Seeing dogs panting is normal. But cats? Not so much!
When we do see our little furballs hyperventilating, it can be worrisome for owners. And one of the most common places that owners see that cat panting is in the car when traveling.
Most cats are not a fan of car rides. In fact, they mostly hate traveling full stop. The longer the journey, the more stressful it becomes. This might lead to your cat panting in the car, along with meowing, pacing, and drooling. But, why do cats pant in the car?
In many cases, this is just a response to the stress they’re enduring. However, it can also be because the temperature in the car is too hot for your cat. This is dangerous and can lead to overheating and heatstroke! I’ll run through both of these possibilities more in this article, along with providing actionable tips to make car journeys a little more tolerable.
Why Do Cats Pant in the Car?
There are two main reasons why your cat is panting in the car. These are:
- Stress and anxiety due to a complete change of environment.
- Overheating as the temperature is too warm for your cat.
1. Stress & Anxiety
Cats are creatures of habit. They love consistency and hate when there is even a minor change in their environment or routine. It sends them into a frenzy and they behave in all kinds of strange ways. Traveling is one of the most stressful experiences for cats as their entire environment changes. Think about it, lots is going on in the car that your kitty isn’t used to:
- Your cat will have spread its scent around your home through its pheromones. This makes a cat feel safe and secure. But, your car won’t have your cat’s pheromones in.
- There will be strange new noises in the car. Examples include the running engine, the horns of other cars, the clicking of indicators, and general road noise.
- Your car will have a lot of new smells for your cat to take in. A cat’s sense of smell is 14 times stronger than humans, so these new smells can be overwhelming.
- Your cat will be able to feel the motion of the car as the vehicle travels along to your destination. This can feel very unusual and nerving as your cat is used to solid ground.
- There is no escape route in your car. Most cats will run off and hide if they feel scared and stressed. However, your cat will be trapped in its carried, exacerbating their stress further.
- Your cat doesn’t know where it is going and knows that it’ll have another brand-new environment to face upon arrival.
As you can see, there are a lot of things going on to stress your cat out. And when cats are stressed they can start to pant. This is similar to severe anxiety in humans – your cat hyperventilating in response to stress is similar to panic attacks in people.
Although it isn’t nice to know your cat is stressed, almost every cat will suffer from travel anxiety. Once you get out of the car and your cat calms down, their breathing will return to normal.
The second and slightly more worrisome reason why your cat pants in the car is because they’re overheating. Cats do have a slightly higher core body temperature than humans. This explains why cats are drawn to warm areas in our home, such as a sunny spot or the radiator. However, cats can still get too warm.
The car is one of the easiest places for cats to overheat, for the simple fact that they cannot move. When a cat gets too warm at home, they’ll simply move to a cooler area, have a drink of refreshing water, or groom themselves to help lower their body temperature. But in a car, this isn’t always possible!
If the sun is shining through the window onto the cat carrier, there isn’t any way that your cat can move. They also won’t have water with them in their carrier, and they’re probably too stressed to start grooming! Therefore, you might see your cat hyperventilating as they try to cool themselves down. As the moisture evaporates from their tongue, it produces a cooling effect.
What Should I Do if My Cat is Panting in the Car?
When you see your cat panting in the car, your first point of call is to make sure your cat is not too warm. If your cat does overheat, it can develop heatstroke and fall sick. Helping your cat cool down as soon as possible can prevent their condition from deteriorating to this point.
There are several ways you can do this:
- Open all the windows in your car to improve the ventilation
- Put on the air conditioning to lower the car temperature
- Move your cat’s carrier to a shaded spot if they’re in the sun
- Stop driving and let your cat have a drink of water
If your car is not warm, your cat is probably panting due to stress. If so, this will likely be accompanied by other symptoms, including loud meowing, drooling, and pacing. Some anxious cats will even try to escape from the carriers. They’ll scratch at the door and try to get out.
Unfortunately, there is little you can do to calm a stressed cat down once they’re already at this point. Staying calm is the best thing you can do and hope that their mood starts to mirror yours. Speak to them calmly to reassure them that they are safe. Then, give them plenty of love when you arrive at your destination.
How to Prevent a Cat Panting in the Car?
Although it’s difficult to calm a stressed cat, you can help prevent your cat from getting stressed in the first place. Below are just some tips I use with my felines. Try them out and see if you notice your cat pants less than before.
1. Choose the Right Cat Carrier
Anyone that knows their cat hates traveling needs to invest in a cat carrier for cats who hate carriers. Hard-shelled cat carriers tend to be best. These are more rigid and secure. Your cat won’t feel the bumps of the road as much, nor feel like they’re falling when you pick the carrier up. Besides, hard carriers are more difficult for stressed cats to escape from.
The cat carrier also needs to be the right size for your cat – small enough so they feel secure but large enough for them to stand up and turn around comfortably. Cat carriers with a top opening are also preferable. It will be easier to lift your cat in and out, helping reduce their stress levels from the get-go.
2. Try Calming Products
There are several calming products you can invest in as well. Pheromone products tend to be the best. These release felines pheromones into the environment which have a natural calming effect. One of the reasons cats find cars so stressful is the lack of pheromones here. These products can help avoid this issue entirely.
Pheromone cat collars do work well and are my favorite option. Your cat simply wears the product like a normal collar and enjoys the pheromones as they are released. You can also get pheromone sprays. Squirt a few sprays into the carrier and your car before you set off on your journey for an instant calming effect. Please note that cats open their mouths when they smell pheromones, so if you still see your cat with its mouth open this could be why!
If you don’t find pheromone products effective, speak to your vet. They might recommend anti-anxiety medication if your cat is really suffering. Administering this before traveling can calm your cat and reduce cat panting in the car.
3. Prepare Your Cat for the Journey
You can prepare your cat for the journey by familiarizing it with both the carrier and the vehicle before your trip. I recommend starting with getting your cat familiar with the carrier. Get it out and leave it sitting on the floor with the door open. Allow your cat to investigate it at its own pace, getting used to its appearance, scents, and touch.
To encourage your cat to explore its carrier, try lining it with comfortable blankets and cushions. Placing a few treats inside or a couple of their favorite toys can also help. Besides, this will help your cat to form positive associations with the carrier rather than negative ones. You can even give them a treat every time they go inside.
Now your cat is ready to explore the car. Take them to the car in their carrier and let them sit there with the engine off. Once they seem okay with this, you can turn the engine on and start going on small journeys of a few minutes. This will help them get used to the sound of the engine and the motion of the car ahead of your big journey.
Other Reasons for Panting in Cats
If your cat is panting in the car and nowhere else, they are probably stressed or overheating. An illness is highly unlikely, or these symptoms would persist elsewhere. Still, cat panting can indicate some medical conditions. I just want to touch on these so you are aware of them. If you think any of the below apply, please consult your vet for advice.
1. Feline Asthma
Asthma is pretty common in cats and makes breathing difficult. As a result, panting is a common symptom. You might see your cat making weird mouth movements. They will open their mouths and breathe in an attempt to get more air into the lungs and more oxygen around their body.
This won’t be the only symptom though! Other signs of asthma in cats include:
- Wheezing when breathing
- Breathing that is rapid and noisy
- General weakness and lethargy
- In some cases, vomiting
Asthma is usually triggered by allergens in the air, which can cause the onset of an asthma attack. You need to speak to your vet if you think your cat has asthma. They’ll be able to prescribe medication to reduce inflammation in the lungs and ease breathing.
2. Respiratory Infection
Your cat might be panting because they have a respiratory infection caused by viruses or bacteria. An infected cat sounds congested when breathing, which can make this an easy illness to spot. They’ll exhibit other symptoms of respiratory infection too, which include but aren’t limited to:
- Sneezing and coughing
- Drooling from the mouth
- Discharge from the eyes and nose
- Nasal congestion
Cats with respiratory infections need medication to help fight the infection off. The type of medication will depend on the type of infection. Bacterial infections will require a course of antibiotics, whereas viral infections need anti-viral medication. Speak to your vet for a proper diagnosis, further advice, and effective treatment.
3. Emotional Trauma
Finally, emotional trauma could explain your cat’s panting. This is where cats have gone through a tough experience in the past. Examples could include a catfight or a road traffic accident. Previous neglect, abuse, or a lack of social interaction in their younger years are yet more examples.
These situations can all cause long-term mental problems, namely post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety. Just as stress from traveling causes panting in the car, the ongoing mental anguish can lead to more permanent panting. This is just one of the traumatized cat symptoms. Others include:
- Increased attachment and clinginess to their owners
- Aggressive behavior towards people and other animals
- Signs of being in a permanently fearful state
- Acting jumpy and more easily startled than usual
- Destructive behaviors, such as scratching and not using the litter box
- Increased and unprovoked vocalizations
- Sleep disturbances and restlessness
Emotionally traumatized cats can receive treatment, so speak to your vet. They will likely recommend behavioral therapy to help reduce your cat’s fears. They may also recommend prescription medication. Plus, there are certain things you can do at home to help your cat feel more relaxed and at ease that your vet can advise you on.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
Next time you see your cat panting in the car, you’ll know why. In most cases, your cat is panting due to the stress of traveling. There is a lot of new sensations going on in the car that your cat isn’t used to. Try and talk calmly to your cat to reassure them that everything is okay.
However, there is also a chance your cat is overheating and is panting to help cool itself down. Stop driving and make any adjustments to help your cat cool down, such as opening windows or turning on the AC. If your cat develops heatstroke it can make them really sick!
To stop your cat from hyperventilating in the car, it is best to take action before you travel. Choose the right carrier, get your cat used to it and your car, and use calming products. Combined, this can have a huge improvement on your cat’s stress levels. Your cat will be happier and suddenly traveling with your pet becomes that bit easier!