Getting a cat used to a carrier might initially seem like a difficult task (but it’s worth it)!
If you were a cat, and once or twice a year your guardian brought out a box-looking thing and put you inside, took you on a nauseating car trip away from your safe environment, which then ended in a bright office impregnated with the scent of 1,000 other cats and animals. And while you were there, a non-familiar human prodded you, pricked you with a needle, poked you, and put other things where they don’t belong.
I’m guessing you’d soon learn to run and hide as soon as your guardian brought out that box-looking thing at the start!
Getting a cat used to their carrier (or at least, not fearful), is a practical and functional behaviour to condition. Not only does it make for less stress before your annual (or more often) vet visits, but the carrier can also double as a little hidey-hole or comfortable sleeping spot when at home. Being able to lure or put a cat in a carrier at a moment’s notice also helps in emergency situations when you may need to leave the house quickly.
It’s fairly simple, actually. But it does take some time, persistence and patience.
Right now, it’s likely that the sight alone of the carrier comes with some negative associations in your cat’s mind. We simply need to undo these negative associations, and create positive ones in their place instead!
How long it takes also depends on how ‘far’ along the process you want to go. For instance, undoing a simple fear-based response to the carrier is easy and doesn’t take too much time. However, if you have the time and motivation to take it further, you could also use the same principles to help the cat be calm with the carrier door closed, getting picked up, and the car ride!
For most guardians, just getting their cat to not run away and hide when the carrier comes out, and not struggle when getting placed in it, would be a great outcome!
To reverse a fear based or anxiety producing response to a stimulus (in this case, the carrier), the most effective way is by using two complimentary conditioning principles called desensitisation and counter-conditioning.
To explain briefly:
Desensitisation is a conditioning process whereby the subject (your cat) is slowly exposed to the stimulus (the carrier) in a gradual way that stays under the response (fear) threshold.
Counter-conditioning takes it a step further and ‘pairs’ or ‘associates’ the stimulus (carrier) with good things (e.g. food and treats). This creates positive associations with the carrier.
Let’s go through the main steps/phases now.
For cats with a mild to moderate fear of the carrier, just leaving it out (with the door open and a warm towel or blanket inside) permanently so your cat has free and unforced access to it will be enough to desensitise her over time. Be sure not to place it in a location too near any important resources like food or water.
For a cat with a moderate to severe fear of the carrier, you may need to make a few changes first. Taking the door off altogether, and removing the top half (if it’s that type of carrier) are both hugely helpful tactics to make the carrier, less carrier-like! Slowly, over time, you can start to rebuild the carrier as the cat gets used to its presence.
In both circumstances, allowing her to sniff and explore the carrier without pressure from you will eventually start to ‘loosen’ those neuronal connections in her brain where carrier = stress.
If the carrier is clearly causing chronic stress with the cat hiding or displaying other fearful or negative behaviour as a result of the carrier being out, then it might be time for a new one. And if this is the case, try to find one that looks nothing like the old one!
To make the carrier less threatening, placing some bedding (or towel etc that’s impregnated with your cat’s scent) in the carrier will help. Being able to smell herself will make all the difference to her confidence.
Spraying some Feliway pheromones periodically in and on it can also help them get used to the carrier.
The previous 2 steps have focused mostly on the desensitisation aspect of the presence of the carrier. Once your cat is relaxed with the carrier being out, we can start to work on the counter-conditioning aspect – that is, replacing those negative associations with positive associations.
Placing high value treats around and on the carrier (not inside yet) will start this process. Doing this randomly, but semi-regularly will keep up the association-building.
Once she is totally ok with eating treats around and on the carrier, you can start to put them inside.
Some cats by this stage will go inside readily, but others may need more time. If your cat is one of the more anxious ones, you can break down the process by removing the top of the carrier again and getting her used to having treats in their (but allowing her to not feel trapped or enclosed). After a few days of this, you can try again with the top on.
Another good idea, once she is comfortable with the carrier, is to start feeding her in or next to it at each mealtime (for meal-fed cats). This builds on those positive associations. Though don’t do this until she’s very comfortable.
You may also find that your cat may start to use the carrier as a sleeping or hiding spot, especially if it’s up off the ground (on a table or shelf). This is exactly what we want!
Eventually, once she is completely comfortable with the carrier being part of her environment, and she readily walks in herself when you put treats in there, you can start to close the door.
Be careful here, as it’s very easy to undo days or weeks of effort!
Throw some treats inside the carrier, and when she has gone in and eating them, close the door for a couple of seconds only. Then open, and give her another treat. Doing this regularly, and giving her a treat afterwards, will eventually condition her that closing the door equals another treat.
Gradually (don’t go too quickly), start to close the door for longer periods of time, perhaps up to about a minute.
For many cats and their guardians, this is as far as you need to go. Your cat now has no uncomfortable or stressful feelings about the carrier, and will readily enter (with a treat) and have you close the door.
You probably have a question about whether going to the vets next time will undo those positive associations. There’s no doubt that it will still be a stressful experience, and she may feel a bit funny towards the carrier when she gets home again, but leaving the carrier out and continuing to treat her in, on and around the carrier will very quickly remove those negative associations again.
Think of it like this. At the moment, every time she sees the carrier, it’s a negative experience. Though if you leave it out in her environment permanently, and work on creating and maintaining those positive associations, then that one-time bad experience each year is far outweighed by the daily, positive experiences she’s having!
Using these same desensitisation and counter-conditioning principles, you may want to continue the ‘training’ to include picking up the carrier, and then taking for a car ride.
Just remember to take it slooooow. If you push it too quickly, you can end up creating those negative experiences that we are trying to avoid.
For instance, don’t start by putting her in the carrier, and driving her around the block. Instead, start by closing the carrier door, and then picking it up and walking a few metres, before opening the carrier door and letting her out (and giving her a treat). You may need to do this 20 times over the course of 2 or 3 days for her to get used to getting picked up and moved. Break down the overall process into very small steps, and make sure to give her treats after each time.
And when you do eventually get to the car ride, ensure it’s nice and stress-free. Talk to her in comforting tones, and no loud music! Putting a towel over the carrier can also help tremendously.
There’s the process to getting a cat used to the carrier, or at least, enough so she doesn’t go into hiding when you bring it out! I’ve always had my cats’ carriers out permanently (one is next to me on my desk at the moment) and it routinely becomes a favoured sleeping spot during the day. Every time there’s a vet visit, it does get avoided temporarily afterwards, but that very quickly stops.