Living on the Road with Pets

barb_s_vwvan-exp1By Barb Cotton

Living in a van with pets creates a whole different set of considerations. What to do with them while you are at work, what if they get sick, and the main one-do they get car sick? I have been living and traveling in a VW van for 2 years with a dog, Max, and a cat, Pawl. Luckily they are both good travelers.

For the dog I had before Max, I had made a platform for the front passenger seat. I took a piece of plywood, cut it to fit from the rear of the seat to the dash, attached 1×2’s for front legs, and covered it with a rag rug from WalMart using a staple gun on the underside of the plywood to attach the rug. Max loves it. He can sit up front with me when he wants without having to worry about falling off the seat if I stop quickly. This also allows me to use the space on the floor for storage. I keep the bed folded out when I travel so he can go back there and snooze. That is also where the cat rides, usually napping. Pawl is 17 now so she does that a lot.  I have a light-weight blanket on the bed on top of my sleeping bag that I can just throw in the wash when I do laundry to keep it clean. But it does fill the lint-trap on the dryer with dog and cat hair! I make sure to clean out the washer and dryer so no one else has to deal with the fur.

When I first started traveling with the cat, I bought a soft-sided cat carrier (WalMart again- don’t you just love that place?) and she usually crawled in that to nap. A cat carrier of some sort is a must when traveling with a cat. Sometimes I just need to keep her contained. She has a covered cat litter pan- can you guess where I got it?- so has a bit of privacy to do her thing. It has a handle on top, I have attached 2 cat leashes to it so I can put the pan outside and hook her to it if she wants to be out. I also let her go outside without being tied, but that depends on your cat. She is old enough she doesn’t go far or for long, then comes back inside for her nap.  I don’t let her go out by herself if I am planning on going someplace soon, as she has been known to hide under a bush and ignore me when I call for her. I would never let her out if there was traffic. Usually when I am working I am parked someplace where it is not an issue.

The kids stay in the van when I’m working, but so far I have been able to park and live on the premises where I work, so I check on them on my break. I am a snow-bird, north in the summer, south in the winter, so avoid most of the temperature extremes that could cause problems. Max is fine in the van when it is cold, and the cat just crawls in my sleeping bag if she gets cold. Heat is a different story. I have a pop-top so I can open the canvas flap to the screen, which really helps the heat escape. I have 2 different size turnbuckles that I use to prop the back hatch open with. The cat can get out even when I use the smallest one, so I stuff my pillows in the bottom opening, but air can still get in the sides. A fan is a must to help the air circulate. I have a clip on 12-volt fan that I attach to the bar for the pop-top right in front of the screen. The sliding screened windows on the sides open for good air movement. Before I left Arizona last spring, the temperatures were in the 80’s, too hot to leave the critters in the van, but I was parked up the hill from work in a secluded area, so I left the sliding door open, tied Max so he could get in or out of the van as he wished. The cat I left untied, but as I said, she doesn’t go far. The maintenance man would be up near my van periodically so he checked on them for me. When I have to leave them in the van to do my shopping, I pop the top and turn on the fan for them if I’m going to be more than 10 minutes or so. If it is too hot to leave them in the van, I just don’t go. Period. I have been known to do my shopping at 10pm so it is cool enough for them. My pets are my kids, and I love them to pieces and am very aware of their comfort and well-being.

Both animals have had to see the vet while I’ve been traveling. I just look one up in the Yellow Pages. Neither has had an emergency, so I have been able to schedule appointments when I’ve been in one place for a bit. Most towns of any size have a vet with a 24-hour emergency number if there is a problem. If you are planning on taking your pets to Canada, like I did on my way to Alaska this summer, you need to have current rabies certificates for both cats and dogs. Canada doesn’t require anything more than that.

Max is a pretty mellow dog, and isn’t destructive when I leave him in the van, but I do have to make sure any food is out of his reach. If I leave anything out, he will eat it! He ate almost 2 sleeves of saltines one day. Drank a lot of water too! I have to put the cat food out of his reach, and he can be creative in trying to reach it. I keep the cat food dish on the front seat when I am camped, and tried to barricade it so he couldn’t get to it, but he has been known to crawl or jump over the cat litter pan, and whatever else I have stored between the front seats to get to it. I finally conceded defeat and just put it totally out of his reach when I am out of the van. I keep the dog food and water dish on a cookie sheet covered with a place mat on the floor behind the front seat. That keeps any spilled water off the floor. Also on the pan is a zip-lock bag full of baggies so I can grab one when I walk Max to clean up after him. His leash hangs on a hook right inside the slider so I can reach it from inside or outside.

Pets can be great traveling companions, I can’t imagine traveling without one, but you really do have to be aware of their comfort and safety. They depend on me to keep them safe and healthy, and I do my utmost to make sure of both.

Editors Note: One good way to help your pets stay cool in the heat is to lay down a waterproof barrier like a garbage bag or small tarp on the floor of your van or RV. On top of that lay an old, small blanket or large towel and get it soaking wet. Encourage your dog or cat to lay on it. Some will, some won’t, but if they do they will stay much cooler.