It’s a common concern that getting cats into a cat carrier will be a traumatic experience that includes chasing around the house, crawling under the bed and is exhausting for all involved. Others simply give up which results in missed vet visits, a lack of critical care, and even worse if it’s a natural disaster type situation. This doesn’t have to be the case and getting your cat to accept and even enjoy their carrier can be accomplished through some basic positive reinforcement and counter conditioning exercises.
The reason cats dread the carrier is because it has represented bad experiences in the past – such as unpleasant vet visits or the last chase around the house to catch them. If you placed a paper bag on the floor, most cats would love to go inside and check it out. The carrier is different as they remember the previous negative associations or don’t like being grabbed against their will. It’s also just an unfamiliar and an odd smelling place that may have just come out of your basement. Those are some components we want to change and instead associate the carrier with pleasant and relaxing experiences.
Ideally, training should start when your cat is a kitten to create only a positive experience from the beginning of their lives. Of course if you’ve adopted an adult cat who already dreads it, that isn’t possible so you have to start from where you are. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, it just means you have to work a little longer to undo any past negative experiences.
Carriers with multiple doors are best. There will be one opening at the top and one on the side. This allows more accessibility overall for both you to get the cat in, and at the vet for removal or examination. There are some styles where the top and bottom can be disassembled until you need to use it. If you have one that can be split apart, the bottom can be left out all the time and used as a bed with a snuggly blanket placed inside. With this method, it just becomes a normal part of your cats surroundings where they will likely nap and hang out comfortably. When it comes time to use it as a carrier, it’s a familiar place – even with the top on it. Cats enjoy and feel safe in closed spaces naturally. Remember, cats primarily assess their world through smell. This will already have their scent on it. It allows you to be prepared for emergency visits or other reasons you need to get your cat in a carrier quickly.
If having a part of the carrier become a regular cat bed isn’t an option for you, you can do these exercises as preparation once vet visits are scheduled. Start the training at least 3-7 days prior to your scheduled appointment. Leave the carrier out, with all doors opened, and a nice soft blanket inside. Put a few sprays of Feliway calming pheromones (see link here) on the blanket and rub around the inside walls as well. You’ll want to refresh the sprays daily.
The carrier should be left in an accessible, open area, that the cat frequently visits. Put some toys inside it and you can do some interactive play with a wand toy nearby. You can even put the wand toy through the holes of the carrier, with you continuing to move it around, to invite your cat inside as part of the play. It’s all part of associating the carrier with good things like fun play time.
Offer treats in front of the carrier and slowly progress to leaving them inside the carrier to be found later when your cat is exploring on his own. You can even feed meals inside, or right in front, for those few days also. The carrier will slowly become the best place in the house. Be sure to do this in stages to build up trust and a positive attitude toward the carrier. If you’re in a rush, these techniques may work the first time you have to quickly head out the door, but next time your cat will be aware of the game and not fall for it twice. You want to build long term comfort and reduce fear going forward.
When going to the vet, and ultimately closing your cat inside the carrier, leave that comfy blanket inside with toys and treats. The soft items have absorbed your cats scent, along with those relaxing pheromones. They will continue to comfort her along the way and through the visit. You can even ask your vet to do their examination on the blanket itself. Refresh the pheromone sprays about 15 minutes prior to leaving the house so there won’t be any residual alcohol odors left behind from the spray and the scent will be strong.
If the vet visit, or other need, is last minute and you don’t have a few days to prepare, a treat trail can do the trick as a one time plan. Find a high value treat and place them leading into the carrier. Include a handful in the back of the carrier so your cat goes fully inside. Stay just away, but close enough to shut the door once they’re fully inside. Have that comfy blanket with pheromone spray already in there along with a favorite toy or two.
When you come home, do a quick cleaning of the carrier to get rid of any scents picked up at the vet. For hard carriers you can use a mild, unscented soap or spray cleanser. You can use Rescue Wipes that are popular for veterinary use. Click here for company website. Or I disinfect all my supplies between consultations using a toy cleaner by this company that also makes a spray cleaner – click here. For soft carriers that are washable, an unscented or very mild smelling detergent would work well.
Any method that doesn’t cause stress and fear in your cat will greatly help to counter condition the carrier with something traumatic that may have happened in the past. Chasing your cat around the house, or trying to grab him in a towel, are not the ways to create a long lasting positive association even if it works that one time. It just gets all the more difficult the next time.