By Julie Grace
Do you share your life with a very special feline? Maybe you have more than one – lucky you! After all, is there anything sweeter than the delightful pitter patter of paws running up to greet us when we arrive home? Or their soft soothing purr as they curl up in our lap? Or how about the tickle of their whiskers when they are giving us those sweet butterfly kisses? In so many ways, kitties brighten our lives and bring us an abundance of joy.
Although regular visits to the veterinarian are vital for keeping a cat healthy, for many, this is where the joy ends and the anxiety begins. In some households the mere sight of a cat carrier can send the family cat running to the most obscure and hard-to-reach hiding place.
As any cat guardian can attest, getting a cat into a carrier and to the vet can be incredibly stressful. However, with a little training and patience, it is possible to make your cat more comfortable with his carrier. I spoke with Karen Aseltine, Our Companions Feline Behavior Manager, who shared the following simple steps that will make the whole experience much easier.
Choose the Right Carrier
When it comes to cat carriers, it’s all about ensuring the right fit. Putting a cat into a carrier that is too small can be an unpleasant experience for a cat and will make your job harder. Plastic carriers with easily detachable tops and that have a top loading option are a good choice.
Once you have the proper carrier, don’t hide it away until your next vet visit. Place it out in the open – in a room where your cat can see it, smell it and use it on a daily basis. If the carrier was used previously by your cat or another cat, make certain to wash it thoroughly to remove any lingering scents. Remove the door, put a soft bed or blanket inside and cover the outside of the carrier with a blanket to make it a nice hiding spot for your cat. Making it “part of the everyday décor” will allow your cat to eventually see it as a benign object and not something to be fearful of.
By nature, cats are both curious and suspicious creatures. Simply placing the carrier in an area they frequent will pique their curiosity and they will begin to explore this new object. Reward this behavior with positive reinforcement. Give your cat treats near or inside the carrier, or use a toy to play with your cat on and around it. Soon your cat will be less suspicious and more open to using the carrier.
Let The Training Begin
When your cat is no longer suspicious of the carrier, it is time to begin the training. At meal times, using their favorite food as an incentive, place their food dish as near as possible to the carrier. Choose a distance that is close to the carrier yet far enough away that your cat will still approach their food. Over the course of a week or two, move the food dish closer to the carrier until eventually you can put the food dish inside the carrier. Continue feeding your cat inside the carrier, allowing them to walk in and out as they choose. This will indicate that they feel comfortable with the carrier and see it as a place where they can eat safely. You can also teach your cat to play inside the carrier. Toss some catnip inside or entice them inside with an interactive toy, like a feather wand. Creating happy experiences inside the carrier will bolster your cat’s acceptance of it.
Once your cat is consistently eating or playing inside the carrier, choose a time when they are not eating or playing to re-attach the carrier door (leaving the door open). The next time you see your cat go inside the carrier, nonchalantly and gently close the door. Quickly re-open the door so they do not feel trapped or become anxious. Reward your cat with calm praise and petting. Continue to feed your cat in the carrier, closing the door for longer periods of time – 10 seconds, then 20 seconds, then perhaps 30 seconds. Slowly increasing the duration of the closed-door experience will build trust within your cat and they will come to understand that sometimes the door is closed but eventually it will open again.
After your cat becomes comfortable going into and out of the carrier, you can give them the opportunity to be in a moving carrier. With the cat inside the carrier, close the door and place a towel over the whole carrier. This will help your cat feel more protected inside. Carefully walk around your home holding the carrier so your cat can feel the sensations of having the carrier moving around. Place the carrier back in its normal location, remove the towel, open the door, and calmly praise your cat. If your cat tolerates that experience well, you can repeat that portion of the training for a period of time. Once you believe your cat is accustomed to being on the move in the carrier, you can eventually put the carrier in your car and simply drive around the block. This will help your cat learn that not every trip ends up at the vet.
Essentially, the process of carrier training your cat is about building trust and positive associations. Using your cat’s innate curiosity, rewarding the desired behavior, and making gradual changes will help the training experience be a successful one. Most importantly, the training takes time – probably more time than you might have expected. However, if your long-term goal is to transport your pet safely while avoiding injury to yourself – not to mention alleviating a huge source of stress for both of you – then this will be time well spent. Your cat will love the extra attention, and you will enjoy watching them gain more confidence and trust.