I trained my cat to travel with me — and now he's my perfect companion away from home

Miles is happier with me than with anyone else, so when I have to leave town, he comes along

Published March 5, 2024 9:00AM (EST)

Miles, the author's cat, makes himself at home in a hotel room.  (Photo courtesy of author)
Miles, the author's cat, makes himself at home in a hotel room. (Photo courtesy of author)

The first thing I do at the hotel is to set up the room for him: the litter box against the wall a good distance from the door, the feeding station by the mini-fridge, the cardboard scratching post next to the bed. It’s been six hours since Miles and I left our apartment in D.C. for Cambridge, where I’ll be teaching for the next 10 days at a low-residency MFA program.  Miles hops out of the carrier and flops down on the floor next to me. He rolls around, stretches and arches his back while I scratch his belly. 

After a few minutes, he gets up to explore the room, rubbing his cheek and forehead on the carpet and the furniture, returning to me for frequent headbutts and belly rubs. The scent line he’s drawing is as clear to him as red paint would be to me. I don’t move from my spot on the floor until he’s been to every corner and back several times, securing the two of us in the center of his territory. I have a reception to attend, but I take my time unpacking. The space he outlined fills with objects he recognizes from home. By the time I leave, he’s had his first meal, drunk some water, squatted in the litter box to pee, and settled on the couch whose upholstery he won’t be able to resist in spite of the cardboard scratcher I had delivered to the hotel ahead of our arrival. The gap between the woven threads is the perfect size for a cat’s claws to sink into. This is our fourth trip together and the second stay at this hotel. We are in a different room but the furniture, the layout, and the artwork on the wall are nearly identical.

Miles, a 13-year-old Siamese, travels with me for his health. When he threw up repeatedly, stopped eating altogether, and was diagnosed with Feline Inflammatory Bowel Disease, we were four months into the COVID-19 shutdown. The classes I taught at my primary job in Northern Virginia, a 45-minute commute each way twice a week, had gone online, and the 10-day trip I made every six months to Cambridge was replaced by a “virtual residency.” I was home 24/7 to give Miles his pills (he is an excellent pill taker) and supervise the mealtimes when he and Jackson, the Burmese, had to be separated to make sure that Miles was eating only the food prescribed by our veterinarian. 

Inflammatory Bowel Disease is a common chronic condition among cats, managed with medication and diet. Miles had a mild case so he didn’t have to stay on the steroids he was initially prescribed.  After observing him closely for nearly two years, I figured out the perfect protocol. He threw up mostly when his stomach was too full or empty. I could keep the condition in check by feeding him small meals six to eight times a day, a tablespoon of the prescription dry food parceled out one pea-sized piece at a time.

Even after classes resumed in person, no one objected if I asked to attend meetings and hold conferences virtually, so I wasn’t gone all day like I used to be. But then the low-residency program went back off-line. I have two close friends in the building I trust completely. In a true Siamese fashion, however, Miles is a one-person cat. In the past when Beth and Rachel took care of him and Jackson, Miles kept a wary distance while Jackson climbed all over them. The only way I could hold onto my low-residency job, which provided the financial cushion I needed not to worry about extra expenses (caused almost exclusively by my obsession with cats and clothes), was to train Miles to be my traveling companion.

The myth that cats are selfish and dogs are loyal says more about human nature than it does about either species.

Whenever a scientific study contradicts the notion that cats are incapable of loving us, the result is reported in a tone of incredulity: “Your Cat Might Not Be Ignoring You When You Speak”; “If You Think Cats Are Antisocial, Maybe It’s You, Scientists Find,” “Shocker: Some Cats Like People More Than Food or Toys.” I doubt that Americans in 46.5 million households are choosing to live with pets who show no affection. Seeking daily doses of humiliation is not in our national character. The myth that cats are selfish and dogs are loyal says more about human nature than it does about either species. We humans like to see the world divided in half: black and white, male and female, good and evil, canine and feline. If dogs love us, then cats must hate us; all the things that make dogs fun to be around — greeting us at the door, following us through the house, learning tricks — are supposedly off-limits to cats.

I was confident that Miles, who had mastered a repertoire of tricks (come, sit, high-five, jump over a stick, jump through a hoop) through clicker training, the same method used for dogs, would understand that he was better off traveling with me than being left behind. Even so, I didn’t expect him to enjoy a six-hour trip involving a cab ride, a shuttle flight, then another cab ride. Most cats hate riding in vehicles — that, I have to concede, is a real difference between dogs and cats — or being paraded through the airport security gate amid the cacophony of voices and machine noises (“But Miles, I did the TSA Pre-Check so we could stand in the shorter line!”) though Miles would never bolt out of my arms. In his distress, he recognizes me as his sole source of security. Just like when I take him to the vet, he does not dwell on the fact that every terrifying thing that is happening to him is happening because I had planned it. Cats are creatures of habit (what animal isn’t?) and air travel is a huge disruption to their routine. For Miles, however, the habit that overrides all is the habit of trusting me. 

When I return from the reception, Miles comes trotting across the room and lies down at my feet. After a brief petting session, I retrieve his clicker and treats from the drawer above the mini-fridge. “Come, sit,” I say, pointing to a spot on the bed. Miles jumps up and sits. I click and give him the treat made of hydrolized protein that won’t upset his stomach, broken into tiny pieces so he won’t overeat. Then I point to the next spot — the top of the dresser — and repeat, “Come.”  We go around the room until he’s sat on every piece of furniture at my request. This is what we do at home every night, though he’s doing it solo, without Jackson. 

Miles has another small meal, I clean his litter box, we watch the 11 o’clock news, and then he sleeps in my arms, under the covers, as always. For the rest of our stay, he supervises my class preparation from his usual perch on my shoulder or lap; he naps on the couch while I’m out running, teaching or meeting up with friends. We maintain his feeding and clicker-trick schedules. Every fourth day when the room needs to be cleaned (according to some hotel industry regulation), we wait in the hallway. I don’t tell the cleaning lady the real reason I’m asking her not to change the sheets (they now smell familiar to Miles) but then again, there is a lot I ask my cleaning ladies at home to do or not to do, all of it having to do with the cats’ safety or comfort for reasons too complicated or embarrassing to explain. 

An animal who hunkers down in a hotel room with you and helps you maintain the stability of your routine is no less devoted to you than one who eagerly accompanies you on your adventures.

Staying at the hotel isn’t exactly like being home. I text Beth and Rachel several times a day for updates about Jackson.  I make coffee with a Keurig instead of a French press. I eat food from a deli or go out to restaurants with friends and never cook a single meal. And if Miles wakes up thirsty in the middle of the night, he can drink water from the glass on our bedside table rather than from the bowl on the floor. He can’t do that at home, where I use a cup with a lid. But it’s OK. We are on vacation. 

On my morning runs during the pandemic, I often saw two or three humans standing six feet apart, straining to carry on a conversation through their masks, while their dogs played nose to nose at the ends of their leashes.  I understood why my friends said their dogs had saved their sanity. Instead of sitting alone at home all day, scared and depressed, my friends were able to venture out and interact with other still-healthy humans walking their dogs. I encountered plenty of still-healthy humans on the running trail, too, but it wasn’t the same without dogs. Runners sped past each other, mildly annoyed that we had to pull the mask up to our face for the few seconds of physical proximity before letting it hang around our neck where it did not interfere with our breathing. 

Dogs can transform strangers into friends, and they are eager — perhaps even more than you are — for an adventure. They’ll hop into your car and drive across the country with you, and at every stop, they’ll help you talk to people with whom you have little or nothing in common except that you are in the same place at the same time, fleetingly. Traveling with a dog means having at your side a goodwill ambassador and a motivational coach rolled into one. John Steinbeck chronicled his cross-country journey with his dog in "Travels with Charley." In 1960, at the age of 58 and in less-than-perfect health, the author set out to see all of America one last time to understand the changes in the country he had been writing about for decades. A quest of that enormity required a canine traveling companion. 

A cat is an ideal companion, too, but for a different kind of traveler. An animal who hunkers down in a hotel room with you and helps you maintain the stability of your routine is no less devoted to you than one who eagerly accompanies you on your adventures. A cat inspires you to love your home so fiercely that you never need to leave to feel better about yourself or the world, and on the few occasions when you must, he will travel with you and transform any strange place into a temporary home.

That’s what Miles does for me, a reluctant traveler. Although I love hearing and reading about other people’s adventures, I’m not drawn to leaving home just to look around and get to know a new place. I’ve been to most of the major American cities, but only by necessity and for specific purposes — to teach, give a reading, attend a conference, spend time with friends I couldn’t persuade to come and see me instead. When I had a few hours to myself, I did the same things I would do at home: I ran, went bird-watching, visited museums. 

Long before I started traveling with a cat, I was traveling like a cat.

Because these activities were easy to arrange, I ended up seeing more of each city than other people who were teaching or attending the same conference.  Almost all the popular running trails were along a body of water, but the twisty Riverwalk in San Antonio was nothing like the straight shot down the Hudson from the Upper West Side to the Battery Park.  The same warblers, encountered in different seasons from north to south, were nearly unrecognizable. In a dozen museums across the country, I looked for Rembrandt’s portraits, Bonnard’s landscapes, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers.  The lists of birds I could identify and artists whose work I loved expanded over the years. 

Long before I started traveling with a cat, I was traveling like a cat, outlining a familiar territory and filling it in, first with the things I recognized and then with the new things I learned through repeated encounters. This, essentially, is how I do anything that is important to me, including my writing. I take a familiar form — an essay, a short story, a memoir, a novel — and circle its shape, bumping against its boundaries, sorting through myriad memories, impressions, opinions and inventions, until the space contains more than what I knew at the beginning. The best new ideas come to me like a warbler away from our yearly encounter at my home sanctuary. It perches on a nearby branch and waits for me to recognize and claim it.  

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Steinbeck’s dog, Charley, was 10 years old, which is similar to the human age of 58. A standard French poodle born near Paris, he belonged to an elegant, luxurious breed, though in previous centuries, poodles were used to retrieve game from water. He was the perfect dog to accompany a famous author traveling incognito in a camper named after Don Quixote’s horse. Canine or feline, your ideal traveling companion is also your avatar. 

Even before I open the carrier, Miles knows he is home. He doesn’t have to walk around to reclaim the space. He and Jackson, who’s been waiting at the door, sniff and saunter away from each other casually though for the next day or two, they will chase each other and wrestle more than usual. I unpack and put my suitcase in the closet where the cats — and me, too — can forget about it until Miles and I have to go away again. Jackson clings to me and purrs. I missed him, too, but Rachel’s note says he sat on her lap for hours while she worked from my living room and Beth reports he was the star of the Zoom yoga class she taught, also from my living room.  

Miles is my soulmate, the avatar of my essential self. Jackson is who I aspire (in vain) to be: trusting of friends and strangers alike, open to new experiences. The evening of their reunion is a series of scuffles and truces. By bedtime, the routine of separate meals and joint clicker tricks is firmly in place. The cats curl up together on the bed and wait for me to complete the circle.

By Kyoko Mori

Kyoko Mori is the author of four nonfiction books, the latest of which — "Cat and Bird: a memoir" — is out now from Belt Publishing. Her essays have appeared in Conjunctions, Harvard Review, the American Scholar, and others. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her cats, Miles and Jackson, and teaches at George Mason University and the Low-Residency MFA Program at Lesley University.

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