Ways to Make Your Cat’s Move to a New Home Safe and Stress-Free

When I was a young woman, people who lived on our street moved away. But about a week after they drove off in a moving truck, neighbors discovered they’d left behind their pregnant cat – who promptly gave birth to a litter of kittens.

It made me furious that someone would abandon a cat so callously. But now that I’m older, I wonder if it was an accident. Did the mama cat get scared by all the commotion and run out of the house to hide? If our neighbors had taken precautions, could their cat have stayed safely with them?

I may never know what really happened (though, thankfully, I do know the cat and kittens were rehomed by the local animal shelter), but there’s no question that moving can be stressful for everyone involved – particularly cats. How can we make moving to a new home as safe and stress-free for them as possible?

Michael Hargrove, DVM, MBA, CBA, owner of Fear Free Certified North Shore Veterinary Hospital in Duluth – the first Fear Free practice in Minnesota – says it’s important to recognize that cats like consistent environments.

“Cats are very sensitive to change,” he says. “What greater change can there be than changing their entire environment – moving to a completely different home?”

Transition Tips

If you’re moving with a cat, your approach might differ slightly depending on whether you’ve moving across the country or just across town. Dr. Hargrove recently moved to a new house within his city with his three cats, Yori, Kiko, and Meg. For a few days before and after the move, he boarded them at his animal hospital, which offers kennels in which cats can interact, hiding places, and quiet music.

“I gave them the best environment that I could give them so that when I was packing up the house, I didn’t have to worry about the door being open and ‘strange’ movers being in there and the noise and the commotion,” he says. “That’s probably an ideal situation where you can really minimize the disruption to their lives.”

Before the Move

If boarding isn’t an option, create a safe room for cats that will be packed last. Make it comfortable by including a litter box, water, treats, a cat tree, a pheromone diffuser such as Feliway, toys, and other things they like. Then tape a sign to the door that reads, “Do not open – cats inside” so that movers or friends don’t inadvertently open the door and let the cats dart out.

As you would before any car ride – even a trip to the veterinarian – you’ll want to help your cats get accustomed to their carriers. Leave the carrier out with the door open, lined with soft bedding sprayed with feline pheromones, and treats. Create positive associations by feeding your cat inside the carrier.

“Carriers can be a real trigger when people never use them for anything except something traumatic. As soon as they see the carrier come out, they run away,” Hargrove says. “Make the carrier more appealing before you’re going to move so that they’re more comfortable.”

For cats who find car travel stressful, ask your veterinarian about medications for anxiety or motion sickness, and pheromones.

Another tip: don’t wash your cats’ blankets, towels, or other bedding before you move – they’ll feel comforted smelling their scent in transit and at their new home.

During the Move

Your cat should travel with you, never in the cargo hold of the plane or moving truck. Other safety tips:

  • Each cat should have his own carrier.
  • Place the carrier on the floor behind the passenger seat.
  • Cover the carrier with a blanket on three sides so your cat can gaze out or feel hidden, depending on his preference.
  • Play calming music in the car – nothing loud or particularly wild.
  • Never leave a cat in a hot car. Plan pit stops accordingly.

At Your New Home

When you reach your destination, create another safe room that will be furnished last. When the rest of the home is ready, let your cat explore the other rooms but keep access to the safe room. Be aware of where they might be hiding, but don’t pull them out.

“The more you can provide their normal, comfortable environment for them, the happier they are going to be,” Hargrove says.

As soon as possible, update contact information with your pet’s microchip company, and find a new veterinarian. A local veterinarian can tell you about the area’s regulations regarding vaccinations, recommend resources, and offer insights into diseases common in the area. That way, if your cat develops a health issue, you won’t lose time searching for a veterinarian.

Search for a Fear Free practice through the website. It’s also a good idea to look for Cat Friendly Practices and those accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association for top-notch care.

Ultimately, taking a few precautions should help ensure a smoother move for the entire family.

“I can’t promise that you can make a move 100 percent stress-free for a cat. You’re completely changing their environment,” Hargrove says. “But if you pay attention to their emotional needs every step of the way, they’re going to have a much, much better experience.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder is former president of the Dog Writers Association of America.