A guide to packing up your cat’s moving-day troubles

How to survive moving with your cat: a guide to packing up your cat’s moving-day troubles

W. Bradford Swift

If you ask Kate Chesley, director of public relations at Clark University, what it was like moving from Chicago to Worcester, Massachusetts, with three cats, she’ll tell you. “It was hell,” she admits with a laugh, the memory still vivid seven years later. “We considered every method to move the cats, including driving, but finally decided flying was the best way.”

Since the cats would have to be kept in the cargo section of the airplane, Kitty’s, Beast’s, and Tom Cat’s trip to their new home was complicated by the hot August temperatures. “We had to make sure that in any city they were going to land, the temperature would be below the mid-80s,” remembers Chesley. “We had to find just the right day and then be immediately available to send them and have them picked up.”

Finally, the weather cooperated with a cooler day–the same day the movers came. Chesley’s roommate, Maureen, placed the three cats in the bathroom to lessen the trauma, but one of the movers opened the door and Beast promptly disappeared. After the movers finished loading the van and drove off, Chesley realized Beast was missing. With only a lone bureau left in the house, Maureen figured Beast either stowed away in the van or was outside. She called the moving company and had the van stopped and searched, but no Beast. Next, she had the neighborhood children looking for any cat that might be Beast. By the time they were done, she had seen a dozen terrified cats, none of which was Beast.

Meanwhile the clock ticked away; the window of opportunity to get the cats to O’Hare airport was rapidly closing. Finally, in desperation, Maureen looked in the only place left where Beast could be hiding–the lone bureau. Sure enough, through a very small hole in the back of the bureau, Maureen spied two small eyes staring back at her. Beast had never left the house.

Unfortunately, moving-day horror stories are not uncommon. Let’s face it, whether it is down the street, across town, or across country, moving is a stressful experience for everyone, especially cats. But with a little advance planning, many of the headaches and much of the stress can be minimized.

According to animal behaviorist and psychologist John Wright–author of Is Your Cat Crazy?–cats are such bad movers because when they become aroused or upset, they stay upset longer. “Stress for a cat involves three things,” says Wright. “It involves reaction to novelty–cats don’t like novelty. They like sameness. It involves reaction to unpredictability-cats don’t like events to be unpredictable. The third thing is the degree of control–cats don’t like to be out of control. When you move, you have a high degree of all three, until things settle down.”

Of course, not all cats react in the same way. Some are more likely to have trouble coping with a move. Skittish, shy, or older cats, for instance, tend to have more difficulties than laid-back or younger cats.

Nothing is more key to your chances of warding off moving-day jitters than advance planning. Step one: obtain an appropriate cat carrier or crate well in advance to give your pet a chance to get used to it. Leave the carrier out with the door open so your cat can investigate it at his leisure. Airlines have specific requirements for carriers, so check these out before your purchase. Any carrier should give the pet enough room to stand up and turn around and should allow plenty of ventilation.

One of the biggest fears cat owners face is that their furry friend will be lost during the commotion of emptying the house. To lessen this risk, segregate the cat in a quiet, familiar, and secure location with the cat’s food, water, litter box favorite toys and something with your scent on it. If possible, lock the door. If this isn’t possible, post a large sign–“Cat Inside. Do Not Enter”–at eye level where the movers can see it. During the move be sure your cat is wearing an ID tag with a working phone number and ID the carrier as well.

If you’ll be driving one or more days, it’s a good idea to take your cat on short practice trips every few days for a couple of weeks before you leave to accustom your cat to car travel. Don’t drive with your cat loose in the car; the risk of an automobile accident is too great. If someone is traveling with you and your cat is a docile traveler, it may be OK to let the cat out for brief periods under your companion’s close supervision–but only if it’s absolutely necessary.

Practice drives will also give you an opportunity to determine how your cat is likely to react during the actual move. If after two or three trips the cat is still freaked out by a short drive, a mild tranquilizer may be in order. If so, check with your veterinarian for the type and dose to use. Since dosages vary from cat to cat, conduct a trial run with the tranquilizer as w elf. It is not necessary or recommended to have the cat completely knocked out, just sedated enough to take the edge off.

During the actual drive, try to keep your cat in his crate the whole time. It may be necessary, however, to allow him out so that he can relieve himself. Stick with the most secure means possible. If your cat refuses to use a litter pan while in the crate or car, take him out of the crate and harness him securely before opening the car door. For your rest stops, be sure to select quiet settings away from the traffic and noise.

For trips entailing one or more overnight stays, make reservations in advance at locations that allow pets. Upon checking in, carry the crate inside, lock the door to your room, and cat-proof it before releasing your cat. If possible, always keep two closed doors between your cat and the great outdoors. This may mean keeping your cat in the bathroom overnight, but that is better than having some unsuspecting bellhop accidentally release your cat.

If you are planning to fly your cat to his new home, check with the airlines far in advance for their regulations and guidelines. Interstate travel generally requires an up-to-date rabies vaccination and health certificates issued by a veterinarian. No matter what mode of transportation is planned, a trip to your veterinarian prior to moving is a good idea. At this time, request a copy of your pet’s medical records and keep them handy so that you can find them in case they are needed in your new location.

Try to keep your cat with you during the flight. Most airlines allow one pet per cabin to travel with its owner in a small carrier. If your cat will be traveling in the cargo section, be sure the crate meets regulations. Beware of cargo travel if your cat is Persian, as some short-faced pets may experience breathing difficulties under stressful conditions.

If possible, book a direct flight to reduce the chance of your pet getting stuck at a connecting airport. In the winter, try for a flight scheduled during the warmest hours; in the summer, shoot for night or early-morning flights. Withhold food six hours before departure; an animal in fear may spit up and then aspirate and choke. Some airlines provide a counter-to-counter service so your pet will be directly carried on and off the plane by an airline employee. Although this service costs more, it may be worth it for your peace of mind.

Once you arrive at your destination, you may think your–and your cat’s–problems are over. But sometimes stress-related behavioral problems, such as urinating or defecating outside the box, spraying, or even aggression, can crop up after the move. “A third to half of the cases I get where the cat has suddenly developed an inappropriate elimination problem has involved moving in the last four to six weeks,” says Wright. “Somehow, during the move the cat’s coping mechanism breaks down.”

However, warns Peter Borchelt, animal behaviorist for the Animal Medical Center in New York, sometimes apparently aggressive behavior can be misinterpreted. “An owner may call me and say, `It looks like one of my cats is becoming a bully,’ but I wouldn’t describe it that way. He is more likely being curious and playful and trying to resume previous interactions with the second cat. But the other cat is too frightened to do that.” This type of behavior shouldn’t be confused with that of cats who become very frightened and end up displaying their fear as aggression. With these cats, says Borchelt, “your best bet is to back off and stay away from them until they calm down.”

Minimize the development of such behavioral problems by reducing the stress the cat experiences. “You want to return the cat to the regular ritual pattern of day-to-day activity you had at the old house,” says Wright.

If you customarily spend time each day playing with your cat, try to do this during the move. There is one exception, however: keep your outdoor cat inside once you are in your new home, at least initially. A move may be the ideal time to switch your cat from an outdoor to an indoor pet, a move that will keep him safer and is likely to increase his life span. Cats are often less demanding about going Outside when they are in a strange location.

Even if you insist on letting your cat out, keep him in for the first couple of weeks. In fact, for the first few days it’s usually best to keep your cat confined to one room in the new house. Cats are good at letting their owners know when they are ready to investigate further. If they run and hide or cower when the door is opened, they aren’t ready to explore. But if they meet you at the door meowing and rubbing against your leg, they are ready to browse through other rooms. Before giving the cat run of the house, be sure your home is cat-proofed and any potential means of escape–or hiding places where your cat might go but you can’t follow–have been blocked off.

Moving stress may also lead to physical problems. “Stressful situations can bring out disease,” says veterinarian Douglas Brum of Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston, a division of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals/American Humane Education Society. “The cat may suddenly start straining at the litter box when no lower urinary tract disease has been previously apparent.” Other diseases that may be brought on by stress include viral infections, allergic bronchitis, and certain skin disorders.

Cats that refuse to eat for several days, especially overweight cats, may experience hepatic lipidosis, a liver condition caused by the improper metabolism of fat. “For some cats, it may take weeks of not eating,” says Brum. “For other cats, all it takes is four or five days before the fat gets deposited in the liver, a condition known as a fatty liver.” It’s a vicious circle because the longer the cat doesn’t eat, the worse the condition gets.

To avoid this problem, encourage your reluctant cat to eat by tempting him with his favorite foods, especially those with a high “smell factor.” Provide water from the same source that the cat has been used to in order to minimize the chances for digestive upsets.

A cat may not readily take to change. But with thorough planning and careful execution, you can make your move as smooth and uneventful as possible, both for you and your cat. Remember to give your cat some time and extra reassurance. Hopefully, your extra effort will pay off, and you won’t have such a “beastly” tale to tell as Kate Chesley. Luckily, even with Beast’s escapade, the three cats made it to O’Hare on time and are now living contented lives in their new home in New England.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group