We all know what a stressful experience moving can be. But it’s also stressful—and even potentially dangerous—for our cats. Many cats end up in shelters when a family moves because they become frightened by people carrying furniture, so they run out an open door and hide. Sometimes, the family can’t then find the cat and moves away without him. Other times, a cat escapes his new home and tries to return to his old one.
“Cats are quick—before you know it, they can disappear, especially in that moving transition,” says Chris Nelson, shelter director for the La Plata County Humane Society in Durango, Colo. “If people are moving [from one] state to [another], they’re not going to be able to stick around and look for them. It’s definitely an issue.”
Jeff Werber, DVM, owner of Century Veterinary Group in Los Angeles, Calif., says the key to a safe move is being prepared—at your old home, in transit, and at your new home. His tips include:
At your old home
Secure your cat in a “safe room” or carrier. This is important for both indoor and outdoor cats. Werber suggests emptying one room first and then keeping cats safe from the havoc of moving in the safe room with only a litterbox, favorite scratch post, water, toys, and other comfort items. A skittish cat might benefit from being in her carrier.
Put a “do not enter” sign on the door. This will help keep movers or friends from accidentally opening the door and allowing the cat to dart out.
Tell the moving company you have a cat. When you first call a moving company, Werber says it’s important to give them a heads up about your cats, and ask them not to enter the safe room.
Make sure your cat is microchipped and wearing an ID tag. Werber and his family have eight indoor cats—yes, eight!—and they are all microchipped and wear ID tags. “That’s very important because you never know when that latch on the door’s not going to snap, you never know when they’re going to push on a screen—you just don’t want to ever take that chance.”
Drive with your cat in a carrier. A hard-sided carrier is best if the cat will be surrounded by suitcases and boxes. Werber advises using a carrier with slats for a seatbelt or looping the seatbelt through the handle of the carrier. “They feel more secure, and cats are so dangerous because they do like to get down at your feet and stay low.”
Use disposable litterboxes. Werber even uses carriers that are large enough to contain a disposable litterbox.
At your new home
Put your cat in another safe room until things settle down. Sit with the cat in the room to try to make him feel more comfortable. “Once you get to a new place, there’s going to be an adjustment period,” Werber says.
Inspect your new home for hiding spots. “Murphy’s law is that if there is a place small enough for a cat to squeeze through, he will.”
Update the contact information for your cat’s ID tag and microchip.
Nancy Peterson, cat programs manager for The Humane Society of the United States, also suggests spaying or neutering your cat so they’re less likely to want to roam. And if you need to fly to your new home, place your cat in a carrier under your airplane seat instead of below in cargo.
A family also risks losing a cat by moving to a new home that doesn't allow cats.
"Moving is the number one reason cats are surrendered," says Chris Nelson, shelter director of the La Plata County Humane Society in Durango, Colo.
To help, The Humane Society of the United States offers information on its website about how to effectively find a pet-friendly apartment as well as tips for curbing behavior issues a new landlord might not like—or even the cat owners themselves.
"Many times these behavior issues that [would] cause a cat to lose his home can be solved," says Nancy Peterson. "I would really implore people to look at the options and try to plan ahead. There definitely are resources out there."
As for whether putting butter on a cat’s paws really works (the old wives’ tale posits the first place a cat licks its paws becomes home), Peterson says she wouldn’t recommend it. She prefers using a safe room for several weeks, and gradually introducing your cat to one room at a time. If a cat hides under a bed, resist the urge to pull him out, which would be stressful for the cat.
“If your cat is allowed outdoors, I would say that moving is the perfect time to transition your cat to be an indoor kitty,” Peterson says. “The Humane Society of the United States strongly suggests that people keep their cats indoors for their cats’ own safety and the safety of songbirds and other wildlife.”
Peterson says all of her indoor cats started as strays, so it can be done. To ease the transition, she suggests using calming pheromone diffusers or sprays, playing soothing music for your cat, and providing enrichment, such as birdfeeders outside a window (safe from other cats) and toys. Starting the transition at your old home can help, too. And if the doorbell rings, throw a cat treat in the opposite direction of the door.
“You provide all these things indoors that allow them to express their natural behaviors without all the dangers that there are outdoors,” she says.
Finally, be sure to find a veterinarian in your new community as soon as possible. “Locate them before you need them,” Peterson says.
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