Is living in a van with a cat realistic? Definitely. It’s easy to assume cats won’t enjoy van life, but after witnessing my own cat flourish in this lifestyle, I’m optimistic for all feline friends. But how do you start van dwelling with a cat?
After nine months on the road, I decided to bring my cat who was accustomed to living indoors. I eased him into the lifestyle over the course of a few months. At first, he’d meow every night and get pretty stressed when he heard the van start.
But day by day, he adapted. I’ve seen a whole new, adventurous side of him. He’s stayed in five new houses, met six new dogs, and has climbed (and occasionally fallen from) countless desert trees…it gives me the warm fuzzies to know he’s living his best life!
How to Train a Cat for Van Life (5 Steps)
- Get your cat chipped or an ID tag
- Leash and harness train
- Know what makes them happy (treats, sweet talkings, toys)
- Get them a thorough vet check-up
- Start small; short hangouts in the van, to short drives
Here are the most common questions I’m asked about van life with a cat–and my honest answers.
How to adjust a cat to van life
Break up the process into small pieces to make the adjustment more comfortable for your kitty. Here’s a full step-by-step breakdown on how to train your cat for van life:
- Put his kitty harness on for ten minutes a day, every day for a couple of weeks (while still inside your house). Give him treats and talk sweetly to him so he associates the harness with rewards.
- Make sure he’s comfortable in his cat carrier. I have a bubble backpack that I’d already used with him for a year prior, but otherwise use the same process as the harness training.
- When he’s comfortable in his cat carrier, bring him to the van in his carrier. This way, he has a “safe space” to stay in while in the van.
- Don’t drive the van during the first two or three visits your cat takes to the van. Let him roam around, sniff everything, hide in every corner–this is HIS time to adjust. Offer treats and sweet talkings.
- Start doing short drives with him in the van.
- Do an overnight trip and be sure to use his litter from his home box, so he recognizes the smell.
- Don’t force anything–the worst thing you can do is push him too hard out of his comfort zone and traumatize him from wanting to try again.
What’s the vanlife cat litter setup?
After testing out different setups, I ultimately found that storing a covered litter box underneath my van benches was the best setup. But, the best setup will depend on layout of your van build.
A popular layout in bigger vans is building a specific storage space for a littler box:
This layout is great for helping contain litter to just that storage area. I recommend using cat litter pellets or crystals (instead of “regular” litter) because it reduces the chances of litter sticking to a cat’s paws and spreading it around the van!
Here are another couple of examples of building a special storage space just for your cat’s litter box in your van:
You could also opt for portable litter boxes that are made for traveling. I can’t vouch for them since I haven’t used one, but you get more bang for your buck since they can serve as litter boxes and carrying crates. But–they may not help with the biggest problem: preventing litter from spreading around your van. But here are a couple of options:
As for maintaining the litter box, I could go a maximum of three days without cleaning it (and not smelling terrible). And if your cat ends up spending most of their time outdoors, they may start going to the bathroom outside! That happened a couple of times with my kitty–but only if the ground was soft dirt 😉
How to handle heat with a cat in the van
If I’m going to be away from the van for an hour or more, I first do a routine to make sure he stays cool:
- Plan to be away from the van in the morning or evening to avoid the peak heat of the day
- Park in the shade
- Turn on my ceiling fan to “high”
- Crack the front windows
- Put up blackout curtains in all other windows
- Put sun reflector over the windshield
- Make sure my cat’s water bowl is full
- Make sure he can access underneath my bench/bed area because it stays significantly cooler than the rest of the van
Check out how to keep your van cool without AC for other heat-beating ideas. I always, always err on the side of caution when it comes to making sure my cat doesn’t overheat in the van. If I’m sweating, chances are he’s already hotter than me in his thick fur coat. What’s more, cats don’t have the ability to sweat, so it’s harder for them to cool down.
Thankfully, heat hasn’t been a big issue yet. Even on hot days in the desert, I keep all doors open for a cross-breeze.
Do you keep your cat on a leash while traveling?
I keep my cat in a harness and on leash if the van doors are open. I typically connect three separate leashes to create a longer tether line so he can roam around outside the van. There have been a few times I let him roam off-leash if I feel confident we’re in a safe area.
The harness I use is called the PetSafe Come With Me Kitty harness and came recommended from a fellow van dweller with cats (check out her YouTube channel). Her cats have never escaped from the harness. After watching my cat spaz out a few times and try to escape the harness without success, I have great confidence in this harness!
My kitty has the most energy in the mornings, so our routine is to make coffee, then go on a half hour walk. I let him climb small trees, pounce on stuff, but watch out if he starts eating plants. In true nocturnal cat nature, he basically falls asleep all afternoon.
Keeping your cat healthy and safe
My vet made sure my cat had his feline leukemia shots and a rabies shot. But I recommend going to your local vet and asking them what they recommend to prepare a cat for being outdoors.
You also need to keep tabs on if your cat is showing signs of Valley Fever. Just like humans, cats can contract Valley Fever, which is caused by inhaling spores of a certain fungus. This fungus is mainly found in the low desert regions of Arizona, southwestern Texas, New Mexico and the central deserts of California.
Symptoms of Valley Fever in cats include coughing or difficulty breathing, non-healing skin lesions, weight loss or a general lack of energy. As you know, cats are very good at hiding illness, so you always need to monitor their behavior.
Once I left the desert for more humid climates (ie California) I got over-the-counter flea and tick medicine. Fleas can’t live in dry, high-elevation climates, but they thrive in warm and humid climates. I used Frontline’s basic pour-stick that required one dose on the back of my cat’s neck once a month.
Flea & Tick Meds I Use
Do you let your cat meet other peoples' pets?
It depends on the situation. In many cases, I tether my cat to the van, leave the doors open, and let him decide if he wants to wander out while there’s another pet around. But if I don’t trust the other pet, I keep my kitty in the van.
My cat’s personality is naturally good with dogs (he has yet to meet another cat, though). I have brought him into my friend’s van while her dog was in there. But in that case, our pets had already met multiple times before and we knew they behaved well together.
The worst thing you can do is force your cat to be around another pet if they don’t want to be. If you are trying to keep them harnessed or leashed while they are visibly uncomfortable around another pet, you are doing irreversible damage to your cat’s trust in you.
Has your cat's behavior changed since moving into the van?
Yep, and not just his behavior, but also his weight! He was a bit of a chonker when we first moved into the van, but he’s a much healthier weight now. When I first moved him into the van, he was timid and wouldn’t leave the van even if all the doors were open. Now, when I wake up in the mornings, he meows and pushes up against the passenger door to be let out. He will attempt launching out of the van sometimes, too! Which is a little scary…
Want to hear from other van dwellers with cats or dogs? Check out this Q&A hosted by Two Wandering Soles between myself and other road travelers with pets.
What van life cat products do you recommend?
These are some of my favorite products that have made the transition a lot easier for both me and Ernie. Click on the images below to view them on Amazon and get pricing.
When you look at your cat’s behavior right now, do you think they’d be a good fit for van life? Some kitties may take more adjusting time than others, but with trust and patience, it is possible! Or should I say…PAWS-ibble? #SorryNotSorry