Visiting Vet: The cat and the carrier

It doesn’t have to be the pit and the pendulum.

If a carrier stays in a cat's favorite spot, the cat may feel better about entering the carrier. — James Yarema

It’s one of life’s little mysteries — the fact that cats love to explore, investigating every tiny hidey-hole they can find, crawling inside paper bags, sleeping in cardboard boxes, but try to put a cat in a cat carrier? Suddenly it’s mayhem. Almost every week, someone cancels their appointment at the last minute because they are unable to get Kitty Klaus into his carrier. It’s frustrating for everyone. Veterinarians, already overbooked and overtired, don’t appreciate last-minute no-shows. (OK, some of us don’t mind, as it gives us a minute to catch our breath, but there is usually another pet who could really have used that appointment slot.) Owners end up upset, and sometimes scratched or bitten. Most importantly, Klaus ends up stressed out by the battle, making it even harder for his owner the next time the cat needs to be transported. Let’s talk about How to Get Your Cat Happily in His Carrier.

The fundamental tools of all behavior modification are desensitization (DSS) and counterconditioning (CC). Desensitization is exactly what it sounds like. You need to get Klaus accustomed to the presence of the carrier. Explore different types of carriers. There are some great new options. One has a bottom like a big tray that slides out. Others are made of cloth with mesh doors that zip closed. Buy the least scary one — whichever one you think Klaus might like best. Don’t wait until the day you need to take him somewhere. Bring the carrier out now. Leave it sitting open in the house in a spot he likes, maybe a sunny patch of floor. Put a soft bit of bedding inside, maybe a sprinkling of catnip. Let him explore. Mist the carrier with a product like Feliway, a synthetic spray that mimics “cheek pheromone.” That’s the scent cats are leaving when they rub against something they like with their faces. We can’t smell it, but Klaus can, and it says, “This is a happy place.” 

Now comes counterconditioning. This means we get Klaus to associate the carrier with good things, not scary things. Food is a good thing. Start feeding Klaus near the carrier. Each day, gradually move his bowl closer to the carrier. If this is inconvenient (perhaps you have a puppy or a toddler, and can’t leave random plates of cat food on the floor), try feeding Klaus a special treat once a day. As Klaus comes to love and anticipate this special treat, give it to him closer and closer to the carrier. Eventually put the treat just inside the carrier door. And so on. 

You get the idea. Don’t force the issue. Cats are like kids. They know when you’re trying to manipulate them, and don’t cooperate. The goal is to have Klaus run right into that box to get his treat on his own volition. Once he does this reliably, close the door just for a second. Gradually increase the amount of time you leave the door closed. Once you have accomplished this, you can practice leaving the carrier in different locations in the house, so it doesn’t arouse his suspicions, no matter where it is. 

Sure. Right. OK. This doesn’t always work. Maybe you’re too busy for a DSS and CC program with Klaus. Maybe the appointment is tomorrow (or it was yesterday), the carrier is in the basement, and there’s no time for behavior modification. What now? Sometimes a cat is not all that resistant, it’s just the owner needs to modify their technique.Too often the human in question tries to unceremoniously stuff the cat in the box using brute force in the middle of the living room. The cat freaks out, and runs and hides. The human chases the cat around the house until Klaus is hissing and striking when anyone gets near him. Game over. Don’t do that.

Try this instead. First, put the carrier in the bathroom. Set it down so the back is against a wall, and the carrier door is open facing you. Close the toilet. Now, quietly, go get Klaus. Try to stay calm and relaxed. Cats are, well, cats. They are very intuitive. The tenser you are, the tenser Klaus will be. Carry him into the bathroom and close the door. This way Klaus can’t run away and hide under the bed. You have control of the space. My favorite technique for cats who balk at going headfirst into the carrier is to put them in backwards. In other words, get down on the floor with Klaus, and calmly put his hind end into the carrier. Now put your hand over his whole head and slowly, gently, steadily, push him backward. Many cats will acquiesce and back right in. You can also try putting Klaus in a cotton pillowcase first. Many cats will happily go inside a pillowcase. Then you take the cat in the bag and put the bag in the box. Just make sure Klaus gets his head out of the pillow case before you close the carrier door, and do not use any kind of sack made from material that doesn’t “breathe.” I once had an owner transport their cat in a feedsack made out of plastic woven material, and the poor thing almost suffocated. Don’t do that. 

One of the best solutions for cats who are persistently resistant is to acknowledge the behavior is fear-based and treat them tenderly, like you would a person with a phobia.I myself have struggled with claustrophobia and fear of flying. If someone physically tried to stuff me into an airplane with a pillowcase over my head, I don’t think that would be helpful. I took a wonderful fear-of-flying course, which helped with DSS and CC, but ultimately I needed anti-anxiety drugs. The same may be true for Klaus. Plan ahead! Your veterinarian can prescribe calming medications to give your cat at home, making things easier for everyone when it’s time to put him in that carrier.