Many owners would cite difficulty getting a cat into a carrier as a reason not to visit the vet, or a reason that the visit is stressful. Giving owners information on how to train their cat to be comfortable in the carrier will encourage attendance at the clinic, and improve preventive healthcare. Training can be undertaken in several stages. Start by ensuring the carrier does not have negative associations, training the cat to be comfortable near the carrier and slowly encouraging the cat to sit comfortably in the carrier with the door closed.
As a veterinary nurse or technician, you will frequently hear about the problems owners have transporting their cat to the veterinary clinic. Difficulties getting a cat into the cat carrier can result in reluctance to visit the vet, and cause significant distress to the cat. This can mean reduced preventive healthcare, delayed diagnosis of disease, and therefore reduced quality of life. In addition, if an owner is physically forcing the cat into its carrier, there is the potential for the cat to start to view the owner negatively and result in a breakdown of the cat–owner bond.
If a cat has had previous bad experiences with a cat carrier, consider buying a new, comfortable carrier, of adequate size before starting the training, to reduce this negative association.
A cat which is comfortable with travel in its cat carrier will make trips to the vet, or other locations, such as boarding catteries, much easier, and the cat will not arrive already anxious or fearful from the journey. This article discusses the easiest and kindest way to train a cat to voluntarily enter its carrier: this method can be passed on to clients, reducing stress for both cats and their owners. It is much easier to train a cat to accept a carrier that has no previous negative experiences, so ensuring clients get this information as soon as they obtain a new kitten is imperative.
Where to start
Before teaching a cat that going into the carrier is a positive experience, there are a number of things that can be done to ensure positive perceptions of the cat carrier are created. If the cat already has a very negative association with the cat carrier, it is worth taking some time to think why this might be.
Questions to ask yourself
Is the negative association related to the way the cat was put in the carrier? For example, is it a battle to get the cat in?
The first step is to stop any behaviour that involves physically forcing the cat into the cat carrier. Therefore, start the training new cat carrier of a different model and start the training with this new carrier that has less association to negative events attached to it.
Do you think problems may be related to the cat carrier itself?
Is it too small? The cat should be able to have enough space in the cat carrier to stand up and turn around. If this is not the case, it would be advisable to buy a larger cat carrier.
Does the carrier smell of another cat? Consider the cats which travel in the same cat carrier at different times. If this is the case and the two cats do not have an amicable relationship, the close proximity to the smell of another cat and the inability to escape from it may cause a cat to feel anxiety or even frustration. In addition, if other cats also dislike going in the cat carrier, it may be because cats have deposited chemical secretions (pheromones) from the pads of their feet and other parts of the body, which communicate that they were anxious or fearful while in the cat carrier. Such a message will make cats much more wary of the carrier. Therefore, it is a good idea to wash down the cat carrier after use with a warm solution of biological washing powder (approximately 10% washing powder) to remove any of these chemical messages. This is one of the reasons why an easily washable plastic cat carrier is recommended.
Does more than one cat have to travel in the cat carrier at the same time?
Even if cats get along well in the home, forcing them to share a small space, from which they cannot escape, can create tension and hostility between them. Always travel with cats in separate carriers and keep the same carrier for each cat.
Does the cat only ever go in the cat carrier when it goes to the vet or the boarding cattery?
If the cat only goes in the carrier for events it does not enjoy, it will simply learn to associate this with the carrier. Ensuring the cat carrier is accessible in the home at all times, can begin to break down such associations.
Does the cat dislike travelling?
The cat carrier is likely to be associated with travelling. If the cat is not keen on travelling (some cats experience feelings of travel sickness just as we can), such negative associations can generalise to the cat carrier itself.
Learning to love the cat carrier
After considering these questions and making the required changes, there are a number of further tips that will help the cat to learn to associate the cat carrier with positive experiences.
Have the cat carrier out and open (with the door off) in the home environment at all times. If the cat is very nervous of the cat carrier, start with the top as well as the door removed.
Make the carrier as cosy and comfortable as possible and position in a safe and secure area (Figure 2).
Place it in a room where the cat spends time and, ideally, not in the room or place used to put the cat in previously.
Spray a synthetic feline facial pheromone into the carrier (allowing 15 mins before giving the cat free access to it, to allow any alcohol in the product to evaporate). This help the cat to perceive it as a safe and secure place. An alternative is to rub a soft cloth on the cat’s facial area (only if the cat enjoys being stroked) and rub this cloth on the outer corners, entrance and inside of the cat carrier.
Place things the cat really values in the cat carrier (eg, favourite food treats, catnip, favourite toys). If the cat shows any interest in the carrier, give a predetermined reward (eg, food treats, fuss or a toy to play with). For a cat that has never had any experience of the cat carrier before, eg, a new kitten, this method may be enough to encourage an explorative foray into the carrier.
Place the carrier in an area of the house the cat is comfortable in, spray with feline pheromones and add a favourite blanket. Use treats, or catnip to encourage the cat to explore the carrier.
Cats which are not worried about the carrier
For an adult cat with indifferent or only slightly aversive previous experience of the carrier, having the carrier out in the home all the time with positive things in it may be enough to build up its courage to explore. Make sure not to push the cat in, close the door and take it out to the car as soon as the cat sniffs it! Let the cat explore and spend time there at its own leisure.
Cats which are anxious/fearful of the carrier
Some cats, particularly those that are already anxious or fearful of the cat carrier, will not go near it. The following steps to train the cat to be comfortable in the cat carrier should be progressed through slowly, only moving onto the next stage once the cat is comfortable.
Using a plastic cat carrier which has a bottom part and a top, start the training with the top part of the carrier removed. This makes the carrier appear less enclosed and potentially less threatening. Place a blanket that the cat is comfortable with (that the cat already sleeps on, or is fed treats on) near the cat carrier (Figure 3). If the cat is very worried by the cat carrier, start with the placement of the blanket a greater distance away from the cat carrier (but still in the same room). Reward the cat (using the cat’s preferred rewards) for relaxed behaviour on the blanket. The cat will soon learn that it is the relaxed behaviour on the blanket that triggers it getting a reward. By learning this, the cat develops a positive association in its mind between the blanket and the reward. (See the cat carrier training video 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mM2BXLJkLhc.)
Start by encouraging the cat to show relaxed behaviour on a mat or blanket, then slowly move this closer to the carrier.
Gradually, over a number of sessions, move the blanket closer towards the carrier. Never move the blanket while the cat is on it. Allow the cat to choose when to get off the blanket. The cat should now be offering relaxed behaviour on the blanket, so mark this with the word ‘good’ (as shown in the video) and then provide a chosen reward (toy, food treat, fuss) off the blanket. This will allow you to move the blanket while the cat is engaged with its reward.
Remember to go at a pace the cat is comfortable with, tailoring the length of session to the cat’s engagement and ensuring you always end on a positive note. Over a number of sessions, gradually move the blanket into the cat carrier. Aim to get to the stage where the cat will relax on the blanket in the cat carrier with the top of the cat carrier removed (Figure 4). For nervous cats, you may need to work with the roof of the cat carrier completely out of view and work gradually towards having it laid beside the cat carrier base. Only when this stage has been reached can you attach the roof. Do this when the cat is not in the base of the cat carrier. (See video ‘Cat carrier training part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtRCxysZEro.)
If the cat is not keen to enter into the carrier at this stage with the top on, you may need to go back a few steps taking the blanket out of the carrier. Remember to do this gradually and reward each gradual movement towards entering the cat carrier fully. For example, the cat may only offer placing its head in the cat carrier initially. Reward this behaviour and gradually build to head and one paw in the cat carrier to head and two paws in the cat carrier to head, front paws and half of body in the cat carrier, and so forth. The final goal here is to have the cat’s whole body in the cat carrier and the cat showing relaxed behaviour on the blanket in the cat carrier. At no stage in this process has the cat been touched to get it to enter the cat carrier (unless stroking is used as the reward!).
Once the cat is comfortable and is spending 3–5 mins in the cat carrier (Figure 5) it is time to start teaching it that the door closing is ok. (See video ‘Cat carrier training part 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVH31RWfwzg.)
Start off as you have been and once the cat is in the carrier give a reward and then close the door a very small distance. Then open the door again and reward again. Shut the door further and further each time, being sure to open it straight away until you are fully closing it. Open the door right away if the cat moves towards the door at any point — this teaches the cat that it can control the door opening just by moving towards it. The aim is to build the cat’s confidence and give it no reason to panic.
During stage 3 training, build confidence by opening the door immediately the cat approaches the carrier door.
Build this up so that the cat is comfortable being in the carrier for around 3 mins with the door closed (initially unlocked and then moving to locked) before moving to the next stage. However, it is important to ensure the cat can cope with being in the cat carrier in a relaxed manner for the length of time the longest journey is. For example, if the trip to the vet clinic is usually half an hour, see if the cat gets to the stage where it remains in the cat carrier for this length of time of his own accord (door open), building up to similar lengths of time with the door shut. Using this training method, it is very common to find that cats choose to use their cat carriers as nice places to sleep, even selecting the carrier over other available beds.
Now you are ready to start training the cat to accept the cat carrier being lifted and moved. This can be difficult for cats that like to keep their paws firmly on the ground, so be sure to work in small, incremental steps towards your final goal of lifting and walking with the cat carrier.
Once the cat is happy with the door closed, start moving the carrier along the floor slowly without lifting it. Remember to reward the cat all the time for staying in the cat carrier. Rewards such as food treats can be placed in through the side or door of the carrier, and soothing words given all the time. If the cat asks to leave the cat carrier at any time by mioawing or pawing the door, then immediately stop any movement, open the door and allow the cat to exit. If this does occur, your steps are probably too big and you need to work on this at a slower pace.
Once you are able to move the carrier around, place your hand on the handle and let go straight away. Reward the cat. Repeat this but this time apply a little upwards lift as you would if you were going to pick up the carrier then stop and reward the cat. Progress to being able to lift up the carrier and gently put it back down. Then, walk a few steps with the cat carrier. Progress to going outdoors with the carrier and eventually to placing it in the car.
Cats need to get used to being in the cat carrier in the outside environment, as well as indoors.
Work in small steps all the time. Make sure both the lifting and putting down of the carrier is slow and steady. Many carriers become unstable when lifted simply using a small handle and the movement can upset the cat. Where possible, carry the cat carrier with both hands to stabilise it. Using this approach you should be able to move the carrier further and further.
Don’t just save cat carrier training for vet visits, make it part of your regular routine, practising at least once a week. Teach your cat that getting in the cat carrier and being lifted and moved around while in it are pleasant activities. Take the cat to the kitchen in the carrier where there may be a tasty treat or take it to another room where the cat’s favourite toy is ready for a game. If the cat has outside access, use the cat carrier to take the cat to the garden. Spending this time with the cat will not only enhance the relationship, it will make using the carrier less distressing for both of you.