Cat owners know how difficult it can be to travel just about anywhere with their feline friend. Wrangling a nervous animal into a pet carrier can often be a bit of a nightmare. Not only do you have to worry about your pet getting stressed, but you want them to be as safe as possible — while also following airplane regulations, if you’re flying.
There are tons of carrier designs on the market, but when it comes down to it, the best option is one that feels cozy, comfortable, and peaceful for your cat. “If you can find a carrier that your cat is not terrified of, that’s it: That’s the gold standard,” says Kerrie McKeon, resident cat expert at the animal-welfare and adoption organization Bideawee. “You can’t do better than that.” So we spoke to McKeon and eight other veterinarians, cat behavioral experts, and passionate cat owners about the carriers they recommend, to help you narrow down the crowded field.
What we’re looking for
Soft-sided vs. hard-sided: Carriers can either be soft-sided, made from flexible materials like nylon, polyester, or microfiber, or hard-sided, with a rigid, durable shell. Hard-sided carriers are sturdier and easier to clean, so they may be a better fit if your cat gets aggressive, suffers from motion sickness, or is prone to having accidents when nervous. However, since hard-sided carriers are more solid and bulky, it’s usually best to choose a soft-sided carrier if you’re planning to take your cat on a flight or road trip where they need to be stowed away into tight spaces. A soft-sided carrier is lighter and easier to store than a hard carrier, but could be more easily damaged by sharp claws and teeth and may not provide as much protection as a hard-sided carrier. Whether you ultimately end up with a soft-sided or hard-sided carrier, look for one with “both a top-load option and a front-load option,” advises McKeon. “Putting them in through the front can be hard if they’re trying to back up against you, but dropping them down through the top can be an easier option.”
Style: While traditional handheld, duffel-style carriers are typically your best bet for vet visits or situations where you need to transport your cat from Point A to Point B as painlessly as possible, the carrier market has evolved in recent years to include some intriguing new designs. Some carriers now come with wheels, similar to rolling luggage, that allow you to pull your cat along rather than hoist it. Although it’s going to be “a much bumpier ride that close to the ground,” according to cat behavior consultant Dr. Mikel Delgado, a carrier with wheels can be helpful for cat owners with limited physical strength or mobility issues. Cat backpacks, often featuring a space-agey bubble peephole with ventilated openings, allow you to haul your cat on your back; they don’t allow as much room for your cat to move around, so they aren’t recommended for traveling long distances, but they’re perfect for taking your cat on quicker trips, especially ones where you need to keep your hands free. Finally, if your cat enjoys seeing the sights and getting some fresh air but is a little reluctant to explore the world on their own, they might enjoy being pushed in a cat stroller.
Size: A lean, petite cat will require a different-size carrier than, ahem, a chonkier specimen. The perfect cat carrier will be roomy enough for your cat to stand, turn around, and lie down in, but not so big that they might slide around in it, which can cause them to become stressed. Your cat should feel snug, secure, and settled in their carrier. Not all brands offer multiple sizes, but most list the carrier’s dimensions and weight limits; knowing the general size and weight of your cat is a good place to start.
Best overall cat carrier
Soft-sided | Duffel | Two sizes with a max weight of 7 and 15 pounds
All four cat experts we spoke to recommended Sleepypod carriers, with Kate Benjamin, founder of the stylish cat-gear website Hauspanther, calling it the “Cadillac of cat carriers.” (Note: It also comes with a Cadillac-level price tag.) It functions as three products in one: a carrier, a pet bed, and a car seat, which means that your cat will be comfortable and safe while traveling.
Experts also recommend introducing the carrier to your cat before you need to actually use it for transport. “For a cat to feel comfortable going out in a carrier, they need to be familiar with the carrier itself. So if you set it up at home as a bed or a hideaway and let the cat hang out in the carrier, their scent will be added to it, and that will help reduce their stress,” says Benjamin. When uncovered, the Sleepypod looks like a soft, plush, inviting bed, but it also comes with a removable mesh dome that can be zipped on top to turn it into an enclosed carrier. The design has also been tested for “car accidents, and demonstrated that they can protect your pet even when they’re strapped in with a seatbelt,” says Dr. Delgado, so you can rest assured that your cat will stay safe during a car ride. It comes in both regular and miniature sizes, as well as a TSA-compliant option that collapses for easy storage when not in use, all certified by the Center for Pet Safety.
Best (less-expensive) cat carrier
Soft-sided | Duffel | Small, medium, and large sizes with a max weight of 8, 16, and 22 pounds
For a more budget-friendly alternative to the Sleepypod, Strategist senior writer Liza Corsillo crowned this Sherpa carrier the best overall dog carrier, but it works just as well for cats. Corsillo was actually gifted the carrier by a friend who had used it for her cat for several years; Corsillo herself has owned it “for around five years now, and it still looks pretty much brand-new,” she writes. It has openings that allow for both top and front entry; it boasts an easy-to-clean, water-resistant lining and machine-washable bedding; and according to veterinarian John Iovino, its mesh side panels allow for ventilation and offer “a chance for you to see your pet to make sure everything is okay.”
Benjamin is also a fan. She says she owns “a ton of different carriers,” and her Sherpa is one that she’ll “always grab out of the closet” because it’s “really durable. The cat is comfortable inside. You can take pieces out to clean it. It’s great.” Plus, since Sherpa partners with several major airlines through a program called Guaranteed on Board, you can rest assured that the small and medium sizes of this carrier are flight-friendly and “your pet travels will go by without a hitch,” says Samantha Schwab, the former resident pet expert at Chewy.
Best hard-sided cat carrier
Hard-sided | Duffel | One size with a max weight of 15 pounds
Both the Sleepypod and the Sherpa are soft-sided, but if you’re looking for a hard-sided carrier, McKeon suggests this one from Petmate. It has both top-load and front-load options for easy access, and is robust enough to contain a cat that may potentially become stressed and agitated by carriers in general. “The rigid sides means the cat can interact with it and it won’t collapse,” says Dr. Brian Evans, veterinarian and clinical director at Dutch, a 24/7 online vet-care service. This carrier doesn’t come with any interior padding, but to make the carrier more comfortable and easier to clean in the event of an accident, Dr. Evans suggests inserting a liner “as a way to collect any liquid that may get produced during these trips and make sure any padding is machine washable.” Additionally, hard-sided carriers may be the better choice for cat owners who live alone, because “you can prop it up against a wall and [put the cat inside by] yourself,” McKeon notes. “With a soft carrier, because of the zippering all the way around, a cat can just shoot out of the carrier. It’s really hard to do solo. So for one person, a plastic carrier is the way to go because it has its own structure.”
Best expandable cat carrier
Soft-sided | Duffel | Small, medium, and large sizes with a max weight of 7, 13, and 15 pounds
This Petsfit carrier, which made our list of the best airline-approved pet carriers, is especially suited for long-haul travel. Keep the expandable mesh side panels zipped down while going through security to comply with airline regulations, then expand them out once you’re on the plane to allow your cat a little more room to stretch out. It also comes with a lightweight, flexible wire structure that can easily be compressed under a seat, as well as a comfy washable fleece mat. The carrier is available in three sizes; the small and medium options are likely to fit on most planes, but if your pet requires the large size, we recommend double-checking your airline’s size guidelines beforehand. Strategist senior editor Jen Trolio owns two of these carriers, “one for each of my two cats,” and used them for a cross-country move a few years ago. She notes that you do have to “squish the carrier down a bit to fit them under some airline seats, but the frame, while flexible, is really strong.” She admits that “you also have to give up some legroom to actually expand the carrier on a flight, but if your cat needs the space, it’s a really nice feature to have.” In keeping with Benjamin’s advice, the carriers now live under her bed expanded and unzipped, and her cats like to use them “as a safe space when they want to hide or go to sleep in a very secure-feeling spot.”
Best backpack-style cat carrier
Hard-sided | Backpack | One size with a max weight of 16 pounds
Sherpa also makes a sturdy, good-looking cat backpack that we included on our list of the best gifts for cat lovers — and it just so happens to be favored by avowed cat lady Taylor Swift. It comes recommended by McKeon for its hardy zippers and straps that ensure the backpack is both comfortable for you and difficult for your cat to bust out of. Vulture’s former senior Snapchat editor Devon Sherer tested it out with her cats and reported that it was “as life-changing as it looks.” Both of Sherer’s cats preferred it “to the more standard, duffel-esque bag since they are up higher and can see things better”; they would even get into it voluntarily when it wasn’t in use and “glare at me through the bubble window,” Sherer says. Though backpack carriers can be useful for short jaunts (such as a trip Sherer took to Fire Island), they’re not advised for long journeys since they’re less roomy and it’s more difficult for you to monitor your pet. When transporting your cat in a backpack, Dr. Delgado advises owners to avoid “swinging it around or carrying it by the handle” and to support the bottom as much as possible.
Best rolling cat carrier
Soft-sided | Rolling and backpack | One size with a max weight of 15 pounds
Rolling suitcase–style cat carriers are a great choice for senior people “who have health issues that prevent them from being able to carry the cat” or for “very big cats that are hopefully not hugely overweight, but are large and heavy,” says McKeon. This carrier comes with a luggage handle that allows you to wheel it along, but there are also straps on the back that let you carry it as a backpack if your cat doesn’t love the rolling motion. “If you think about what the experience is like for your cat in that carrier, it’s gonna be a much bumpier ride that close to the ground,” Dr. Delgado says. The convertibility of this carrier means that you can switch between the two modes to give both you and your cat a break. One enthusiastic Amazon reviewer bought this carrier for their 15-pound cat who “gets too heavy to carry” and uses it to “bring him out on walks and adventures without having to hurt my back,” they write. “The carrier is extremely light and weightless, the mesh is sturdy, and it is easy to roll with my cat in it. Definitely a great product!”
Best cat stroller
Soft-sided | Stroller | One size with a max weight of 45 pounds
Pet Gear’s strollers come recommended by both Dr. Evans and Dr. Delgado for their sophisticated shock absorption and secure design. “I’ve seen strollers that were not made very well and had some gaps in the enclosure part, so a cat could theoretically escape. You really want to make sure that it’s completely sealed and there’s no small spaces that they could squeeze out of,” Dr. Delgado advises. This stroller features an easy locking mechanism as well as an interior collar tether for extra protection that guarantees your cat will remain safely ensconced within the stroller, while still providing panoramic vinyl mesh windows so they can watch the world go by. While some cats may not enjoy the experience of bumping along, for those who don’t mind it, “it can be a safe and fun way to give your cats outdoor enrichment and activity,” Dr. Delgado says.
• Dr. Brian Evans, veterinarian and clinical director at Dutch
• Devon Sherer, former Vulture senior Snapchat editor
• Jen Trolio, Strategist senior editor
• John Iovino, veterinarian and contributor to the Wildest
• Kate Benjamin, founder of the cat-gear website Hauspanther
• Kerrie McKeon, resident cat expert at Bideawee
• Liza Corsillo, Strategist senior writer
• Dr. Mikel Delgado, cat behavior consultant
• Samantha Schwab, former resident pet expert at Chewy
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