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It was on the hottest day of the year that we packed our feline-canine-human family into a 1990 Ford Aerostar – bought especially to accommodate an extra-large dog kennel – and set out on the trip that would see us crisscross the Canadian Rockies, prairies, and Great Lakes of the Shield. Over the 2 1/2 months that followed, we covered some 12,000 miles, visited three vets and two mechanics, lost the cat a couple of times, and started calling our pets sisters (as in, "Stop barking at your sister, Anya!"). In the end, although all four of us were happy to be back home, our summer on the road was fun and, yes, even relaxing.
The Traveling Zoo
Traveling with pets is a lot like traveling with children – except that you cannot take them into most shops and restaurants. You've got to plan ahead, but be ready to adapt at a moment's notice. If you know you'll be traveling with your pets, get them used to it from the start – and in small doses. We did not quite do this. While our 2-year-old Doberman Anya has traveled with us by car, bus, metro and plane, ever since she was a 5-pound puppy, last summer was our 16-year-old cat's first car ride that did not terminate in a visit to the veterinarian. But then, we never did think we'd be taking our cat on vacation with us!
We weren't worried about traveling with Anya – our Dobe loves riding, camping, and just being with us. We were petrified about Kicia, our elderly cat with an attitude. Suppose she screeched the entire way? And we were worried about Anya and Kicia, together in the van, in the tent, in small guest rooms. Our home had cat zones and dog zones, and rarely did the twain meet.
Plan for the Worst
Pets, like people, react to stress by becoming more themselves. If your pooch is a little high strung, chances are a 4-month road trip will make him more high strung, not less. If your cat and dog don't get along in a two-story house, don't expect a miraculous emergence of brotherly love within the confines of a car. We planned for cat and dog hell on wheels. Anya's large kennel became Kicia's kingdom, complete with litter box, bed, food and water. The back of the van, covered with Anya's blanket, was intended to store Anya and her toys.
Settle for the Unexpected
It's safest for your pets to be kenneled or restrained in the car. You know this. We knew this. Our pets did not.
Our planned seating arrangement lasted until our first stop. We took the pets out, watered and walked them, and tried to put them back where they were. Kicia leapt atop the kennel and would not come down, hissing and screeching (she does not meow) when we tried to grab her. Anya squeezed herself in between the two front bucket seats, resting her snout on the gearshift.
For the next two days, the humans and the animals engaged in a battle of wills. We were willing to consider a compromise, but our first priority was keeping the four of us alive. Anya's position of choice, obstructing both the gear shift and the emergency break, and Kicia's, perched on top of a lightweight, unanchored kennel, were not viable options.
On day three, we repacked the car. Apparently, within the new parameters of our traveling life, Kicia and Anya signed a truce, and preferred to sit close together. We found a secure spot for Kicia that still enabled her to be perched up high with a good view of all that went on. We blocked Anya's access to the gearshift and the brake, but allowed her to be as close to us as was possible from the back seat, resting her head on the front chair armrests. It worked. Most of the time.
When planning your driving itinerary, keep in mind that while having pets in the car won't slow you down while you're actually moving, you'll have to stop much more frequently, and each stop will take twice as long as when you're traveling only with Homo sapiens.
Our vet and dog trainer advised us to stop about once every 3 hours to give the pets water and take care of their other needs. We found ourselves stopping much more frequently -every hour on very hot days. We assumed if we were thirsty, Kicia and Anya would be too. At least twice a day, we stopped for a prolonged stretch that included a solid meal for us and a long walk for Anya. If there was no convenient, cool place where we could safely leave Kicia, she came along too, carried or dragged on a leash, hissing and screeching all the way.
For the first – and hottest – half of our travels, Kicia would neither eat nor drink on the road. The refusal to eat wasn't a real problem, as there was nothing wrong with her appetite in the morning before we set off or in the evening when we called it a day. With temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit (30 C), the not-drinking concerned us. If you've ever tried to force feed a pill to a cat, you can imagine the fun we had squirting water into her clenched mouth, first from a water bottle and then from a syringe. The spiteful little beast would hack up whatever we managed to get down her throat. In desperation, we started wetting her paws, head, and sides, so that she'd lick the moisture off herself. Still, every time we stopped, out come her water and food dishes. It took 6 weeks, but by mid-August, Kicia was eating and drinking in the car.
Packing: Tupperware is Your Friend
The most important things you need to pack on your pet road trip are food and water. Take about twice as much water as you think you'll need. We traveled with a 20-litre water container, two small Tupperware dishes with water and food for the cat, two medium Tupperware dishes, each packed with a complete meal for the dog, two large canisters, each filled with, respectively, dry cat and dog food, a water bowl for the dog, and an assortment of water bottles.
Every time we stopped, Anya got a bowl of water, and Kicia's water and food containers were opened and placed in front of her. Unfortunately for us, like most cats, Kicia was used to day-long grazing rather than regularly scheduled meals. She had a tough time adjusting to scheduled meals. Anya, conversely, had a stomach that worked like clockwork: breakfast at 8 a.m., supper at 6 p.m. Whatever our schedule, if 6 p.m. caught us still moving, we would pull over and feed Anya. When we occasionally left earlier, and Anya would eat breakfast before her regular time, we'd give her a mid-day snack to tie her over until supper.
Routine is King
As you're traveling, keep in mind that your pet thrives on routine. Carry over as many facets from the stay-at-home routine to the on-the-road routine as you can, and fashion as consistent a new routine as possible. For your cat or dog, boring is good. And, following a routine isn't just good for your pet – it's good for you too. It'll also keep you from forgetting your pet at a gas station.
We changed very little in our first-thing-in-the-morning procedures, regardless of where we stayed. First, Anya went out to do her business. Next, everyone was fed. Then, some cuddling for the quadrupeds while the bipeds took turns showering, dressing, and having that second cup of coffee.
We also quickly established an unloading routine when we were ready to settle for the day. Pets stay in the car until the tent is set up or the motel room/guest room is pet-proofed. Then, a Kicia corner, complete with litter box, and an Anya corner, complete with her blanket and favorite toy, is established. Only then are the pets put in the room, and given a few minutes to explore and acclimatize before we begin unpacking our things.
We were a little slower setting up a loading routine. As a result, poor Kicia almost got left behind twice – once at a gas station picnic table and once under a tree at Grandma's house.
Keeping the Car Clean
Pets smell. Admit it – even yours. Not badly, necessarily, but they do have that pet smell. There are certain precautions you should take before loading up. In preparation for our trip, we covered the van's entire bottom with old (but clean) carpet scraps. We covered the bench (where the animals would use) with a blanket. We put in three time-release air fresheners.
The van still smelled. The first day on the road, I spilled a can of salmon-flavored wet cat food on the carpet. Anya and Kicia devoured everything but the smell. We laundered the carpet that night, thankful it was removable, but the smell lingered another week.
Every time we had a stop prolonged enough that the van was totally unpacked, we'd vacuum, Lysol and Windex the interior. We frequently aired it out, and we were very conscientious about throwing any and all garbage out ASAP.
The van still smelled when we got into it in the mornings, a stuffy, stale, fur-and wetness kind of smell. But, by the end of the summer, we didn't really notice.
Lessons Learned: There Is No Good Spot for the Litter box
For the most part, our travels went very smoothly and we quickly found solutions to challenges, such as where to keep the food, how to arrange things within the tent, or what to do when Anya started telling us she had to go pee and we were on a highway with no shoulders and no turn-offs. But, there are some problems to which there are no solutions. For example, there is no good place for the cat's litter box. If we put it in a place that was easily accessible, Anya would root in it and Kicia would not use it. If we put it in a place that was harder to get at, Kicia would get trapped in it. If we put it too far back in the van, something would invariably fall on it.
We finally settled on keeping it behind one of the seats, where Anya could not get her snout into it and where nothing could fall on it. However, Kicia still had a hard time getting at it. Whenever we stopped, I'd pick her up and put her in the litter box (she could get out herself). By the last two weeks, she'd jump into my lap and ask to go, even when we were moving.
We loved traveling with our pets. Sure, it would have been easier had we been alone. We would have spent less time on the road and more time sight-seeing, visiting and eating in restaurants. But then we would have been away from our furry family for most of the summer. And, by spending so much time in such close quarters with each other, our cat and dog actually bonded. Upon our return, Kicia, who has been a cranky cat most of her 16 years, is actually almost friendly now.