Many cats disappear at the sight of their cat carrier and even if their owner is able to get them into it, their cat often makes it quite clear it is not finding the experience pleasant. Difficulties getting cats into their carriers can result in owner reluctance to visit the vets which can consequently lead to reduced preventative healthcare, delayed diagnosis of disease, and ultimately reduced quality of life. In addition, if an owner is physically forcing their cat into its carrier, there is the potential for the cat to start to view the owner negatively with a resultant breakdown in the cat-owner bond. Having a cat comfortable with travel in its cat carrier will make trips to the vets, and other locations such as boarding catteries much easier, and the cat will not arrive already anxious or fearful from the journey. The best way to get around these problems is to teach a cat to enter its carrier voluntarily. This is done by associating the carrier with positive experiences.
Where to start
Before starting to teach a cat that going into the carrier is a positive experience, there are a number of things that can be done to ensure the cat views the carrier as positive as possible. If a cat already has a very negative association with the cat carrier, it is worth taking some time to think why this might be.
Questions to ask:
Could the cat’s distress be related to the way the cat is placed in the carrier? For example, is it a battle?
• The first step is to stop any physical forcing of a cat into the carrier. Therefore, the training process should be started when there are no scheduled vet appointments in the imminent future.
• Purchasing a new carrier can be beneficial for cats that really hate the carrier as a new carrier has less association to negative events.
Could the cat’s distress be directly related to the type of cat carrier?
• Is it possibility too small? A cat should have enough space in the carrier to stand up and turn around.
If this is not the case, it is advisable to buy a larger cat carrier.
• Does it smell of another cat? (eg, do all cats in a household travel in the same carrier but at different times?)
If this is the case and the cats do not have an amicable relationship, the close proximity to the smell of another cat and the inability to escape from it can cause anxiety or even frustration to the cat contained within the carrier. It is a good idea to wash the carrier after use with a warm solution of biological washing powder (approximately 10% washing powder) to remove any remaining scent of another cat. In addition, if a cat has not enjoyed being in a carrier previously, it may have left chemical secretions from glands between its toes which on subsequent investigation, alert the cat to its previously discomfort within the carrier – cleaning the carrier after such situations is therefore also recommended. One reason a plastic carrier is recommend is its ease to clean.
Does your cat have to travel in the carrier at the same time as another cat?
Even if cats get along well in the home, forcing them to share a small space from which they cannot escape from can create tension and hostility. Each individual cat should always have its own carrier.
Does your cat only ever go in the carrier for a trip to the vets or the boarding cattery?
This is very commonly the case and if the cat does not enjoy such events, it will simply learn that the carrier predicts an imminent trip to the vet or boarding cattery. By ensuring the carrier is accessible in the home at all times, such negative associations can be broken down.
Does your cat dislike travelling?
The cat carrier is likely to indicate travelling to a cat and if it is not keen on travelling (some cats experience feelings of travel sickness just as people can), such negative associations can generalise to the carrier (even when not in motion).
Learning to love the cat carrier
It is a good idea to always have the cat carrier out, open (with the door off) and accessible in the home. Depending on how nervous the cat is of the carrier, it may be best to start training with the top and the door of the carrier removed and out of the cat’s sight. Positioning the carrier in a cosy comfortable place that is safe and secure will help make the carrier inviting. Choose a room that the cat commonly spends time in and ideally not the room or place it has previously been situated if it has been a battle to get the cat in it in the past. It is advisable to have a carrier with a forward facing door so that the cat does not need to jump to get into the carrier.
Spraying a synthetic feline facial pheromone into the carrier can help make the cat’s perceptions of the carrier as safe and secure. Allow 15 minutes after spraying before giving the cat access to the carrier to let any alcohol in the product evaporate. An alternative is to rub a cloth on the cat’s facial area when being stroked (only if the cat enjoys being stroked) and rub this cloth on the outer corners, entrance and inside of the carrier.
Place things the cat really values in the carrier (e.g. its favourite food treats, catnip, its favourite toys) and if the cat shows any interest in the carrier, reinforce this behaviour using something the cat finds very rewards (e.g. food treats, stroking or a toy to play with). For a cat that has never had any experience of the carrier before, for example, a new kitten, this method may be enough to encourage an explorative kitten into the carrier.
For adult cats with previous experience of the carrier that is indifferent or only slightly aversive, having the carrier out in the home all the time with positive things in it may be enough to build up the cats courage to explore it. It is imperative to make sure that such exploration is reinforced with rewards and the cat is never pushed in with the door closed quickly behind it and then taken out of the home to the car. Instead, the cat should be able to explore and spend time in and out of the carrier at its own leisure.
However, some cats will not be confident enough to go into the carrier of their own accord, particularly those that already are anxious or fearful of the carrier. The following steps to train the cat to be comfortable in the carrier should be progressed through slowly, only moving onto the next stage once the cat is comfortable and mastered the current training stage.
Place a blanket the cat is comfortable with (that it already sleeps on, or is fed treats on) near the cat carrier. If the cat is very worried by the carrier, start with the placement of the blanket a greater distance away from the carrier (but still in the same room). Reward, using the cats preferred rewards, for relaxed behaviour on the blanket. The cat will soon learn that it is their relaxed behaviour on the blanket that controls the provision of a reward. By learning this, the cat develops a positive association in its mind between the blanket and the reward (and even the person giving the reward!). Most plastic cat carriers have a bottom part and a top part; start the training with the top part of the carrier removed. This makes the carrier appear less enclosed and potentially less threatening. The initial distance between the blanket and the carrier will very much depend on the cat’s current perception of the carrier. If it is very negative, make sure you have a greater distance. Please see ‘Cat carrier training video 1’:
(See video ‘Cat carrier training part 1’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mM2BXLJkLhc)
Gradually, over a number of sessions move the blanket closer towards the carrier. Never move the blanket while the cat is on it. Allow it to choose when to get off the blanket. Since the cat should now be offering relaxed behaviour on the blanket, such behaviour can be marked with a particular word that you have previously associated with a reward, and then followed by the offering of the chosen reward (toy, food treat, fuss) away from the blanket. This will allow the blanket to be moved while the cat is engaged in its reward. In order for this to work, the cat needs to have been previously taught that the chosen word means a reward is on its way — otherwise the word is meaningless. In the following video, the word ‘good’ is used but if this word is already used a lot when talking to the cat, eg, “good boy” or “good girl”, chose a different word such as ‘yes’. The reason for this is the word should only ever be spoken to the cat before the presentation of a reward. To teach this predictive relationship, simply say the word and immediately afterwards give the cat its desired reward and repeat the pairing of ‘good-reward’ several times. It is possible to see that the cat has learnt that the word is predictive of a reward when it starts to anticipate the reward after hearing the specific word. This is usually shown through behaviour such as orientating itself towards the person saying the marker word and also looking up at the person. The benefit of using a marker word is that if the reward was only ever offered once the cat was off the blanket (in order to be able to move the blanket), the behaviour of getting off the blanket would be associated with the reward, not the behaviour of relaxing on the blanket. The marker word therefore allows pinpointing or marking of the exact behaviour intended to be rewarded. Remember to go at a pace the cat is comfortable with, tailoring the length of session to the cat’s engagement and always ending on a positive note. Short and frequent sessions are generally most successful.
Over a number of sessions, gradually move the blanket into the cat carrier. Aim to get to the stage where the cat will relax on the blanket in the carrier with the top of the cat carrier removed. For nervous cats, it is best to work with the roof of the cat carrier completely out of view and work gradually towards having it laid beside the cat carrier base. Only once at this stage, should the top part of the carrier be attached. Do this when the cat is not in the base of the carrier.
(See video ‘Cat carrier training part 2’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtRCxysZEro)
If the cat is not keen to enter into the carrier with the top on, go back a few training steps to the point where the blanket was not in the carrier and gradually move it into the carrier. Remember to do this gradually and reward each gradual movement towards entering the cat carrier fully. For example, the cat may only offer placing its head in the carrier initially. Reward this behaviour and gradually build to head and one paw in the carrier, to head and two paws in the carrier to head, front paws and half of body in the carrier and so forth. The final goal here is to have the cat’s whole body in the carrier while remaining relaxed. At no stage has there been any need to touch the cat to get it to enter the cat carrier (unless stroking is being used as a reward!).
Once the cat is comfortable and is spending 3-5 minutes in the carrier it is time to start teaching it that the door closing is nothing to panic about.
(See video ‘Cat carrier training part 3’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVH31RWfwzg)
Once the cat is in the carrier, reward and then close the door a very small distance, then open and reward again. Shut the door further and further each time, being sure to open it straight away until it is able to be fully closed. Always open it right away if the cat moves towards the door at any point in a manner that suggests it wants out, thereby teaching it that it can control the door opening just by moving towards it. This will hopefully build the cat’s confidence while eliminating any reason to panic.
Again, build this up so that the cat is comfortable being in the carrier for around 3 minutes with the door closed (initially unlocked and then moving to locked) before moving to the next stage. However, it is important to ensure the cat can cope with being in the carrier in a relaxed manner for the length of time its longest journey in the carrier will be. For example, if the vet trip is usually half an hour, train the cat to remain relaxed in the carrier of its own accord in the home for this length of time (door open) and build up to similar lengths of time with the door shut. Using this training method, it is very common to find cats choosing to use their cat carriers as a nice place to sleep, even selecting it over other available beds.
Now you are ready to start training the cat to accept the carrier being lifted and moved. This can be difficult for cats who like to keep their paws firmly on the ground so work in small and incremental steps towards the final goal of lifting and walking with the carrier with the cat relaxed inside. Once the door is closed, start practice moving the carrier along the floor slowly without lifting it. All the time, remember to reward the cat for staying in the carrier with rewards such as food treats placed in through the side or door of the carrier and soothing words. If the cat asks to leave the cat carrier at any time by meowing or pawing the door, then immediately stop any movement, open the door and allow the cat to exit. If this does occur, the training steps are probably too big. Once the carrier can be gently moved around the floor, touch the carrier handle, let go straight away then reward the cat. Repeat this but this time apply a little upwards lift as one would when going to pick up the carrier, then stop and reward the cat. Progress to being able to lift up the carrier and gently put it back down, to them being able to walk a few steps with the carrier to being able to go outdoors with the carrier and eventually to being placed in the car. Work in small steps all the time. Make sure both the lifting and setting down of the carrier is slow and steady.
Many carriers have handles which when lifted make the carrier quite wobbly and unsteady for the cat inside. Where possible, try to carry the carrier with both hands to stabilise it as much as possible.
Cat carrier training can easily become a weekly part of life for a cat – little and often is the best way for cats to learn and a couple of minutes training every other day or so will not only be easy for an owner to achieve but also will help the cat to learn most effectively. It can be a huge welfare benefit to cats to teach cats that being in their carrier does not always end in an event they might be a bit worried about such as a visit to the vets. A cats perception of travelling in its carrier can further be improved by making many trips in the carrier end in fun and pleasant activities, such as being taken to the kitchen where there may be an extra tasty treat waiting or being taken to another room where they can be let out and can play a game with their favourite toy. This will help counteract the potentially negative situations of vet visits. If your cat gets outside access and enjoys this, you could use the carrier to take him to the garden during carrier training – the reward being able to explore the outdoors. It is also important for all cats that they get used to being in the carrier in the outside environment to prepare them for going from house to car in the cat carrier, this is particularly true for indoor only cats who may find the outdoor environment (albeit, from the confines of the carrier) a little daunting.
For more information, have a read of the following articles:
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I am the feline behaviour specialist at feline charity ‘International Cat Care’. We are about engaging, educating and empowering people throughout the world to improve the health and welfare of cats by sharing advice, training and passion.