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How van life breathed new life into my elderly cat

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Personal growth is often associated with the human experience, but I recently found myself wondering if the personal journeys of animals are all that different from our own.

This, after I witnessed an incredible transformation in my senior cat after he transitioned into full-time van life.

Parker is a fluffy Maine Coon that resembles what a lion would look like if he were 21 pounds and jet black. Despite being familiar with his many impolite behaviors (such as drinking out of the toilet and drooling while he purrs), I would even describe him as being as majestic as one.

I adopted Parker when he was ten years old. He had spent most of his life in a two-story, suburban home, and it was a shock when he found himself living in a small apartment with me.

Little did he know an even bigger transition was in store.

Why we decided to live the van life

When my partner Dave and I first met, it didn’t take much time before we started traveling together. We literally booked a trip out of town on our second date, scheduled regular road trips, and seven months into our relationship we flew to Iceland for a week where we rented a campervan and drove around the country.

Full-time van life was the logical next step for us. 

Traveling full-time had been my dream my whole life, but there was no way I was going to leave Parker behind. I had promised him I would take care of him for the rest of his life, and I intend(ed) to keep that promise.

But how would we do van life with a cat?

Dave and I confirmed that van life was too alluring to resist, but I had concerns about how Parker would handle the new living arrangement.

I immediately set to work on a strategy to help get him adjusted to van life before the transition was official.

Parker the cat staring at his new campervan home.

By now, Parker had become accustomed to car travel. When Dave and I got together, we spent a lot of time at his place. I felt “pet guilt” spending too much time away from Parker, so on weekends, I began packing him up and shuffling him back and forth between apartments.

At first, Parker whined the entire time we were driving, but as time went on, he got used to it and it became less of an ordeal to him. Not only was he getting used to car travel during this time, but he was also getting used to being in new places and around other animals.

One of my concerns for Parker was that he would have enough space. It’s easy to take a dog for a walk, but cats tend to have a mind of their own.

I had previously attempted to take Parker out on a leash, but it hadn’t gone well, despite my persistence. It was clear to me that he would never go on a traditional “walk,” but that didn’t mean that I wanted him to feel cooped up. And so I set out with a new training philosophy.

I began putting Parker’s harness on him to get him used to wearing it, but I would carry him for short walks (at 21 lbs, they can only be short walks.)

This seemed to work okay, and I could put him down safely to get him used to his environment.

Progress.

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Dipping our toes into van life with a cat

Dave and I were so excited when we bought our van, that we took it out on our very first weekend and Parker handled it surprisingly well. He immediately set out exploring his new campervan surroundings, and while we were driving, he spent his time in his carrier.

Parker the cat looking out the window of a campervan.

When our weekend was over, we were able to return to our apartment and he was able to be back in his comfort zone.

There were trials and errors during this time period. Parker was allowed free roam of the van while we were driving, and he began to take it.

He tried sitting in my lap and looking out the window, but this didn’t last long. Drives down long gravel roads gave us all anxiety when we first
started our journey, and he was no exception.

Initially, the litterbox was a source of confusion for Parker.

After too much driving, Parker would let us know that he was done with it by hopping on the dashboard and meowing.

Initially, the litterbox in our campervan was a source of confusion for Parker. On our first outing, we began driving in the morning and Parker didn’t know what to do. He started frantically meowing, hopped on the bench seat, and used the bathroom.

He was clearly confused, so we started giving him time to use his litterbox in the morning before we left and that did the trick.

Living full-time in our campervan with a cat and a dog

After we took the van home, we put in notice to our apartment and by the end of the month, we all moved into our Ram Promaster camper full-time.

Parker had a hard time when he figured out that we weren’t going back to the apartment. He was “fine,” but I could tell that he wasn’t fully himself.

He would let me pet him, but he wasn’t comfortable enough to purr and it took him a few months to fully become himself again.

Shauna and her husband sitting outside their campervan with a cat and a dog.

One thing that improved when we moved into the van was Parker’s and Kirby’s (our pet dog’s) relationship. As I mentioned, Kirby is ferocious (well, he tries to be) and a bit of a bully. He was jealous of Parker and would constantly chase him around the apartment.

Ultimately, things between them got better after we moved into the van because Kirby couldn’t harass Parker in the same way anymore.

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My top mistakes doing van life with a cat

Getting Rid Of His Kennel Too Soon

In an attempt to save space, I got rid of Parker’s carrier too soon and I regret this. Parker initially was handling things so well that I didn’t believe it would be a problem. In retrospect, I wish that I had kept it longer. It would have helped him during periods that he was stressed out.

Pushing Him Too Hard

My biggest concern for Parker was his comfort and happiness. It was important to me that he was not confined to the van and he could enjoy the outdoors.

In the beginning, there were times when I pushed him too hard and it was too much for him. I should have slowed down and listened to his needs.

Driving Too Much

Dave and I were so excited to have the van; we wanted to go everywhere. Long drives were hard on him in the beginning. I wish that we would have slowed down more and given him more time to adjust.

What we did right in the van with Parker

Preparing Him Ahead Of The Move

The efforts I made to get Parker adjusted ahead of time really helped. Taking him for drives and working to get him comfortable on a leash and outdoors was essential to his early success.

Getting Him Out Of His Comfort Zone

Despite feeling that I pushed him too hard, I do believe that it was the right thing to encourage Parker to get out of his comfort zone. Because of it, Parker enjoys poking around outdoors and in riend’s and family’s homes.

When I meet other parents of cats, they often tell me they are afraid
to get outside at all. I am glad this is not the case with him.

How van life changed Parker the cat

Parker is now 14 years old, and despite being a senior when we began our journey, he is fully adjusted to this lifestyle and I have witnessed a transformation in him.

He isn’t afraid of dogs anymore, and if he is in the mood will even walk up to one and give it a sniff.

Parker the cat standing in front of a replica of Stonehenge.

He and Kirby now coexist peacefully living the van life and view themselves as family. (Kirby can even be protective of him!)

Parker has now adapted perfectly to timing his campervan litterbox use. He now knows when we are getting ready to drive off and uses it before we leave. If we are driving and he needs to go, he just hops down off the bed and handles his business.

His favorite place to spend his time while we are on the road is on the bed and under the pillows, and sometimes enjoys checking out the views on the dashboard.

He doesn’t like the beach, but the woods are his happy place (just like his mom!), and he loves poking around and eating grass or whatever other plants he finds interesting.

Conclusion on living the van life with a cat

Our transition into van life with a cat and dog hasn’t been without trial and error, but Parker has not only adapted, he has thrived.

Parker the cat riding on the campervan's front dashboard

He used to be a timid loner around anyone but myself, but he
is now a curious kitty who likes to explore the outdoors and make friends with other creatures (when he’s in the mood, of course.)

My cat has seem more of the world than most people ever will.

Living van life with a cat is possible! If you are wondering how your cat may handle the lifestyle, I would encourage you to prepare them ahead of the move and not make the same mistakes I did.

Go slow and take your time but work with your cat to get them outdoors and living their life to the fullest.

Being able to travel with Parker has been an extremely rewarding experience. Together, we have been to 34 states and four provinces. My cat has seen more of the world than many people ever will!

Where will we all go next?

Perhaps Mexico or Europe!

Be sure to give Shauna a follow over on Instagram to keep up with her adventures.

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4 thoughts on “How van life breathed new life into my elderly cat”

  1. I love this! You now have a well travelled cat and that makes me very happy! I would love to live in a van one day but my partner hates the idea. We will probably settle in the middle and have a part-time van life ♡

    Reply
  2. I am curious to know exactly how the litter box works. Do you guys just pack it away and then bring it out occasionally? Do you use a regular box and litter, keep it handy 24/7, or does Parker use it on a schedule?

    Reply
    • We just leave it out all the time. It fits under the bed and we place it on a rug which helps keep some litter under control and stops it from sliding while we drive.

      Reply
  3. I love this! Going to bring my sweet senior Malcolm as a full time van cat but my biggest concern is actually day to day experiences. I love hiking and while I dont plan on doing overnights with him left alone in the van, do you have any experience with AC/heat/comfort methods to leave your pets in the van while out for a handful of hours? I’m so worried about it either being too hot or too cold or him not having enough ventilation while away and the van not being on.

    Reply

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