Tips and Tricks for a Happier Kitty: The Carrier
Getting to the Veterinarian (us!)
The importance of getting your feline friend to us for annual physical examinations wasdiscussed here. Now that it is all crystal clear, lets discuss why kitties aren’t making it to their veterinarian on a routine basis. One of the common reasons is that some cats get stressed out by the carrier, the car ride to the veterinarian, the veterinary clinic itself or any combination of the three. This isn’t an atypical reaction if you think about the average cat’s lifestyle. Pet cats aren’t often taken on trips, they aren’t taken to the park or on walks. Transporting your cat from one point to another often isn’t high on the to-do list for practical reasons. Cats just don’t really have places to be. If I was spontaneously shoved into a little box every once in a while and carried to a place where there were scary smells and noises, I would freak out too.
Often, these carriers aren’t used but a handful of times throughout the cat’s life. This lends to the trauma of the experience and is largely avoidable. Most carriers are kept in closets or garages out of sight until they are needed. Some are filthy because they are borrowed (smelling of other animals) or aren’t used…ever. Lets go into the mechanics of a good carrier.
1. If you have a cat, you need a carrier. Period. In the grand scheme of things, they are an inexpensive tool that can last the duration of your pet’s life and beyond. One of the worst-case scenarios is borrowing someone else’s carrier that hasn’t been cleaned. Now, you’re shoving your kitty into a small box that smells of another (probably scared) animal and taking them to an unknown destination.
2. The carrier should be made of an easy to clean material (like plastic). You should be able to fully take the carrier apart (meaning, the top and bottom disconnect and the door can be taken out). There are pros and cons to the snaps versus the ones that have attachments to secure the top and bottom. The snaps are nice because there aren’t any extra parts that can get lost, but sometimes they break or crack with repeated use (which is unfortunate because repeated use is what you should be going for). The carriers that have attachments to secure the top and bottom don’t have this problem, but you must take an extra step to keep them from getting lost. They are pictured below, in black on the four corners of the carrier.
The reason I like Image 1 is because it has a door on the top as well. Cats don’t like being forced into anything. Shoving them (or pulling them out) of the door in the front can be a source of stress. The door on top is nice because it allows you the option to gently place your cat inside from above.
The carrier should be the appropriate size. Your cat should have enough room to lay down, stand and turn around without difficulty.
3. Exposure. The carrier should be a source of comfort, play and familiarity for your kitty. One of the reasons that it works well to have a carrier that the top is removable for the bottom is that you can disconnect the two and place both (the top sitting right beside the bottom) in a familiar place that your kitty likes to lounge, with a nice bed and some toys. Encouraging your cat to explore and enjoy the carrier will give it a pleasant and familiar association. The carrier should always be out, available to your kitty. A constant piece of feline furniture. If your cat ignores the carrier, you can do things to encourage them to be more comfortable. Such as, placing treats inside or playing with the cat in a way that “forces” them to touch or go inside the carrier.
When your cat is comfortable with the carrier, you can put the top back on it so that the cat gets used to being inside of it. Leave the door open or off so that the cat can pass freely.
Ideally, this acclimation should be done when you bring the cat home as a kitten. However, adult cats can be acclimated to it at any age using the above strategies. This process might be slow if your cat has a special aversion to the carrier. When this process is started, it isn’t atypical for a frightened kitty to avoid the carrier for a few days – this is normal behavior for something that might have instilled fear in the past. It is okay for the cat to take weeks to warm up to the idea that the carrier won’t spontaneously swallow them and cart them away. If your techniques to bring the two together don’t seem to be working, give the cat a break for a day or two and try again.
4. Spraying your carrier with Feliway, the synthetic pheromone can help this acclimation process. You can either spray the blanket/bed that goes inside the carrier or place a Feliway diffuser near the carrier’s location.
5. Once your cat becomes comfortable with the carrier, you can start using treats and positive reinforcement techniques to encourage your cat to go into the carrier when you want them to.
The main goal in taking the fear away from the carrier is to make it part of everyday life so that they don’t always associate it with something negative happening. Here’s a great link to the Catalyst Council’s video on Cats and Carriers.