6 Tips For Traveling With Cats In A Small Motorhome, Campervan or Van
Our European motorhome is almost half the size of the 40-foot “beast” we had in the USA. It’s taken a bit of adjustment to get used to not just for the humans in our family, but also for our paws.
Polly (our dog) got used to it pretty quickly. We made a few adjustments for her which I’ll cover in another post, but basically she’s just happy to be where we are. Taggart and Rand however (our two 17-year old cats) took a bit longer. They’d gotten used to having a TON of space in the old motorhome with multiple places to sleep and hide, so when they were squeezed into a 23-foot vehicle they weren’t exactly shall-we-say pleased. Thankfully we had a few tricks up our sleeve! We made several key modifications to LMB and transitioned slowly to maximize kitty comfort. That did the trick, and within a week or so they had found their “spots” and were settled in.
So what did we do? What were the tricks that enabled our felines to find their inner European nomad, and become the zen travelers that they are today? Well it’s a few things, and it’s going to take ~2600 words to cover it all, but that’s what today’s post is all about!
1/ Plan A Slow Transition Into The Motorhome/Van
Cats are animals of habit and generally do not like dramatic change. Our cats are particularly so, especially Rand who has suffered from stress-induced cystitis for many years. Poor cat gets stressed at the smallest stuff, and really needs a lot of help to settle down. So whenever we’ve moved (countries, vehicles etc.) we’ve learned to make slooow transitions, giving the cats lots of natural supports & time to adapt to their new space. We did this when we moved into “the beast” ~9 years ago, we did it again when we moved to France last year and we did it a third time when we made our first trip in LMB last winter.
These are the steps we took:
- Introduce the Cats While The Vehicle Is Parked – we first introduced the cats to LMB around a month before we drove anywhere, making sure they had spaces to relax & go to the loo while the vehicle was parked. We basically just hung out with them in the motorhome for a few hours, reading books or working, and we did this multiple times over several weeks before we ever moved anywhere.
- Minimize Your First Drive & Plan To Rest After – we planned our first drive with the cats in LMB to be a short one (only ~1 hour) and then we planned a multi-day stop to give them time to recover from that drive. This really helped them settle in to the motorhome without the stress of a lot of driving on top.
- Use Natural Stress Relievers – we’ve used natural stress relievers for YEARS on our pets, and they really work a charm. Our favorites are Bach’s Rescue Remedy (a flower remedy -> you sprinkle it around where they sleep, and you can also rub it on the inside of their ears), Feliway Spray (a natural feline pheromone -> you can spray it into cat bags, where they sleep etc.) and Licks Cat Zen Calming Aid (an edible treat that contains L-theanine -> it’s really stinky, but they seem to love it). We use all three and they work well on our kitties, but every cat is different so I always recommend trying them out one by one. You may find some that seem to work wonders, while others seem to have no effect at all.
This 3-step process has always worked flawlessly for us, and it did when we moved into LMB too.
2/ Find An Easily Accessible Spot For The Cat Litter
Unless you’re able to potty-train your cat (kudos to you if you can!), you need to find a place for the cat litter, and in a small space this can be a real challenge. Not only does the litter have to be accessible to kitty, but it also needs to be easily accessible to you, so you can clean it out regularly. In a small motorhome/van there’s only a few spots that meet those criteria:
- The Shower – If you have a shower area in your motorhome then this one of the most obvious places to put your kitty litter. It’s out of the living area (important in a small space), but still easy to access & clean. The only negative is that you “lose” your shower space and have to move the litterbox every time you want to access it. However it’s the easiest solution and the one we’ve always chosen for our cats both in the old “beast” and our new “mini-beast”.
- An Unused Cupboard Or Floor Storage – If you have a space by your floor that is unused (e.g. underneath your living room bench-chairs) you can modify that to take a litterbox. Just cut an opening for kitty and make sure the space is easy to access for cleaning too. We know lots of folks who create a hidden litterbox space this way.
- The Motorhome Garage – if you have a motorhome with a rear garage that can be the perfect place to put a litterbox! It’s out-of-the-way (no litterbox smells inside the motorhome), but still super easy to access and clean from the outside door. All you really need to do is create access for kitty from inside the motorhome with a flap or open hole. It’s really a very snazzy solution.
The other thing to consider is the type of litterbox you use. Our cats are older now, and a few years ago one of them (Taggart) developed the maddening habit of lifting her bottom as high as she could to pee, creating no end of “accidents” outside the box. This became a massive source of stress until we discovered high-sided top-entry litterboxes*. Oh praise be to the kitty gods! Not only did that completely eliminate our peeing problem, but it also reduced litter tracking quite significantly. Yeah!
For LMB I had to hunt around to find a high-sided box that would fit our much smaller bathroom/shower, but finally found this inexpensive oval-shaped IRIS top-entry box that was PERFECT. To protect our shower floor we use an old yoga mat (cut to size) under the litter, plus we also have a cheap little step-up stool to help the old kitties get in/out of the box. Finally we use a rubber door stop on our bathroom door to ensure it stays ajar for the kitties while we are parked.
We haven’t really used our motorhome shower in Europe (campground showers here are fab), so this has worked out perfectly, plus I can easily clean/check the litterbox whenever I need to (especially important for older cats). If we get motivated we might move the box to the rear garage at some point, but so far this solution has worked out just fine.
*Note/ You can also use/adapt a regular plastic storage bin as a high-sided litterbox if you can find one that works in your the space. We couldn’t find any that fit in LMB, but it’s another inexpensive alternative.
3/ Create Places They Can Scratch With Their Claws
Cats LOVE & NEED to scratch stuff!
They do it to flex & stretch, for marking (they have scent glands on their paws) and to remove the dead outer layer of their claws. It’s inherent in their nature and as a cat-owner you will quickly learn that if don’t provide a special spot for them to do it they will target your motorhome furniture (couches, chairs, walls etc.) and never stop!
They key is to create safe, alternative places for them to scratch, and make them irresistibly attractive.
In our old motorhome we had several store-brought scratching poles which we just plonked on the floor, but LMB doesn’t have that kind of space. Thankfully we had a perfect cylinder right smack in the middle of the motorhome just begging to be used -> the leg of our living room table**!!
All I needed to do was wrap the leg tightly in 6mm or ~1/4 inch thick natural sisal rope (IMO this is the ideal size for cat claws…thinner & it’s too flimsy) to create the perfect cat scratching pole. I used the same wrapping technique that woodworkers use to wrap tool handles (no glue or nails needed!!), and when I finished I rubbed some quality cat nip into the pole to ensure it was THE most attractive thing in the motorhome.
The result was outstanding!
A lovely, tall, integrated scratching pole plenty big enough to allow the cats to stretch & claw without taking up ANY extra space in the motorhome. Both cats took to it immediately and have used it exclusively ever since (I re-douse it with catnip every few weeks, just for good measure). It’s been a wonderful mod!!
**Note/ If you don’t have any spare poles inside your van/motorhome, another alternative is to wrap sisal around a board/plank of wood and then attach that to your walls or doors. Finally, if you really don’t like DIY you can also buy pre-made wall scratchers on the internet that you can either hang from door knobs or attach directly to your walls/furniture.
4/ Find A Practical Space For Food & Water
Our cats are old and they are “nibblers” which means they eat wet food in small portions throughout the day. So basically they need to have access to food all the time.
In our old motorhome they had their own dedicated space on the kitchen counter, but of course that wasn’t going to work in LMB. In our new mini-rig we have zero space in the kitchen, we can’t use the floor (that’s a free buffet area for doggie) and we really didn’t want to use our living room table as that’s our ONLY usable space for eating & working during the day. So what could we do???
My lightbulb moment came as I was sitting in LMB one afternoon. Literally the ONLY unused, out-of-the-way space we have when we are parked is the very front dash area of the motorhome. In our Carthago, this is a fairly large surface (which is great) but it’s also rather steeply sloped which gives us fab visibility while we’re driving, but means it’s useless as a space to put anything…..unless you modify it.
The solution I found was a cheap collapsible bed tray from IKEA. All I needed to do was chop a few inches off the front legs of the tray and voila! I had a secure, large, flat usable surface for cat food!! The tray stores easily (in collapsed form) beside the passenger chair while driving, and can be set-up in less than 20 seconds on the front dash area when parked. It’s been one of the BEST easy mods we’ve made!
As for the water bowl? That was much easier! The dog & cats share this, so we just have a single bowl in a small nook in the kitchen.
5/ Give Them Places To Sleep & Hide
Cats are animals of routine that like to have specific spots where they can relax and sleep. With multiple cats you really need multiple spots and that can be tough to find in a small motorhome or van. Thankfully there are a few options:
- Your Bed – our cats love to use our beds to nap. Having a fixed bed like we do in LMB is especially handy, and the fact that our bed is raised up off the floor is even better (cats love high places). I would say our cats spend at least 3/4 of their sleep-time in this area.
- Unused Cupboards – we always dedicate at least one overhead cupboard to our cats. We just line it with a towel, and they have a ready-made cat bed. They love to jump up and snuggle there.
- Window Lounger – a really snazzy option in small spaces is to buy a window lounger that attaches with suction cups to your motorhome windows. It’s easy to put up and provides extra space for kitty without taking up much extra space. Plus it can just be folded up when you need to travel or close the blinds. We bought a really nice one for our kitties which fit perfectly in LMB, but for whatever reason they didn’t take to it (darn cats!!). I still think it’s a brilliant idea.
- Chair/Bench – since there’s only 2 of us we always have a spare space for the kitties to lie down in the “living room” area of the motorhome. We brought our beloved thermal kitty blankets with us when we moved to Europe and just plop them down with some catnip wherever we want the cats to hang.
6/ Leash-Train Your Cat (YES, You Can Do This!!!)
My final tip for traveling with cats is to find a way to get them outside!!
Not only is it mentally stimulating for cats to get out, but it also relaxes them and ensures they get daily exercise. It really benefits their overall general well-being and happiness, and when they’re living in a small space like a van that’s super important. The problem is that it’s not really safe to let cats roam freely outside a motorhome. I know folks who do this, but I’ve also heard too many horror stories of cats getting injured, lost or stolen this way. IMO it’s just not worth it.
A MUCH better option is to leash-train your cat!
It’s the perfect solution. Not only can you sit outside with them this way, but you can also go on walks with them when you’re parked. And honestly it’s not that difficult to do….even with older cats!!!
We leash-trained our cats at the ripe old age of 7. We got them a good-quality cat jacket that wraps securely around their body and neck (we brought the HDW jacket, but this EAGLOO brand is also excellent) and then we used the training steps from the HDW website, making sure to bring them outside everytime we put on the jacket, so they would associate it with that activity. The cats meowed dramatically and flopped to the ground like they were dying the first few times we tried the jackets (it takes time for them to re-find their delicate sense of balance), but very quickly they adapted and within a few weeks they LOVED it!!
Nowadays when we’re traveling our cats go outside everyday. They enjoy baking in the sun, eating grass, and walking around, and when they’re tired of that (which doesn’t take long) they go back inside the motorhome to sleep. Happy cats, happy people….
That’s it’s for our top tips for cats traveling in small spaces! It’s not tooooo different from the tips we had for our old motorhome, but hopefully it’s given those of you thinking about smaller RVs/motorhomes or vans some extra ideas…
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