Why Do Cats Pant in Car?

The sight of your furry companion panting heavily in his carrier can be deeply concerning for any cat lover. But before you panic, rest assured that some panting is normal. This comprehensive guide will equip you with a thorough understanding of all the reasons for in-vehicle feline panting, how to differentiate normal panting from emergency breathing issues, and tips to help your cat stay relaxed and prevent excessive panting during car rides.

As a devoted cat parent, I know how scary it can be to see your kitty distressed in the car, breathing rapidly with his mouth open. But don’t worry – with the proper precautions, you can minimize anxiety and keep your cat cool, calm and collected in the backseat. Read on for tips from veterinarians across every crucial aspect of safe, low-stress cat transportation.

What Triggers Cat Panting in Vehicles?

Panting is your cat’s way of cooling himself down and catching his breath in stressful situations. The following factors can all cause a cat to breathe heavily during car rides.

Anxiety and Fear

One of the most prevalent reasons for feline panting in the car is anxiety or fear. The unfamiliar motions and sounds of the vehicle combined with confinement in a carrier can cause immense distress for some cats. Even the most mild-mannered house cat may become frightened. Panting is a physiological reaction to this mental stress.

The Action of Panting Releases Tension

When your cat is anxious, panting helps rapidly lower his heart rate and blood pressure to avoid adrenaline overload. The heavy breathing also releases endorphins which have a calming effect. So try to view your cat’s panting as him actively attempting to soothe himself, rather than a totally uncontrolled reaction. Remaining calm and allowing him space to settle is the best response.

Motion Sickness

Motion sickness due to the car’s movements provokes nausea and dizziness in some cats. Vomiting is a common response, in which case panting helps prevent further nausea. Even mild motion can trigger symptoms in particularly sensitive cats – pencil them in for the passenger seat rather than the rear if possible.

Winding Roads Worsen Motion Sickness

Curvy, winding backroads will exacerbate motion sickness over smooth highways. If your cat already gets carsick easily, stick to routes with less stop-and-go or sharp turns when possible. You can also inquire with your vet about anti-nausea medication for stressful journeys.


Unlike humans who sweat all over our body to release heat, the only sweat glands cats have are around their paws – certainly not enough to keep cool! When the temperature rises in a stationary vehicle, your cat’s fur coat traps heat and prevents him from regulating his body temperature. Panting evaporates moisture from the mouth and throat, lowering body temperature.

Cats Have a Higher Core Temperature

A normal cat’s temperature averages 101-102°F, a bit warmer than human’s 98.6°F. With their higher core temp and dense fur, even mildly warm outdoor conditions quickly become dangerously hot for cats confined in cars. Panting helps prevent lethal heat stroke which can set in at 104°F. Never leave your cat alone in a parked vehicle, even with windows cracked. Temperatures inside the car can soar to over 120°F in just minutes, even if it doesn’t feel extremely hot to you.

Medical Problems

In some rarer cases, an underlying health issue could be causing panting, like:

  • Heart disease or heart failure
  • Fever from infection
  • Respiratory illness
  • Pain from trauma, dental disease or injury

Panting helps deliver more oxygen throughout the body to compensate for these problems. Of course, any cats with preexisting conditions should be cleared by your vet before vehicle travel to ensure safety. Schedule exams a few weeks ahead to manage any issues proactively. If your cat also pants at home, promptly take him to the vet to diagnose the cause.

How to Identify Troubling Panting in Cats

While mild panting just during the drive is not too concerning, pay close attention for any signs of respiratory distress or conditions that warrant immediate veterinary care:

  • Panting Persists Over 30 Minutes After the Ride Ends

Panting during the drive itself is expected. But if heavy breathing continues long after you’re parked, it suggests your cat became dangerously overheated and needs time to cool down. Persistent panting could also indicate underlying anxiety or nausea. Both scenarios require a vet visit. Never try to just wait out prolonged panting.

  • Gasping, Exaggerated Breathing Motion

Watch for dramatic mouth motions like gaping with the tongue sticking out, or neck and abdomen movements as your cat struggles for air. This extreme panting can signal a medical emergency like an asthma attack, heart problem, or internal injury.

  • Excessive Drooling and Salivation

While a small amount of drool is normal, panting paired with heavy slobbering or foamy saliva indicates nausea or distress. Car sick cats often excessively lick their mouths and lip area.

  • Gums Appear Pale or Blueish

Healthy gums should be bubblegum pink. If they lose color and appear pale, blueish or white, it can indicate pain, circulatory issues, shock, or oxygen deprivation – which all require prompt vet intervention. Gum color is an important indicator of blood flow.

  • Collapsing, Loss of Consciousness

Immediate emergency vet care is needed if your cat collapses or passes out during or after the drive. This signals heat stroke or dangerously low oxygen levels that can quickly become fatal without treatment. Never ignore fainting.

  • Vocalizing in Distress Like Whining or Yowling

While some cats are naturally vocal, distressed meows and high-pitched whining grunts are a clear call for help. Pay attention to the tone. Wailing or yowling cries signal panic and require your immediate comfort.

  • Vomiting

Both motion sickness and heat stress can cause throwing up. Try to document frequency and volume of vomit, as persistent vomiting leads to dehydration. If more than 2-3 isolated incidents, visit your vet to address nausea.

In summary, rapid panting on its own is not an emergency. But paired with collapsing, fainting, dramatic gasping, color changes, vomiting or other indicators of distress requires prompt veterinary assessment. Never try to just “wait out” severe symptoms at home without guidance. Catching conditions early vastly improves treatment outcomes.

Top Tips to Prevent Excessive Panting in the Car

With preparation and attentiveness to your cat’s needs, you can take proactive steps to reduce panting triggers like anxiety, overheating and nausea during travels:

Invest in a Sturdy, Well-Ventilated Cat Carrier

Containment in a carrier is essential both for safety and to minimize stress. Look for durable plastic or hard-sided carriers with ample ventilation windows. Soft-sided mesh options don’t protect as well in collisions. Purchase well ahead of travel to help your cat acclimate.

Add Familiar Bedding

Line the crate bottom with a soft blanket or towel carrying your scent to provide familiarity. Some cats feel more secure in covered or hooded carriers that block their view, while others prefer transparent ones. Determine your cat’s preference during short trial runs.

Secure the Carrier Properly

Always secure the carrier tightly with a seat belt, ideally in a back seat to prevent sliding. Carriers left loose on seats become dangerous projectiles in crashes. Proper restraint keeps your cat protected.

Thoroughly Cool the Car Before Loading Your Cat

Cracking windows open is NOT enough to sufficiently cool a vehicle, especially larger vans and SUVs. Idling the engine for 10-15 minutes with AC blasting is ideal to chill the interior. Maintain a comfortable cabin temperature between 70-78°F once driving. Use the vents to direct cool air into the carrier.

Invest in Window Sun Shades

Window shades reflect sunlight and dramatically reduce heat buildup inside parked cars on warm days. Apply them to all windows before travel. This keeps conditions cooler when you make stops.

Bring Plenty of Water

Dehydration makes overheating worse. Bring more water than you think necessary in case of delays or panting episodes. Avoid spillable bowls by using no-drip water dispensers that affix inside carriers. Freeze water bottles for cats to lay on too.

Start with Very Short Trips Before Long Drives

Don’t make your cat’s first ride ever a 10-hour drive! Start with short 5-10 minute trips to relaxing destinations like a quiet park or coffee shop parking lot. This familiarizes them with car motion gradually. Cats who realize rides end at fun places acclimate faster.

Bring High-Value Treats and Toys

Treats serve as positive reinforcement for calm behavior during travel. Bring your cat’s favorite snack or catnip toy to help lower stress. Use treats to distract from stressful stimuli like loud trucks passing. Offer treats once parked to associate rides with rewards.

Use Anti-Nausea Medication or Calming Aids If Needed

For notoriously carsick kitties, your vet can prescribe anti-nausea or antianxiety medication prior to trips. Over-the-counter options like Feliway pheromone spray or calming collars may also help take the edge off. discuss options with your vet to determine what’s suitable.

Choose Direct Routes Over Winding Roads When Possible

Cats prone to carsickness do best sticking to smooth, gradual highways with minimal stop-and-go. Avoid prolonged driving on curvy rural backroads. However, don’t make your cat endure a hugely extended trip just to avoid turns entirely.

NEVER Leave Your Cat Alone in a Parked Vehicle

Not even for a quick few minutes to dash into a store. Vehicle interiors transform into ovens rapidly on warm days. Even with windows cracked, temperatures reach up to 120°F within just 15 minutes. Leaving cats alone in parked cars, even in the shade, often proves fatal. Always bring your cat inside with you or leave them safely at home.

Reward Relaxed and Calm Behavior During the Drive

Give your cat ample praise, pets, and high-value treats when he remains relaxed in the moving vehicle and during stops. This positively reinforces the desired behavior. With consistency, you can condition cats to feel at ease in the car and even enjoy rides. Starting this training as kittens is ideal, but older cats can be trained too with time and patience.

Allow Fresh Air Circulation

Partially crack rear side windows about 1-2 inches during travel so your cat can smell fresh outdoor air and get some mental stimulation without escape risk. Just ensure your cat isn’t sitting right next to the opening. Air flow further helps prevent stuffiness which adds to anxiety.

Seek Veterinary Guidance on Preexisting Health Conditions

Cats with asthma, heart disease, anxiety disorders and other chronic medical issues often have a harder time tolerating travel due to stress. Discuss upcoming car trips with your vet a few weeks beforehand if your cat has health problems. This allows time for medication adjustments to help prevent panting episodes.

How to Soothe a Panting Cat During the Drive

If your cat does become overly anxious despite your best efforts and starts panting mid-trip, here are some tips to help them relax before continuing the drive:

  • If possible, safely pull over. This break alone often relieves stress.
  • Gradually lower the AC temperature if very cold. But don’t allow the car to get hot.
  • Offer access to water via syringe, dropper or fountain. Dehydration worsens panting.
  • Try a soothing pheromone spray like Feliway to decrease anxiety.
  • Pet or talk to your cat in a calm, quiet tone to provide comfort. Scolding will only increase anxiety.
  • Initiate play with an interactive wand toy. Distraction helps break panting cycles.
  • Dangle a catnip toy near carrier doors for mental stimulation.
  • Play soft, classical music to help drown out environmental noise.
  • Avoid overly restraining or tightly hugging the carrier. Allow your cat room to settle into a comfortable position. Forcing confinement adds stress.
  • Once parked, open the carrier door to give your cat a chance to settle in your lap or explore the safe interior.
  • Assess gum color. Pink is good. Pale gums warrant an immediate vet visit.

With patience and care, you can get an anxious panting cat to eventually relax into the ride. But if symptoms persist well after the drive or seem severe, don’t hesitate to visit your vet or emergency animal hospital to address the cause. Your cat’s health is the number one priority.

Frequently Asked Questions About Cats Panting in Vehicles

Is it cruel to take my cat on car rides?

No, car travel is not inherently cruel to cats when done properly. The key is acclimating them slowly and making rides comfortable. Most cats can adapt to vehicle travel with time and positive conditioning. However, never force severely anxious or carsick cats to endure long trips. Assess your individual cat’s limits. Short, frequent drives work best to desensitize anxious cats. Ultimately your cat’s wellbeing determines what’s appropriate.

Do over-the-counter calming products for cats really help with car travel?

Yes, when used correctly many calming supplements, pheromone sprays and anti-nausea treatments offer substantial relief to carsick and anxious cats during transit. Consult your vet on suggested products and proper usage. Read reviews and dosing directions carefully. Natural calming remedies like catnip or chamomile may provide very mild effects for some cats. Prescription sedatives are a last resort option.

Should I feed my cat right before driving?

It’s best to avoid feeding your cat within 1-2 hours before hitting the road. Eating too soon before travel can exacerbate motion sickness. However, it is wise to bring a very small treat in case your cat pants heavily and needs quick blood sugar elevation and comfort. Hydration from a water fountain before and during travel is important.

Are herbs like valerian root safe for cats in the car?

In small concentrations, valerian root extract does appear to mildly reduce anxiety in some cats. However, studies on long term use are lacking. Most vets recommend occasional moderate use at most, such as during stressful car rides only after trying other options first. Check with your veterinarian before administering any herbal calming product to your cat.

Can I let my cat roam loose in the car unrestrained?

Absolutely not! Unrestrained cats will hide under seats, interfere with pedals, and get severely injured in crashes or sudden stops. Always use a sturdy carrier securely belted in, or a crash-tested harness fixed to a seat belt. Your cat’s safety (and your own!) requires proper restraints and confinement during all drives. Loose cats also increase distraction and accident risk. Leave windows just cracked enough to prevent escape attempts. Proper restraint protects both cat and human.

The Takeaway on Feline Panting During Car Travel

In summary, cats may pant in cars due to stress, motion sickness, overheating or medical issues. Mild panting is normal, but contact your vet promptly if symptoms seem severe or continue long after parking. With preparation like securing carriers, cooling the car and taking short trial trips, you can minimize most transit-related panting. Have realistic expectations of your individual cat’s ability to travel based on their health and personality. Some anxious cats may never fully get accustomed to driving. In these cases, the kindest choice is to forego vehicular travel and opt for pet sitters instead when needed. Your cat’s wellbeing should dictate what’s appropriate. With knowledge and planning, cat parents can keep their companions safe and comfortable on the road.