Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you. -- Carl Sandburg
There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- goddammit, you've got to be kind. -- Kurt Vonnegut

April 20, 2011

Pets in the Van

Nissa on tether in front of rock
One of the big reasons for me to invest in my camper van was to be able to wander about with my pets in tow.  Last summer, I had 3 cats and no dog.  I was waiting and disciplining myself to not get a dog after my last one died a couple of years ago until I had firmly gotten my post retirement life in some sort of order before saddling myself with another dog.  There was never any question about getting a dog, just a matter of when.

There seems to be a lot of people who worry about traveling with cats who hate the car.  Here's my experience with traveling with my cats and how I handled the challenges.

Right before my trip last summer (2010), my oldest boy cat died so I was down to 2 cats.  The remaining 2 cats are about the same age (10 yrs).  My female cat, Nissa, adopted me as a kitten while the other boy cat, Syl, decided to live here at about 5 yrs according to the vet.  The reality is that he could have been anywhere from 3 to 8 or 9 since the age is just a guess on the adult animals.  

Syl is a bully and continues to be to Nissa to this day.  He's better if he spends most of his time outside and really mean if he has to stay inside (rainy, snowy days).  And by mean, I mean blood is drawn - sometimes his.  These are serious fights and he never stops.  So these 2 are enemies.  Before my old boy got sick and weak, he always stood his ground and Syl got to respect and even like him so those 2 were ok.  The old boy and Nissa were best friends.
I know some people think the cat should always be inside, but I figure Syl is lucky I'm such a sucker and lucky he has a home at all, let alone one with vet care, food, and a heated bed in the garage.
Miss Nissa in harness & tether
I put Nissa in a tiny dog harness soon after she came to me and she learned as a kitten to get along with a leash and tether.  She learned to just wait until I noticed if she got caught on things.  She was never outside without me nearby so that has worked for years.  I recommend training a cat to wear a harness and tether if at all possible as it makes life much easier.

Syl never wore a harness or tether as he was fully adult and a roamer when he came.  I'm pretty sure that cat has 16 lives.  He's got a few nicks on his ears and some scars on his nose that my cats did not give him, but as I said, this feisty cat is lucky to have any home at all.  He is extremely friendly to humans and comes up and purrs and loves us up.  He seems to have figured out that this is a very good strategy to get along with humans as it is very disarming.  He also likes dogs and will play with them if he feels safe.  If I didn't have other cats, I probably would think him a very loving cat.  But he turns evil in a heartbeat when things don't go his way.

Both cats do not like car rides and complain loudly.  Nissa is horrible in a carrier but will settle down if loose in the car, usually on my lap.  Nissa really hates to be confined in any way and has since she was a kitten.  Syl always seemed scared in the car.  His strategy at the vet's is to purr so loudly the vet just gave up trying to hear his heartbeat.  Nothing she did would stop his purr.  I think that is part of his defense/stress strategy.  Humans like purrs, so he does it whenever he is scared, but push him too much and he suddenly turns into all claws and teeth.

So, that is the background of my 2 cats and vehicles.  Taking cats on a trip means they need the following:
  1. Escape prevention
  2. Water
  3. Food
  4. Litter box
  5. Separation of the 2 cats
  6. Temperature control
1.  I put both cats in little dog harnesses and light leashes that they wore at all times.  Syl was ok with the harness but the leash was only to make sure I had something to grab onto.  After a few days, I took Nissa out for little walks, which she enjoyed and she preferred to do her business outside if there was any scratchable dirt.  Syl was essentially taking the cat for a drag instead of a walk.  By the end of the 4 week trip, he was starting to learn to walk on the leash some.

Syl checking on our stopping place
Nissa was much bolder in leaving the van and I had to make sure she was tethered.  I had light ropes I tied to the van that I could give her some more room in safe camps.  In parking lots, I walked with her a bit.  Syl, surprisingly, did not want to leave the van at all until the very end of the trip.  I guess he was very wary of all that unknown world out there and stayed where he knew - the van.  That made it easier to travel as I didn't have to grab both cats at every stop.  Both cats quickly looked at the van as home.  I don't know if it was because there is more room than in a car or maybe because it was outfitted with house things, but they both looked at the van as their home.  Months later, they still consider the van as another room of their house whenever the door is open.  They hop right in and take a nap or sniff out any new things.

2.  I got a lidded water bowl with a hole in the center that worked very well to contain splashes.  I also got a small plastic tray to put it on and that kept it from sliding around.  They had water in the bowl at all times.  I don't like having their water in plastic however (BPA leaching and who knows what else), so I got a metal bowl and put the lid on top.  It doesn't seal, but it worked anyway.  If I can find a plastic lid with a seal to the metal bowl, I'll cut a hole in the center and use that.

3.  I kept a high quality grainless kibble in a big plastic bin under the benches and in a smaller canister that I kept in a galley cupboard.  I put out food twice a day for them.  Since the trip, they have both been diagnosed with chronic renal failure so I can't feed them the kibble anymore.  I now feed them a special raw turkey diet that has resulted in partial reversal of the renal failure so I will have to figure out how to do that on the road.  I am considering a very good cooler with dry ice to keep the meat for them.

4.  Initially, I thought I could put a litter box under one of the benches in the back of the van.  I lined the area with plastic and put in a litter box.  I opened the door to it and showed each cat the box. I used the Feline Pine pellets (or a generic) and it does a very good job of odor control as long as it doesn't go too long.  I carried along a couple extra bags of it in case I couldn't find it on the road.  It is sold in the big chains, so that is probably not much of a concern.

It turns out that cats need head room to do their business.  I learned this the hard way and trying to force them to use the under bed box failed dramatically.  I had a tarp over my bed area but I had to make an emergency stop at a laundromat on the 2nd day out to wash all my bedding.  The under-bench area only provided 14 vertical inches.  Oops.  I put the litter box in the aisle and had to step over it for the remainder of the trip.  Not ideal.  I have since built boxes to raise the bed area to allow 21 inches under it so I'm going to try the box under the bed again.  I couldn't put it in the bath unless I put in a pet door for access and I don't really want to do that if I can avoid it.

Enemy cats at truce
5.  Since my 2 cats are enemies, I had to be sure I could have them separate.  I put a dog crate on one of the benches with a litter box and water dish in it.  I started the trip with Syl in the crate and Nissa loose in the van since that works in the car.  I let Syl out at breaks and at night and to my surprise, he didn't go after Nissa.  Nissa hissed at him a few times but they were not fractious for the first time.  So, I let them both ride in the van as they wished.  No fights.  Late in the trip, Syl was up where Nissa wanted to look out the window.  She jumped up, paused, hissed at him (as if to say, "I still hate you!") and calmly walked by him to look out the window.

However, on day 2, Nissa got fearful and wouldn't use the litter box (see above) so I put her in the crate to calm her and get her using a litter box again.  Syl only parked himself a foot or so and stared at her (which I stopped) but didn't go after her.  A few days in the crate and she calmed down again so she got more free space.  

I spent 10 days at my mother's house and put Nissa on a tether in her back yard most of the day which further calmed her down as she was separate from Syl for a long time except at night.  On the way back, they got along ok without confining one to the crate. 

Syl napping on dash - doesn't block the view much
Syl decided he liked riding on my lap or in one of the step wells by the door.  Then he found the dash made a nice napping spot.  Nissa spent most of the ride in back snoozing on the bed or looking out the window.  At the very end of the 4 week trip, she wanted my lap too but Syl usually had it.

6.  I kept max/min thermometers and checked them regularly to be sure the van interior didn't get too hot.  The ceiling fan with the rear windows open kept the van no hotter than the ambient outside temperature.  If it got hotter than 90 degrees, I fired up the generator and turned on the AC when I stopped for more than a quick potty break.  Once in dry Colorado, I didn't need the AC at all.  As long as they had water and it didn't get above 90, the (desert adapted) cats were comfortable and safe.  

I  consider the ceiling fan to be a critical item in the van.  My van has a very dark tint on all the rear windows which decreases solar gain along with decent insulation.  I was very pleased with the temperature performance of the van.  Much better than traveling in a car.

Syl checking the van while I pack
While I was packing up the van and cleaning it prior to the trip, I put both cats in the van intermittently and separately so they could start to get used to it.  It wasn't long before they started jumping in and out of it at will.  The night before we hit the road, we all spent the night in the van parked in my driveway.  I wanted to take a short trial trip but ran out of time before I just had to go.  I decided it could be no worse than driving in the car despite my inexperience with it and using an RV.

I really enjoyed having the cats along and the fact that I didn't have to pay for or arrange for care while I was gone.  I could take longer and take detours without having to worry about them since they were right along with me.  I was also pleased at how they adapted so well to the van.  We had some troubles at first but they adapted very well and enjoyed the trip too.

The Future:
Having that experience under my belt, it wasn't long after I got back home that I started looking at Petfinders and got a dog.  She's grown bigger than I really wanted but she is turning into a really great dog.  We've been doing a lot of training and she's much better.  She's now a year old so she still has some maturing to do.  She will be more trouble than the cats but I do like dogs.  
I wanted a dog who would have a nice temperament so I wouldn't have to worry about her being overly aggressive to people or other animals (check), but have enough presence so that any potentially criminal people out there would look for an easier victim.  She is big enough for that but protectiveness is not yet there.  She's young yet for that to kick in.

I took her on an overnight in the van sans cats and she did all right.  I have 100' ropes to put her on a long tether so we can go to parks and play fetch for exercise while she is still tethered to meet leash laws and ensure she doesn't run off as dogs do because it is sooo much fun.  My aim is to train her so well that she will always come when called and drop down instantly when I tell her to.  Those are 2 critical skills that can save a dog's life.  She gets along with the cats very well.  I wanted a dog about 40 pounds and she is a good 65 pounds.  Oh well.

I also feed her a raw homemade diet so getting and keeping a fair amount of meat will be an issue I'll need to address.  I think a good cooler with dry ice might be the best solution.  I have one and it will fit under the bed now that it is raised up.  I think I can buy it more frequently than I do at home but I will still need a few days on board, plus my own food.  Both the cats and dog are doing so well on this raw diet that I don't want to go back to kibble, even a very high quality, if I can help it.

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