On our first date three years ago, it was evident that Nina and her kitten, Iggy, were a package deal. I never thought I’d have a cat, but Iggy managed to weasel his way into my life.
There is no better cat in this world to change your mind about these incredible animals. Iggy is the most confident, unique, outgoing cat I’ve ever met. He was raised as an adventure cat, and he accepts nothing less in his life. Despite his daily leash walks and a plethora of enrichment, Iggy becomes stir-crazy any time we settle down somewhere for more than a few months.
Iggy made it clear to us that he was meant for a life on the road. And about four months ago, he finally got his wish. We’re living on the road full-time now, and Iggy has never been happier. Neither have we!
Iggy curiously observes the San Francisco Bay from Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, California.
All animals are individuals
As a general rule, acclimating kittens to an adventure lifestyle from as young as possible is ideal. This doesn’t mean that we can’t teach old cats new tricks!
Positive reinforcement training is beneficial to all cats. Still, some are simply better equipped for life on the road than others. Fearful cats who have experienced little change in their lives may never be able to walk on a leash and are at a greater risk of escape and injury while on the road. Whether this is a quality life is dependent on several factors: whether the cat has a companion, how large your rig is, whether or not the cat is able to learn to view the vehicle as a safe place, and more.
Iggy chases a toy through the snow near Crater Lake in Oregon.
Cats are both predator and prey animals by nature, so it’s in their biology to be frightened of sudden movements, environmental changes, and loud noises. You’ll want to consider your cat’s individual temperament when deciding whether they’re a good candidate for van life.
The power of positive reinforcement-based training
Positive reinforcement-based training is the gateway to success with any animal. For most cats, there is one reinforcer that reigns supreme over all: high-value treats. The stinkier, meatier, and grosser the treats, odds are, the higher value they are to the cat. Freeze-dried whitefish treats are Iggy’s favorite. Yuck!
To begin training, you’ll want to find 2 to 3 treats that the cat simply goes nuts for. Variety is key. The high-value treats should be used only for training, given mostly in tiny morsels. Occasionally, throw in a large treat as a random “jackpot” to keep interest high. There is nothing Iggy won’t do for a treat!
Training will require the use of a marker in addition to a reward. A marker is what we use to mark a desired behavior. It can come in the form of a training clicker, a simple phrase such as “yes!” or a sound of your choice.
Unamused by the Grand Canyon, Iggy turns his back on one of the seven natural wonders of the world to perform his “tippy toes” trick in hopes of earning a treat.
Acclimation to the van
First introductions to the van: play, snacks, and naps!
When we first brought home our 1991 Chevy Horizon, “Lucy”, one of the first things we realized was that Lucy’s ignition was loud. The last thing we wanted was for Iggy to have a frightening first van experience, so we came up with a training plan to prepare him for his first van ride.
First, we simply brought him out to the van for about an hour every day. We offered plenty of treats simply for being in the van and practiced his tricks inside. We bought a new feather toy to stay in the van, so Iggy could look forward to playing with the toy only when he entered the van. He also quickly learned that the van was a safe place to watch the neighborhood birds.
At the same time, I recorded the sound of the van’s ignition on my phone, and I used it for desensitization sessions in the house. I’d say “Car sound!”, play the audio at a low level, then immediately mark and reward. I increased the volume over a few training sessions before turning on the van with Iggy inside. We started with short drives around the neighborhood paired with plenty of treats, then practiced with a few weekend camping trips before graduating full-time to live in the van.
Acclimation should advance on a case-by-case basis, and only when the cat is completely comfortable.
Leash training and other safe outdoor access
Baby Jasper, our former foster kitten who now lives with my best friend, graduates to his first camping trip after weeks of harness training!
Living in a van reduces a cat’s living space significantly. Unless, of course, your cat is leash-trained! Leash training enables a cat to safely explore new places, expanding their tiny world by volumes.
Iggy brings people joy wherever he goes, confidently striding through the campground with his tabby-striped hips swinging side to side and his tail held high. Raising and training Iggy has enabled us to train more cats, including many foster kittens over the years.
Introduce the harness slowly. Start by showing the harness to your cat, marking and rewarding until the cat views the harness as a magical harbinger of treats. Advance to petting the cat with the harness, and eventually, laying the harness on the cat’s back for a brief second. Mark, reward. Mark, reward. Make his or her first time wearing the harness extremely brief. Never force anything over an animal’s head. There are endless resources out there to leash-train your cat.
If a leash just isn’t your cat’s thing, a tent or pop-up enclosure can provide safe outdoor time as well.
Other useful training cues
Recall, or coming when called, is one of the most essential lifesaving skills you can teach an animal. It’s difficult to train a foolproof recall to a cat, but spending time perfecting this as much as possible can save your cat’s life.
Pair your emergency recall word or sound with a treat jackpot every single time. The cat only gets a certain treat when he or she hears the recall signal. Iggy’s recall is a simple “here!”. While we still have room for improvement, Iggy responds probably 70% of the time. If your cat escapes the van, the last thing you want to do is chase them. Stay calm, grab your treats, stand between the cat and the nearest road, and throw your recall word into action.
We’ve also taught Iggy how to jump into the van on the cue “truck!”. You can practice this with your cat outside on the leash, or, if your van fits inside of a garage or fenced yard, practice it there. Mark, reward! Remember, the van is a place of treats and fun.
Fulfilling a cat’s biological needs on the road: hunting and foraging
Gotcha! Iggy stalks a feather wand “bird” hiding in the leaves.
They might be cute and cuddly, but at their core, cats are still animals. All animals have biological needs. Suppressing those needs leads to frustration for both the cat and the caregiver!
Like all cats, Iggy has a strong desire to hunt. As conservationists, we don’t want him harming wildlife. Instead, we use cat toys such as feather wands to mimic prey. We try to engage him in at least fifteen minutes of this daily.
Having to “work” for his food also helps fulfill Iggy’s needs. We always hide his kibble in food puzzles so that he has to forage and problem-solve. Food puzzles made for dogs or cats can work and are available at most pet stores; even a paper towel roll or water bottle stuffed with food can work!
More biological needs: scratching and vertical space
Iggy’s private lounge above the driver’s cab.
All cats need to use their claws to scratch. If you don’t provide an outlet for scratching, your upholstery will pay the price! We use a small scratching pad to keep Iggy’s claws busy. We move the pad around and sprinkle catnip on top to keep his interest.
Vertical space is another source of joy for cats. In larger rigs, you can install platforms and perches on the walls. We decided to convert a storage cubby into Iggy’s safe space. Complete with a soft bed and padding, he sleeps in style! Just like humans, it’s important for cats to have their own space to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed.
To allow Iggy access to the fresh air while not on his leash, we built a DIY mesh screen using a velcro strap and screen mesh. It costs less than $20 to construct and also helps keep insects out of our van when we’re cooking or relaxing!
Litter box and managing cleanliness
One of the most common questions people ask us is how we deal with the stench of a litter box in such a small space. The answer? There is no stench! No, we aren’t noseblind. I was skeptical, too. I’ve always experienced an unspoken truth about households with cats: before you see them, you will smell them.
Until Nina introduced me to pine pellets. This dirt-cheap substrate, sold in forty-pound bulk bags at Tractor Supply, is meant for farmed animals and horses. It’s highly absorbent of liquid and smell.
We keep Iggy’s litter box between the driver and passenger seats with a covered top, so you can’t see it. It’s hidden in plain sight! Nina is incredibly crafty and has created a sifting system by placing two litter boxes on top of each other, and drilling holes in the base of the top box. Every day she cleans out the litter box and sifts the dissolved pellets. We stay on top of the mess, and it simply doesn’t smell. Pine pellets do not track like clay litter does.
Heat and other safety issues
Finally, a place where we don’t need to worry about heat!
Did you know that a parked car’s internal temperature can rise almost 20 degrees in just 10 minutes? In half an hour, a car parked in 75-degree weather can reach 109 degrees. Hundreds of pets die every year from being left in cars. Heat kills.
Unfortunately, “Lucy” does not have a built-in AC unit. Because of this, we’re limited in where we can travel in the summer All of our van windows are screened, and we use a strong battery-powered fan as well as park in full shade on warmer days.
Temperature is a serious challenge in the van world. Most smaller vehicles do not come with built-in AC. Even if they do, you’d need to either run a generator while you’re gone or have an extremely powerful solar panel and car battery. Swamp coolers are effective, but they expel water vapor into the van, which can lead to mold and irreversible damage.
There are remote heat sensors made for vans that can pair with your phone and send you a notification in case of a heat spike. As we’re currently traveling the Pacific Northwest, we haven’t faced serious heat challenges- but should we venture to warmer regions, we’ll likely invest in this tool!
A lifetime of adventure
Iggy fixates on a songbird in Mount Rainier National Park.
Life on the road is not for every cat, in the same way, that it’s not for every human. But I know with certainty that Iggy is his happiest self when we’re traveling. We often say (and I truly believe it) that Iggy is the luckiest cat in the world. He’s seen more places than many people will ever have the chance to.
Cats are often dismissed as being “independent” creatures and are some of the world’s most neglected companion animals. Free-roaming cats have a dismal median lifespan of just 2-5 years old; yet many indoor cats don’t receive enough attention, suffering from boredom and obesity.
Iggy is not a free-roaming cat, but his life couldn’t be further than that of a typical indoor cat. He’s an adventure cat. And he loves his life!
Chelsea Pinkham is a traveler, writer, and aspiring animal trainer currently road-tripping across North America with her partner, Nina, and their adventure cat, Iggy. Chelsea lives full-time in a solar-powered 1991 Chevy Horizon. She is passionate about educating and inspiring others to pursue a nomadic lifestyle in an affordable, sustainable manner- and to include their companion animals in their travels!