The Dreaded Cat Carrier
The cat carrier… an item that can strike fear into the hearts of both cats and their owners alike. Most of us have heard the stories (or experienced the sensation ourselves) of attempting to place a normally calm and sweet cat into a carrier, only to find that said cat morphs into an acrobatic, scratching whirlwind upon seeing the carrier. You wouldn’t think that an animal that weighs less than 15 pounds could resist so efficiently.
The problem for most cats arises from the fact that the carrier is only brought out when the cat needs to be transported. Follow that by the fact that the car itself can be a terrifying foreign place for a cat. The problem only worsens when most car rides for cats end with a veterinary visit.
So how can we change a cat’s mindset about the cat carrier? It’s easy! Just use a combination of a little training and some positive associations and you can have a cat eager to enter his/her carrier in no time.
Teaching a Cat to Love the Carrier
Cats can learn to love the cat carrier from a young age, but they are never too old to change their mindset. Simply follow the steps outlined below.
- Leave the carrier in a space the cat enjoys spending his/her time. Leaving a cat carrier out all the time helps a cat become familiarized with the carrier. Instead of being an object that only arrives prior to a struggle and car ride, the carrier is a regular object of the cat’s environment. Bonus points for outfitting the carrier with comfy blankets. Many cats will even choose to sleep in their carrier if it is comfy and in a good location for napping.
- Feed your cat in the carrier. Whether or not you have the space to leave the cat carrier in your living room full-time, feed your cat in the carrier periodically. This helps the cat associate the carrier with positive experiences. If feeding in the carrier is a regular experience, your cat won’t be as suspicious when you throw treats inside to entice them to enter prior to a car trip.
- Occasionally latch the carrier door. Periodically shut the cat into the carrier for short periods of time while they are sleeping or eating in the carrier. This helps the cat get comfortable with the carrier door closed.
Seriously, that’s it. Three steps that can make a world of difference. If you want to take it further, you can lift the carrier with the cat in it and walk out the door with your cat in a carrier.
And once your cat is comfortable in the carrier, you can start working on making the car ride itself a wonderful experience also. Vetstreet has a nice article about cars and cats.
So what if I don’t have time to wait for my cat to become adjusted?
I truly recommend that everyone starts adjusting a cat to the cat carrier as soon as possible. However, I do recognize that sometimes emergencies happen. Cats need to be transported immediately. In that case, here are a few techniques that may help you.
- Get a large enough carrier for your cat. Size matters. If you are trying to force your 25lb cat into a carrier meant to comfortably hold a 10lb cat, you have just made your job twice as hard.
- Make sure the carrier is as enticing as possible. Use a feline calming pheromone spray (like Feliway). Make sure that the kennel is clean. Don’t try to place your cat into a carrier that smells like another cat or still has lingering odors of urine/feces from when the cat was frightened on a previous trip. Additionally, throwing treats into the carrier can help encourage a cat to enter. Use good, high value treats.
- Try backing the cat in. If your cat is refusing to enter, it can often be easier to place the cats back legs in first. I like to tip the carrier up (so it is vertical, rather than horizontal). Then you can gently lift your cat up and place them into the carrier. (See example photos below). I find that it works best with one hand by the cat’s head and another holding both back legs.
- Start the process in a small room. Oftentimes it can be best to start the whole process in a smaller area. That way, if the cat wiggles out of your grasp, you don’t have to chase. Chasing can further frighten the cat.
Cats CAN love their carrier!
In the end, it is definitely possible to make the experience of cats and carriers a much easier one for both cat and owner. Just use a little foresight, training and positive associations. My foster kittens always have an open carrier in their room for sleeping in and playing on. I like to try to get as much exposure to the carrier as possible during the prime socialization period for kittens (2-6 weeks of age). I often find the kittens sleeping in the carrier when I enter their room. And they are always willing to play in it (see evidence below).
My furrever cat, Frisko, does not like his carrier as much (I didn’t start training as a kitten and I don’t keep his carrier in a main living space). I only bring his upstairs about a week prior to a veterinary visit. He often disappears for an hour after the carrier comes up. However, if I feed him in it for 4-5 meals in a row, he will happily enter the carrier when asked.
A few final thoughts
As a random aside, I highly recommend hard-sided/plastic carriers for veterinary visits. If your cat is scared at the veterinary clinic, it is so much easier on the cat to be able to remove the top of the carrier rather than pulling the cat out the front of a soft-sided carrier.
So now that your cat is ready to travel, check out some of the other articles regarding cats and travel here at Pawsitively Intrepid. Did you know that interstate travel can sometimes require health certificates?
Anyone have any other great tips for helping a cat learn to love the cat carrier? Comment below.
15 thoughts on “Help! I can’t get my cat in the carrier!”
Before my last cat passed away a trick I would use is leave the carrier out the night before so she’s thrown off. She may have thought at first “wait we are going to the vet now?” But seeing that I didn’t push her to go in the carrier she felt more at ease. Then when she least expect it ” off we go, the next day”. Also I found having familiar scents , like blankets and favorite stuffed toys help keep her calmer and more comfortable. You have some good tips though.
Adding favorite toys is a wonderful idea! Thanks for the suggestions.
I will be honest with you. I put out the carrier in a different room, grab the cat when they are asleep and slip them in. (Mean huh?) It works mostly except for Houdini Silver who disappears!!!
The carrier is full of cosy blankets (washable) so that any accidents can be dealt with later!
I figure as long as there is no struggle, it works 🙂
Reading this reminds me of how during the Gulf War when living in Israel with 3 cats I had this fight with them all the time as each time a siren went off I had to catch them to put them in the safe room, I wish I had known about these tips then
Yikes! That sounds stressful. And I bet the noisy siren didn’t help calm the cats down any.
I imagine that the solution would be about the same as it is trying to get dogs to like their crate. It’s about teaching them to feel good about it.
Exactly! I definitely use the same approach for dogs or cats.
I keep my carriers out in the living room all the time so the girls are used to it. Truffle is fine until she gets in the car.
My cat is not sweet and calm at the best of times. These are great suggestions for acclimating cats to their crates. Rooster loves his treats so I will definitely try that as he has his annual check up next month. Thanks.
In that I think dogs are easier. I mean a toy, a treat … it’s all good. But the key is always to give time to adapt and to provide a positive experience. I may have to share this with a few cat friends.
My kitties have definitely had the cat carrier blues in the past. I can’t blame them – they know it means going to the vet, which isn’t a pleasant experience. I did 2 things which seemed to have helped my cats a little. First, I got them Sleepypod carriers, which are a bit more comfortable to sit in and easier for me to carry. Second, I started taking the cats out for rides in the car that have nothing to do with the veterinarian. They enjoy the attention they get at the pet store. I think it helps them not to associate the carrier with the vet so much too.
Thanks for explaining that we can start latching the door of the carrier only once the cat is comfortable inside it. I want to start teaching my new cat to behave in a carrier so I can take her to a veterinary service for microchipping soon. Your article laid out the steps in a really clear way, so thanks for taking the time to share!
I find it difficult to get my cat who is a ragdoll as she is a large cat and weighs 5.5kg. I certainly couldn’t get her in back first. I tried treats but comes out again when I tried to close the door. Last time when I was outside walking to the vets the door fell off and it took 30mins with the help of my friend and later a helpful neighbour as she sat underneath his car. Eventually 30 mins after the appointmen t I could get her into her cat carrier as she had gone schzoid the first time.
That sounds like a very rough experience. Have you tried using a larger carrier? For larger cats, I have had more success sizing up from the average cat carrier.