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6 Tips To Start Van Life With A Cat – Pros & Cons

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“Van life with a cat – is it possible to bring your furry friend with you in your camper van?”

That was the question I asked myself over and over again before adopting my cat and bringing her into my van. It would be a big responsibility and would forever change the way traveled in our camper.

Spoiler alert: We adopted her!

Van life with our cat
Say hello to our cat, Maya!

Maya's Adoption Story

We first met Maya at a marina in Guatemala. She was skinny, hungry, and all alone. During the first few days, we never saw her mother nor any of her siblings. Just her.

In the beginning, we weren’t keen on adopting an animal while traveling and had said our goodbyes to lots of adorable kittens and puppies as we drove off in our camper (there are so many cats and dogs that aren’t spayed or neutered in Latin America). But this one kitten never gave up and wouldn’t leave us alone. When we closed our van doors for the night, she would sleep under our camper’s chassis until the next morning.

So after a long thoughtful discussion, we decided to adopt her and named her ‘Maya.’

And after almost a year, she has grown up to be a perfectly healthy, sassy queen. We’ve traveled together in many countries (7 countries, and counting!) and have learned so much about her through van life.

In this post, we want to share some of tips and things to consider when traveling with a cat during van life.

Introducing A Camper Van To Your Cat - Take It Slow

Cats are territorial creatures and feel comfortable in places where they can smell familiar scents.

And so if your cat has been a house cat for most of its life, it may be overwhelming for your pet to be in your camper for the first time.

Here are a couple tips to help introduce your camper van to your feline friend to help it get acquainted with van life.

Let Your Cat Roam Freely In Your Camper

Cat roaming the aisle in a camper van
Maya exploring our camper on the first day

First thing you can do is to park your van outside of your home and let your cat roam freely inside your van every day. If your cat is curious and isn’t scared, let him or her roam around for a few hours. But if your cat appears tense and tries to hide in an isolated corner of your camper start with just a few minutes per visit and add more minutes every day.

In our case, we were camping at the marina in Guatemala for almost 2 weeks, without moving. This consistency helped our cat to feel comfortable with our van quickly. During that time span she would come in and go out every day, whenever she wanted.

Go On Short Trips With Your Cat

Once your cat is comfortable hanging out in your van, drive somewhere nearby. It could be a place as mundane as your local gas station.

The goal is to get your cat comfortable being in a moving vehicle.

Cats are smart and adaptable creatures. After a few attempts, they’ll figure out the most comfortable spot to be while you are driving.

In our case, Maya sleeps in the space between our seats in the front of the van. We didn’t force her to be there, she just chose that spot by herself. So we put her favorite blanket there to keep her comfortable during long drives.

Cat sitting in a camper van at a gas station
Observing life at a gas station

How To Prepare For Van Life With A Cat

Cat behind a laptop screen in a camper van

Before you decide to hit the road with your cat, here are several more tips on what you can do to make your cat feel comfortable and to keep them safe for life on the road.

Creating Space For A Cat Litter Box

If you are building a camper van, save space for your cat’s litter box. In our case, we transformed one of our lower drawers to house space for the litter box.

The box is well hidden and in a semi-enclosed space so Maya can do her business comfortably and in privacy.

Cat litter box in a drawer of a camper van
Maya's litter box in a kitchen counter drawer

Creating A Safe Space For Your Cat

Monitor your cat and see where he or she feels safe and likes to hang out. Cats are intelligent creatures and know the best spots to sleep and chill. Once you have an idea of where your cat likes to be in the van, you can establish the place by bringing his or her favorite bed, blanket, and placing their favorite toys around it. 

In our case, Maya loves to chill and hang out in the front part of the van on the dashboard. She loves the big window where she can look outside and knows that nobody can get to her.

Cat sleeping on the dashboard of a camper van
Maya sleeping on the van's dashboard
Cat with collar and tag in a camper
Maya showing off her beautiful Mexican collar

A Collar With Tag & Microchip

In a small space like a campervan, it’s nearly impossible to keep your cat inside 24/7. Cats get bored easily and they need the outside surroundings to give them mental stimulation and to help them stay physically active. Hence, most likely your cat will want to start roaming around outside.

But it’s also important to try your best to keep your cat safe and to prevent them from getting lost. Make sure your cat has a collar with tag (with owner’s information) and is microchipped before you start traveling. Better safe than sorry!

Spay / Neuter & vaccinate your cat

Besides eliminating the possibility of unwanted pregnancies, spaying (female) or neutering (male) you cat helps to keep your pet safe by preventing them from straying too far away from your camper at night looking for ‘action’.

Spaying Maya has been one of the best decisions we’ve made with her because she now has ZERO interest when a male cat approaches her. And she never goes off looking for males either.

Life As A Cat In Latin America: As we drive along the Pan-American highway, we've seen countless pregnant female cats on the streets here in Latin America. They're always skinny, hungry, and about to give birth with another set of helpless street kittens. Please spay/neuter your cats!

This almost goes without saying, but make sure your cat is up-to-date on it’s vaccines. This helps to keep your cat safe from diseases they may pick up from other cats and animals they meet along their journey.

Protection against fleas, ticks, and other bugs

Flea & tick medication is a must have item for adventure cats! Make sure to consult with your vet and set a reminder on your calendar for putting your cat a flea medication. Not only do you not want fleas on your precious feline, but you also don’t want your pet to bring them back into your bed.

Temperature Control To Keep Your Cat Comfortable

Cat sleeping in a camper van
Maya sleeping comfortably in our camper

Cats are generally better than dogs at dealing with larger temperature swings. They can detect places in your van where the temperature is more comfortable (manageable), and stay there.

However, if your van is parked in severe temperatures, there’s always a limit to what your cat can handle. Vehicles can get seriously hot under the direct sun and dangerously cold in the winter without proper insulation and ventilation.

Here are the items you can install for better temperature control.

How We Control Our Van's Internal Temperature

Prevents from heat and cold air getting inside of campervan.
Read More: Ultimate Guide To Campervan Insulation

Circulate the air in & out. 
Read More:
How To Install A Maxxair Fan In A RV

Bringing in a fresh air and helps to circulate the air more with the vent fan.
Read More:
How To Install Camper Van Windows

Prevent hot & cold air coming from windows. Easy to cut in a shape you want.
Shop In Amazon: Reflectix
Bubble Pack

Prevent hot & cold air coming from the front part of van.
Shop In Amazon:
100% Blackout Window Curtain

Prevent cold air coming from the floor
Shop in Etsy: Mexican hand made rug

Makes the van warm and toasty in cold weather
Shop In Amazon: Diesel Heater

When we have to leave Maya alone in the van, we turn on the vent fan, open both rear window, and put up our three reflectix window shades. If it is too hot and we plan to be outside for a longer stint, we simply put her in our cat backpack and bring her with us.

Training Your Cat To Feel Comfortable Being Outdoors

Cat sitting on shoulder on Eric, while walking outdoors
Maya on her throne, clearly

During van life, your cat will come into contact with the outside world much more often than when he or she was at home. This means there will be many situations when your cat will be surrounded by new people and confronted by other animals. Your cat will also be bombarded by strange and, possibly, frightening new  sounds.

For us, it was very important for Maya to learn not to freak out and run off when confronted with strange animals and new situations. To help get Maya comfortable with being outdoors, we did the following three things

Getting Your Cat Used To A Backpack/Pet Carrier

Start training your cat to be comfortable in a cat backpack/carrier.

Personally, I prefer the backpack style for daily use, since they are easier to carry for longer periods of time and free up your hands.

Once they are comfortable laying in the backpack, try to go for a little walk every day with your cat in the backpack. Start with natural surroundings where there are less people and noises. Once they’re OK in these types of situations, try visiting other places with more people in the environment.

The goal is to challenge them but show them that the backpack is a safe zone for them.

Cat in cat backpack, going for a walk
One of Maya's first days in her cat backpack
Cat walking with harness and leash
Harness & leash training Maya

Harness & Leash Walking Your Cat

If you can make your cat comfortable with wearing a harness and walking on a leash, then that is perfect for van life. Maya started her harness training when she was a kitten so it was relatively easier but if she was already an adult, I’m sure it would have been trickier. 

We started introducing the harness and leash to her by having them always present in her sight. But they weren’t forced on her.

She would sniff these new devices or even play with them, and we reward her snacks. After a while she associated wearing a harness & leash with her getting yummy treats!

Reward Your Cat After Outdoor Time

What we want is for Maya to learn that our camper van is her home. It’s a place she can come back to be safe and to be fed. If she can associate those two important things with our camper, then we feel certain that she’ll come back to us (if we let her out by herself) and that she won’t be straying too far from our van.

Therefore, we make sure to teach Maya that there’s always yummy food waiting for her when she comes back to us in the van. Whenever she comes back, we reward with a treat.

Even if you’re out walking your cat on a leash or in the backpack, when you return to your van, be sure to give your feline friend a treat for being so behaved!

Manage A Routine For Your Cat

Even though you are traveling and constantly moving, it’s important to take control of your cat’s routine, just like at home. You decide when your cat’s meal time, outside time, and sleep time is.

If you don’t, they’ll decide for you!

Keep Your Cat Active During The Day

Cats are night creatures and that’s when you’re usually the most active.

I often see house cats taking a long naps during the day only to get ready for their midnight parties once the sun sets. And in a limited space, like a camper van, this could be a nightmare while you’re sleeping.

In order for you to get a good night sleep in during van life with a cat, the most important thing is to keep your cat active during the day time, as much as possible.

Cat walking on a tree
Maya playing on the trees at our campground

Entertain Your Cat in any situations

In our case, we’ll choose a camping spot based almost exclusively on whether our cat can safely roam around outside or not. We try to choose a place with lots of greenery and hiding spots (gardens are the best!) . Usually, we’ll let Maya roam around outside freely until a bit after sunset, before it gets dark. Then, when she comes in for dinner, we’ll close the van doors and that will be her last outdoor time until the next day.

We normally don’t let Maya roam around all night long.

If we can’t find such places where she can explore outside by herself, especially in urban areas, we’ll take her for a walk at a nearby park on a leash. 

If we can’t find a good place to walk on a leash, we put her in the backpack and bring her wherever we want to go. This way she can at least get some mental stimulation.

Pros & Cons About Van Life With A Cat - From Our Experience

Maya the cat with her camper van and two owners
Failed photo shoot with Maya and our camper

Pros

She is usually the reason to start a conversation with people we met. Everyone loves cat, and even with “no pet allowed” signs, often time she gets exceptions.

She has been a great van life companion, and even in the tough times she always makes us smile.

Smelling new scants, climbing trees and chasing after butterflies….As long as she has her home on wheels nearby, she loves exploring new places and she is never bored! She gets a lot more excise than she stays indoors, she sleeps better at night too!

Cat litter sand and her hair can be all over the place if we procrastinate about cleaning. Van life with her encourages us to clean our van daily.

Cons

We had to give up some of our space and storage for cat litter & sand, food, toys and so on. Maya has A LOT of toys ( can’t stop spoiling our girl) and sometimes we have a hard time finding extra storage.

Everytime we cross a different border she needs to go to the vet to get a health certificate. The costs can vary ( at least not so expensive in Latin America) but some countries require export certificates which adds another extra costs. Traveling to Europe & USA requires anti rabies blood test that can take some time ( About 4 months preparation) and higher costs.

Sadly you have to be ready to skip some national parks, hotels, airbnbs where pets are not allowed. You will need a bit of planning ahead, and oftentimes it is hard to be spontaneous.

There are so many factors that can harm outdoor cats. The more outside the cat is, the higher the chances of getting hit by a car, scratched or bitten by other cats, dogs, and other predators. Even with an extra caution, sometimes things happen and there is nothing we can do. For us, this is the hardest thing to accept about van life with a cat.

Final Thoughts About Van Life With A Cat

Maya the cat looking out the windows of our camper van
Maya guarding our van from passerbys

Van life is indeed the best way to travel with your furry friends. While cats tend to be more sensitive with environment changes than dogs, having a home on wheels – safe, familiar space everywhere they go is a perfect solution. 

We had no idea what to do at first when we adopted Maya, she is unpredictable sometimes as she grows up and everyday is a learning process even now.

One thing we can say is that it is definitely doable to travel with a cat in a campervan and knowing how much joy and laughers she could brings into our tiny home, we would not make different decision about adopting her.

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