Updated: May 24, 2020
For many, putting the cat in the carrier is similar to putting toothpaste back in the tube. It ain't happening. This is typically because the only time the cat experiences a carrier it is for scary things, like car rides and vet exams. Below are a few, simple tips for teaching any cat that a carrier is a safe, enjoyable place. Only advance to the next step if your cat is relaxed, comfortable, and #fearfree.
1. Right before the exam or trip is not the time to begin. Allow plenty of time to practice far in advance. If your cat is gone as soon as you grab the carrier, then this step is especially critical. Begin by laying out a towel in the cat's favorite napping spot.
2. Ensure the carrier is appropriate and clean – no one likes being dirty or cramped on a trip! Kitty should be able to stand up, turn around, and lie down comfortably. The bottom should be stable and no sharp edges inside or out. Avoid cleaning with any scented or harsh chemicals that can be toxic. Use hot water only and if it’s really gunky, let it soak. If you must use a cleanser, use unscented, non-toxic soap and rinse thoroughly. If you have a brand new carrier, rinse or soak to remove that “new” smell. Cats are very sensitive to smell. After cleaning, rub the inside of the carrier with the towel from step 1.
3. Place the carrier where it can stay and your kitty will want to explore, won’t run the chance of being ‘jumped’ by other pets, and will be relaxed enough to nap. Try placing anti-slip pads underneath to prevent sliding. If your cat is especially fearful, try removing the doors and top or securing the door open so there is no risk of accidentally becoming or feeling trapped. Place that towel from step 1 inside the carrier to make it familiar and comfy.
4. Place a dish with canned food or a favorite snack about a foot outside the carrier. Repeat this each day, moving the dish several inches closer to the carrier. Eventually, put it just inside the entryway, then j1/4 the way in, then 1/2 way, then 3/4, and gradually all the way to the back.
5. Continue until kitty runs into the carrier in anticipation of snacks. You may need to add more snacks every so often to keep her entertained while you work and create desire to stay inside. If you took off the door or top, put it back on and spend time at this step. As long as she feels comfortable, very slowly and gently move the door back and forth without closing it. If she tries to leave, let her! She should never be forced. Repeat until she stays inside eating her snacks when you wiggle the door. Never try to force it or sneak it or you'll have to start all over. Over time close the door, but don’t latch, then open again. She gets so exit whenever she wants! If she does, try again later. Once she is comfortable, try latching the door while she is snacking. When she is finished, unlatch and let her out.
6. Once your cat is comfortable inside eating her snacks while you close the door, scooch the carrier very gently, just a few inches, while she is inside snacking. Open the door. If she wants to come out, let her and try again later. If she stays inside, she feels safe. Close the door and repeat the movement. Repeat the series until she is comfortable with being inside a carrier that moves a little further and further. You may need to add more snacks to keep her entertained while you work and create desire to stay inside.
7. When your cat becomes comfortable with the movement in step 6, gradually, pick the carrier up a few inches off the ground, then place it back down. Open the door. If she wants to come out, allow it. If she stays inside, close the door and repeat. Again, you may need to add more snacks. Slowly over time, pick the carrier up higher, eventually walk a few steps, placing her back down and giving her a chance to exit each time. Eventually work toward walking around with her inside.
8. Over time work toward going outside, come back in and let her out. Then work toward getting in the care, come back in and let her out. How quickly you advance is individual. If kitty ever shows fear, panic, or stress you are pushing her too fast. Starting kittens out young is a great idea and leaving the carrier out so it smells familiar and is a part of the home is always a plus.
With a bit of training and patience, cats can enjoy traveling as much as you. So pull dust off that carrier and get training! Learn how to effectively train your cat at my upcoming, hands-on clicker training workshop.