Whenever we need to take one our cats in the car (usually to the vets, but not always), the in-car drama is quite intense with a yowling and even vomiting (rare for short durations). Why do cats, unlike dogs, hate riding in cars? Is there a way to make this a better experience for them?
Anecdotally, I have to first say that not all cats hate riding in the car. I've known at least one cat that was perfectly content to ride in the car. This cat started as a kitten going for rides to all sorts of different places, which is probably directly relevant to what follows in this answer.
I believe that the main difference between cats and dogs in this regard involves differences in how the two species remember information.
While I was unable to find specific research covering this, my own experiences and some insufficiently referenced articles indicate that cats have the potential for some degree of long-term memory that works in a fashion fundamentally similar to humans.
Dogs, on the other hand, seem to have generally less ability to remember specific things or events.
Perhaps most relevant, though, is that cats have significantly better retention, both short-term and long-term, than dogs:
Researchers have discovered that there is not much difference between how a cat, a human, or another animal’s brain utilizes certain cues to assist in the creation of short and long-term memories. A cat’s brain functioning has been compared to that of a two to three year old child and, when compared to a dog, a cat’s memory is almost 200 times more retentive. Without repeated and reinforced training, a dog’s memory span is about 5 minutes. Cats, on the other hand, averaged about 16 hours, only IF the activity benefited THEM.
So unless the car ride to the vet, and the wait to actually see the vet, is less than 5 minutes, your dog probably forgot the series of events of:
- Get in the car
- Arrive at the vet
- Wait to see the vet
- Get poked, prodded, restrained, and possibly stabbed with one or more needles
- Get back in the car
- Go home
In particular, #4 generally provides a lot of distractions to a dog, such as a novel environment filled with new smells, or a variety of other pets also waiting.
Cats, on the other hand, seem to recall quite well that step 1, get into the cage, most likely leads to step 6, get poked, prodded, and possibly stabbed with one or more needles.
Certainly some dogs can, and do, form an association with car rides and going to the vet, but for most dogs a trip to the vet seems to be less frightening and unpleasant than it is for a cat (a cat is far less likely than a dog to look upon a room full of new smells and strange animals as a positive).
Furthermore, dogs are more likely to have travel experiences that don't involve a trip to the vet (e.g. a ride to the dog park, going to a pet-friendly pet store, hiking, hunting, or even on family vacations), and less likely to be confined to a cage during the ride (and of those dogs who do ride in a cage during a car ride, many of them have probably been specifically crate trained).
With regards to how you might improve the experience for your cat:
You can try to reduce the negative associations your cat already has with being in the car (and probably being put into a carrier prior to the car ride). It is certainly easier to do this when they're young, before they've formed the negative associations (such as the kitten I mentioned earlier in my anecdote), but you may have some luck by taking your cat on "joy rides".
Start by bringing your cat out to the car, and let them explore (closely supervised! You don't want the cat to get wedged under a seat where you can't get them out) the car while it sits parked, with the engine off.
Do this every couple of days (or even every day), until the cat seems comfortable in the car.
Then progress to short trips around the block.
If your cat handles strange animals (particularly dogs) reasonably well, you might eventually try a trip to a pet-friendly pet store, but for most a nice quiet park where they can walk while on a harness would be a better choice.
Once your cat becomes accustomed to these pleasant (or at least, not unpleasant) trips, you should (hopefully) see a reduction in anxiety during car trips in general.
I ended up discussing this with my vet one day (one of the girls had surgery and stopped eating, so we inserted a feeding tube to feed her until she started feeling better. We picked her up from the vet, got the feeding lesson, and went home. She puked on the way home, so we had to go back and make sure everything was still in place).
It's my vet's belief that cats don't process the motion of the trees and such well, and they do better if you place a towel over the carrier or arrange things so that they can't see out of the windows.
I think that this may be partially right, but also that cats get anxious for different reasons, and the best way to ease the trip for your cat is to determine what causes anxiety for your cat and treat that as best as you can.
For this particular girl, she gets anxious about being handled by people at all, and by unfamiliar situations. There wasn't much we could do except be as calm as we could be and take care of everything quickly. Usually, when she isn't so ill, we try to combine her trips with one of the boys (they get along together well) and the presence of a buddy helps keep her calm.
We once had another cat who only ever wanted to be petted. He would cry and cry and cry and finally we would relent and whoever wasn't driving would let him sit on their lap and he was quiet and calm.
Our youngest boy is high energy and gets bored, so we try to give him a toy, or talk to him or distract him somehow, and that helps him.
These examples may or may not work for you, but they're examples of how we've looked at each cat's personality and tailored a plan to help each one.
Finally, for a longer trips or for extreme stress (the cat is harming itself) you can talk to your vet about sedative medications. Your vet should explain the risks and benefits of those medications.
I think there are some great answers here, but I wanted to suggest one more thing. I believe it's simply because you expose your dog to much more than you do your cat. You take your dogs outside on walks, you take him on car rides to go fun places like the river, you introduce him to people in a positive way, etc...
With cats, they're usually kept inside, they're rarely ever taken outside in the company of people (excluding people who walk their cat on a leash), and they get to run off and hide whenever they come across a situation they don't like. Coupled with the fact that cats don't have nearly as strong a desire to be in a group and you can see where they're react very differently.
I think if any cat is exposed young and/or worked up to a situation slowly, they'd over come their fear. I think it's perfectly understandable that they get upset when they're stuffed in a crate, put in a loud moving vehicle, then put in a loud, smelly vets office, where they're only dragged out to get poked and prodded.
I suggest you'd do like you would with a dog. Get them used to a carrier in the house, by putting treats in it. If they go in, shut the door for a few seconds and increase duration over time. Pick it up and move it a few feet. Either leash your cat or if it's an indoor/outdoor cat leave your car doors open and put some treats on the seat. See if you can work up to getting him to stay inside if you turn it on.
I think you can see where I'm going with this. I believe it's mainly an issue of exposure, training, and expectations. My own cat, in his formative years, was living in a house that didn't allow cats, so when the landlord came over, all his stuff got put in a closet and he was shut in a back bedroom, now at 11yrs old, he hides when anyone comes over unless he's seen them half a dozen times. On the other hand. I was at a party once that was obnoxiously loud, with people smoking, drinking, and yelling and a cat came out rubbing on peoples legs and hopping in their laps. Other people have cats that ride across the country with them in their RVs.