sure your container is big enough for your cat to turn around in comfortably. Pay extra attention to the height of the box if you plan to use the lid. Measure your cat’s height from the top of his head to the floor. Then add an inch or two to that measurement to determine the best height for the container you purchase.
Litter and Tracking: I currently use clumping clay litter, but a pellet is a good option to lessen tracking. (Basil was not a fan, unfortunately.) If you’re not using a pellet type litter, you can assume you’re going to have litter tracking issues. I have a mat by the litterbox that catches some of the litter, but I keep a hand broom right under the seat to sweep what’s tracked. Depending on your cat, you’ll find yourself doing this at least once a day.
Bonus: If you use a 5-gallon bucket for your business, you and your feline friend can share the litter. I’ve switched to Arm & Hammer Double Duty Litter recently. The brand comes in many varieties, but this variety, in this brand, seems to clump better than my previous brand. I store it in a plastic container with a lid under my bed.
Hairballs and puke happen. There is nothing worse than waking up to a puke covered blanket. Unless you wake up and step in warm puke. *gag* I have experienced the joy of both, and worse. I have nearly eliminated hairballs using SynergyLabs Richard’s Organics Flavored Hairball Remedy. It works great for Basil.
Food is a major factor in feline digestion. If your cat is throwing up more than a couple times a week, and you’re sure it isn’t a health issue, try experimenting with food. It can be costly, but I have found the premium brands are worth it for Basil. He actually eats less and his poop doesn’t smell quite as bad. I tried a few foods but found Natural Balance ( which can be purchased at most pet food stores) works for us. There are plenty of good quality brands you can buy between the cheap and expensive too.
TIP: I keep two heavy flat twin sheets (purchased cheaply at Goodwill) in the van at all times . I can’t always wash my primary blanket right away if there is a puke situation. So whether I’m sleeping or out for the day, one of those sheets is always covering and protecting my primary blanket. (In the summer months, I use the sheet alone)
Food and Water
This should be easy, but it wasn’t for me. Basil likes to tip his water. He’s done it for years. Depending on where you put the food and water bowls, a spill can cause quite a mess. I spoke to a vet and these are some things I learned:
Water Bowl Tipping: In rare cases, some cats will be sensitive to taste and may not like the water you’re giving them. Try spring or filtered water instead.
The biggest cause of water tipping is this though: If your cat puts his head in a water bowl and his whiskers touch the sides, he will often tip the bowl in an attempt to drink without scraping his sensitive whiskers.
TIP: Buy a wide stone bowl like the one pictured.The 4-inch square shape is hard to tip, gives your cat a wide opening corner to corner, and the stone keeps the water cool.
Placement of Food and Water: Put it where your cat can reach it easily, but not where you might step on it in the dark or when you’re in a rush. My vet also recommends keeping food and water away from the littler box. (Who wants to eat where they go to the bathroom, right?)
TIP: Cats actually don’t like their food and water together. By placing the bowls in separate locations, it fosters your cat’s natural foraging/hunting behavior. When you’re in a small space like a van, little things help keep your cat happy and content.
Food Storage: As I will also be mentioning in the section on behaviors, most cats like to chew through bags. It would save space to keep a bag of cat food crammed in a corner somewhere, but I highly recommend a plastic container with a well-sealed lid (for freshness too). Trust me, it will save you a lot of frustration. Even if your cat doesn’t have this behavior now, the small space and potential feline boredom could create a bag-chewing monster.
Location: This is my first consideration, always. During summer months I stay in places like Flagstaff, AZ or San Diego, CA. My summer plans require quite a lot of research on weather in the desired area. I would do this anyway since I don’t like heat either, but it becomes way more important with a cat in tow. I look for places with low humidity and temps that stay below 90 degrees.
TIP: Elevations of 7,000 feet or higher, the Northern CA coast, and the Pacific Northwest are also (usually) temperate options. US Climate Data and Accuweather are my go-to for historical weather data.
Regulating the Temperature without Solar: I have a passenger van so I have windows all around. I love my windows but the first thing I did was limo tint them. On most summer days in the mid to low 80’s (or below), if I open the back and side windows for a nice breeze, and put a sun shield on the front window, the van stays comfortable inside.
On hotter days, I put two sun shields in the front window and hang Reflectix from the top of the windows all the way around the van. I do not fasten it at the bottom so air can still flow. It keeps the van pretty comfortable. In fact, at floor level (specifically under the bed in the cubby hole Basil likes to hide in), it is noticeably cooler. (Yes. I got on the floor and crawled under to see/feel)
Tip: Spend several days in your van with your cat in different weather conditions and temperatures. Leave the windows and shades as you would if you weren’t there for the day. Get a feel for what your cat is going to experience and watch them for signs of heat-related stress.
Regulating the Temperature with Solar: I have not installed solar or a roof vent yet so I can only speak from the experiences shared with me by others. According to those who have it, a working roof vent is great at regulating the temperature inside your van. If you can install two, one in the back and one in front, one drawing air out and one pulling air in, even better.
I installed a camera and the ThermoPro TP-50 Digital Temperature and Humidity Meter.
Using wifi, the camera is accessible through an app installed on my phone. I can maneuver the camera in the van remotely, using the app, and keep an eye on the temperature (and Basil) inside the van. This is a new set-up and I LOVE it. I got the idea from this YouTube
video if you want to check it out.
Behavior Issues & A Small Space
If your cat has issues in your current home, you might feel like they’re amplified in a van. In fact, you may discover issues you didn’t know your cat had. Practice patience with them while they adjust to their new normal.
Basil discovered he likes to chew bags. Doesn’t matter what’s in the bag, if it makes a cool crinkly sound, he’ll bite and chew on the corners. From wet wipes to potato chips, he is not particular. I accidentally discovered he will not do this to a baggie. So, as much as the tree hugger in me hates using them, I put everything I can in baggies of all sizes (and I re-use the heck out of them). Anything too big for a baggie goes in a Rubbermaid I use exclusively for this purpose.
Living in such a small space, I also find myself as a bouncing off (or on) point. To prevent lots of scratches, it’s more important than ever to keep those front claws trimmed. Otherwise, scratches happen a lot.
It’s also a great idea to find a spot for a small scratching post or scratching board. Otherwise, your seats may fall prey to their natural desire to stretch those paws and dig in with those nails!
TIP: I strongly recommend using a sisal rope scratcher. Your cat will enjoy the cardboard style scratchers, but they will make one heck of a mess in your van!
Modifying Behaviour: If you’ve never had issues with your cat before or are new to feline parenthood, yelling at or smacking a cat is completely ineffective behavior control. You probably already know that, but it’s worth mentioning. Cats definitely require a unique approach to discipline. Because, you know, cats.
TIP: A Google search is a great place to get advice but make sure you’re taking advice from a reputable source such as a vet website, the ASPCA, an animal products website (like chewy.com), etc.
Don’t forget your cat still needs playtime to expend energy. This is necessary for both physical and mental health. In fact, in such a small confined space, they need it more than ever. Take time every day, multiple times a day if you can, to play with your cat. Throw a ball if they fetch, wiggle a string for them to stalk, roughhouse (if your cat enjoys it), treat them with catnip toys, etc.
Cat Fur and Dander
If you’ve lived with a cat in a regular house or apartment, you already know fur gets everywhere. It’s worse in a van. Keep sheets and blankets washed regularly and shake them out between washes when you can. Basil likes to lounge in the driver seat so hair tends to collect there. A good lint removal brush or roller is essential.
TIP: I recommend the Freshland Lint Roller. It’s economical, comes with a charcoal air purifier/deodorizer, and works great. I keep mine within reach from the driver seat. When I get out of the van to go in somewhere, I can quickly spiff myself up.
Cat Leash Training
I keep threatening to leash train Basil, but I haven’t really tried yet. I understand it takes time and a lot of patience, but there are awesome rewards. It is best to start training them as young as possible, but most adult cats are trainable. If you plan to spend a lot of time outdoors and in nature, your cat will love the opportunity to explore outside with you-safely!
Tip: Microchip! You can get microchipping done for around $45 and it’s worth every penny. Even if your cat is leash trained or not prone to escape, there are still risks, such as an accident. If a window breaks out and there is a lot of commotion, your cat just might bolt at the first opportunity. Mine would.
Confinement When Mobile
For safety reasons, most people strongly suggest confining your cat to a carrier when you’re mobile. In an accident, your cat is secure, safe, and less likely to get hurt or run off. You’re also less prone to distraction or to have your driving affected by your cat.
In reality, most of us do not participate in this practice. For me, there is no place to fit a carrier when not in use. Even if I found an easily storable/collapsible carrier, Basil has hiding spots I can’t get to, and he doesn’t come when called. Getting him in the carrier before I go anywhere would be a challenge in itself. That said, I still consider it a best practice if you can do it.
Finding affordable medical care for your cat while on the road is a huge challenge. It’s best to do any preventative care before you leave. Once you’re on the road, if you decide to use a nationwide veterinary chain like Banfield (inside most PetSmart stores), you won’t have to keep records of everything with you. (You should always carry rabies vaccination paperwork.)
Banfield even offers pet insurance to cover some care, if you can afford (and want to pay) the monthly expense. There is also a line of credit called Care Credit you can take out specifically for veterinary costs.
Tip: If you travel like me, often staying in one place for a couple months at a time, take time to research local vet options. Look at Yelp and Google reviews, call to inquire about general visit prices, etc. I always start my search with AAHA Accredited Vets. The standards and guidelines they have to meet for accreditation practically guarantee you’ll get a good vet.
Something I Forgot?
I’ve tried to think of everything I wanted to know when I started, while also including answers to questions I am often asked. If I haven’t answered something you’d like to know about, or if you want more detail on anything, please reach out to me at xsyntriknomad.com. I will be happy to help you find the answers you need.
**Please keep in mind these are my experiences and my opinions. I’m not always right, but I took extra care to make sure any information linked is true and accurate. I will always make an extra effort to steer you in the right direction when it comes to your animal companion.
Photos (other than the one of Basil) are Amazon affiliate links. If you click on any of those photos, you’ll be magically taken to Amazon.com. Anything you put in your cart and purchase after clicking one of those links will earn the Rubber Tramp Artist a small advertising fee at not cost to you.