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Little tiger in the big city of Cartagena. Photo by Birgit Hackl
Little tiger in the big city of Cartagena. Photo by Birgit Hackl

Traveling with Pets: Tips on Cruising with Cats

When people hear we cruise with our cat they’re often astonished or appalled. ‘Cats are attached to the house, not to people’ and ‘not enough space’ they say. Our cat Leeloo is part of the family, not less clingy than a dog (just more obstinate) and she moved house with us seven times in four countries. Her reaction was always the same: The cat jumps out of the transport box, inspects the new premises. “Nice place, where’s the cat flap?” Clip clap, out into the garden, then back in. “Ok, we stay!”

Traveling with Pets – Cruising with Cats

Moving to the boat wasn’t much different, only the garden’s smaller—just a pot with grass. Leeloo was 11-years old when she became a ship’s cat; the stereotype that only kittens can adjust to boat life is not true.

Many cats have no more space in flats and are left alone all day. Usually Leeloo has ‘her people’ around her. She was even one of the reasons why we chose the cruising lifestyle: we love traveling but, whenever we left, finding cat sitters was problematic and we always felt bad about leaving her home alone.

Of course we had to make allowances for her in the preparations. Few people are cruising with cats and there’s scarce information on the internet. That’s why we summarize our experiences here for those considering taking their little tiger cruising.

Some cruisers toss their cats into the water to prepare them for a fall and to show them where to climb out. I wouldn’t recommend that, you’ll just loose your cat’s trust

Vaccinations and laws

  • To get an international passport, cats, dogs and ferrets need to have a microchip implanted.
  • Many countries require a complete history of rabies vaccinations, getting a titer certificate from an official lab helps (ask your local vet).

We were never asked for one in southern Europe, the southern Caribbean or Central America, but some official might require one. Assuring the cat would stay on board, we never had problems, even in countries that officially require health certificates and vet inspections according to (often outdated) info on websites like www.noonsite.com or www.pettravel.com. Usually the officials were just amused when confronted with our cat’s passport.

Nevertheless, some destinations are a no-go with pets. While traveling to the UK is no longer a problem (given you have the aforementioned international passport), some former British colonies hold on to outmoded, strict rules. We will therefore skip New Zealand and Australia. Even though these countries have recently shortened the quarantine periods, we would not put Leeloo in jail.

Health and food
We topped up our boat pharmacy with some cat medication: general antibiotics, eye drops and an antibiotic cream. Most human medicine works for cats in a low dosage (ask your vet). For example, Leeloo gets two drops of the anti-seasickness medication Stugeron (later one drop every eight hours) before we lift anchor. Not all cats get seasick, but Leeloo suffered badly before we found Stugeron.

Cat food and litter is scarce in developing countries. Stock up whenever you find it!

Making the boat cat-safe
First thing after buying the boat, we put netting all around the lifelines, ignoring clever neighbors shouting, “Throw the beast into the water, it won’t jump next time!” The point is not to keep Leeloo from jumping, but to prevent her from slipping. Some cruisers toss their cats into the water to prepare them for a fall and to show them where to climb out. I wouldn’t recommend that, you’ll just loose your cat’s trust. Cats understand that the stuff around the boat is water and will be careful to avoid a bath.

All animals instinctively know how to swim and a cat will find the security rope or net that should be hanging into the water as a ladder in case of emergency. We have seen boat cats on a leash, but that seems excessive. Cats have good sea legs due to their low center of gravity (a rounded belly helps) and a collar may turn into a noose when jumping from the boom. Leeloo would get a harness if she tried to venture on deck in rough seas, but she prefers the security of the cockpit.

Leeloo’s garden. Photo by Birgit Hackl
Leeloo’s garden. Photo by Birgit Hackl

We’ve made special companionway boards with a cat flap, so that she can walk in and out freely when we’re on land or during the night, when the boat is locked up. As our boat has a metal deck, we’ve put out some wooden boards, which are great to sharpen claws or to sleep on. Christian’s allowed to borrow them as a work bench when drilling holes or cutting something.

Below deck we have non-skid doormats, where she has more grip than on the wooden floor. There are several cardboard boxes around she uses as sea berths when the boat is rolling or pitching. The litter box stands on a non-skid mat, on passage it’s next to the mast where the boat’s movements are less pronounced to make doing her business easier.

After two years we know that a cat makes cruising more complicated. We face even more bureaucracy than others, have to skip destinations and cannot leave the boat for prolonged journeys inland. On the other hand our tiger enriches the boat routine every day and we certainly wouldn’t like to miss the joyful company of our little crew member during night watches.

Leeloo has grown with the challenges of life on a boat. She used to be scared of thunder; the neighbor’s lawn mower sent her scuffling under the couch. Now she growls back when waves grumble and sleeps peacefully under the sprayhood when the wind howls through the rig. Cats are curious by nature and together with her people she’s brave enough to sail towards the horizon.


  1. Thanks for the post! Helpful as we are trying to decide whether to get a pet onboard our yacht.
    Just a heads up, New Zealand (and probably Australia) have such strict customs beacuse they are islands and very isolated. So any foreign diseases, plants, insects or animals can have a serious impact on the native animals, wildlife and farming in NZ. Even the smallest fruit fly from a foreign country could devastate the fruit industry in NZ. Hence why customs are so strict coming into the country and why you are asked to declare all food items (and pets in the case of sailing vessels). So it’s not just because they are sticking with old, outdate rules-it’s actually to protect the native wildlife and economy.

  2. Outmoded, strict rules? listen, I have cats too and plan to take them home with me back to Australia. However, I will share with you that we have good reasons for those rules. We have very delicate flower and fauna there and NO diseases and wish to keep it that way. We are very isolated and all enjoy the way it is.

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