Most cat lovers have experienced the scenario where the cat carrier comes out and all of a sudden, the cats are nowhere to be found. Cats quickly learn by experience, and for most cat households, the cat carrier is only used to transport a cat to the veterinarian, boarding cattery or groomer. Unfortunately, our cats don’t understand that these places are there to help care for them. Let’s face it, most of us don’t relish a visit to the doctor or dentist, cats especially.
It is possible to minimise cat carrier stress by switching its function from that of the transporter to the dreaded veterinarian to a place of safety and comfort. This process takes several steps, but the rewards are worth it to the cat as well as the cat’s human carers.
Keep the carrier out
The first step is to bring the carrier out of storage and place it in a spot the cat already enjoys such as near a window or heater (not so close that the carrier melts). If the cat only sees the carrier when he or she is leaving the house, they will naturally associate it with bad experiences.
Place the carrier in an area the cat likes to hang out
I have found that if the cat carrier is left out and you don’t try to coax the cat into the carrier, curiosity will eventually get the better of them, after all, a carrier is very close to a box, and cats love boxes.
Add a blanket, item of clothing or small cat-bed
To make the cat carrier even more appealing, add a comfortable blanket, old item of clothing which has your scent or a favourite cat bed (if it can fit in).
Offer a treat
At this time, leave the door open, and do not shut it when the cat enters the carrier. Instead, offer a high-value treat (poached chicken breast for example), which is only given when the cat is in the carrier.
Close the door
Once the cat is comfortably using the cat carrier as a bed, close the door and walk away for a minute or two. The goal is to sensitise the cat to remain in a closed carrier and also teach them that this doesn’t always mean a trip to the veterinarian. After a few minutes, open the door and give the cat a treat.
Pick up the carrier
When the cat is routinely using the carrier as a bed and is comfortable with the door closed, the next step is to pick up the carrier with the door closed. Don’t leave the house, just pick it up, and put it back down on the floor again. Open the door and give the cat a treat.
Take short drives
Trips to the veterinarian are stressful but can be made less traumatic by occasionally taking the cat on short car rides and if the veterinarian is not too far away, pay a ‘hello’ visit. During this, the cat remains in the carrier and if the staff have time, may give the cat a high-value treat, then you return home. Once again, the goal is to desensitise the cat and show them that not every trip to the veterinarian leads to an examination or medical treatment.
Note: Always check with your veterinary practice that they are okay with ‘drop-in’ visits, particularly during the current COVID pandemic as many practices are only permitting pets, and not the owners to reduce the risk of viral transmission between the client and veterinary staff.
How many carriers do my cats need?
Each cat should have his or her own carrier, so if you have to evacuate, all cats can be safely taken without having to squeeze two cats into one carrier.
What to look for in a carrier
Look for a cat carrier that opens from the front and sides and is large enough for the cat to comfortably turn around and the sides offer a visible shield.
I personally prefer plastic carriers to bags for their durability and they can be used in day to day life as a cat den. The bag-style carriers have the advantage of compacting which makes it easier to store when not in use, but this brings back the issue of only using the carrier when the cat has to leave the house.
Making trips to the veterinarian less stressful
Finding a veterinarian who is certified in Fear Free or Cat Friendly is also great for all pets. This means the veterinarian has undergone training to promote an environment that is as stress-free as possible, which includes soft hands and gentle restraint, treats, limiting eye contact and separate waiting areas for cats and dogs.
Spray the inside of the carrier with Feliway, which is a synthetic pheromone that simulates the cat’s own feel-good hormones and can reduce stress.
Ask the practice if it is okay to wait in the car when you arrive and have them text or call when the veterinarian is ready to see the cat. This reduces the amount of time spent in the waiting room with other animals who may also be stressed. If this is not practical, bring a towel or blanket and cover the carrier which can help to keep the cat calm.
Almost no cat likes visiting the veterinarian, but if you have a particularly anxious cat, the veterinarian may be able to prescribe a light sedative to administer.
Remember to remain calm yourself (easier said than done), cats pick up on our emotions, and if we’re stressed and anxious, this can stress the cat more. With preparation, trips to the veterinarian don’t have to be a battle.