By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Does your kitty companion scramble to the top of the cat tree or dive under the bed whenever you break out his carrier? If so, you have plenty of company. The reason for most crate hate in cats is because the wicked thing only makes an appearance once or twice a year, and represents things kitties despise, such as forced confinement, a hair-raising ride in the car and a visit to a place (e.g., the veterinary clinic) that feels threatening.
The good news is that all the angst associated with vet visits and other outings can be minimized by helping your cat get comfortable with his carrier at home, on his timetable and in an entirely nonthreatening manner. Mr. Whiskers will probably never enjoy being removed from his home turf to parts unknown, but if he views his carrier as a safe space, you've eliminated one of the many stressors involved in getting him from point A to point B.
10 Steps to Conquer Your Cat's Crate Hate
1. Purchase the carrier before you bring kitty home for the first time, or failing that, make sure you have it well in advance of any planned outings involving your cat. The size should be large enough for her to stand up and turn around in, but since cats like tight spaces, it should be small enough that she feels secure and safe inside.
The carrier should open from both the top and the front or side so your cat has more than one escape route, and also so it's easy to put her in the carrier and take her out of it. You also want to make sure a soft-sided carrier is sturdy enough to not collapse under the weight of the seatbelt.
Dr. Jane Brunt, executive director of the CATalyst Council makes the point that hard (molded plastic) carriers are actually safer for car travel because they're easy to secure by simply slipping the seatbelt harness (in a backseat, not the front seat due to the dangers of airbag deployment) through the handle on top.1
2. Once you get the carrier home, it's important to make it a permanent fixture of your kitty's environment, so set it up in a location your cat spends time in. Since kitties tend to like high places, Brunt suggests placing the carrier on a couch or chair rather than the floor.
And because cats like much warmer temperatures than we do, if possible, place the carrier in a ray of sunlight or near (but not too near) a heat source. Be sure to prop or tie the doors open so they can't accidentally close. Next, place comfy bedding in the carrier, either something your cat has been using so it smells familiar, or something with your scent on it.
3. Reward your kitty with praise, petting and treats when he investigates the carrier, and especially if he goes inside. Remember, the goal is to gradually acclimate him to the carrier, and make it a place he likes to visit.
4. The next step is to entice kitty with food, so place her food bowl close to the carrier. If she's still so suspicious of the thing that she won't come to her bowl, move it just far enough away so that she'll eat. Add a small amount of a special treat she loves on top of her meal to further tempt her.
Once she's eating from the bowl without hesitation, start moving it closer each meal until she's eating comfortably very close to the carrier. Next, place the food bowl inside the carrier, right at the entrance, so your cat can reach bites of food without having to actually step inside.
5. Now it's time to raise the stakes, so put a few of your kitty's favorite toys and treats into the carrier at random times. The idea is to associate only pleasant, fun, yummy things with the carrier each time your cat explores it. Consider placing some organic catnip in there as well. I've also found that spraying a feline facial pheromone like Feliway in the carrier several times a week can also be very beneficial, or using stress-reducing flower essences for anxiety or fear.
6. After several days of eating out of her food bowl placed just inside the carrier entrance, it's time to push the dish further in. Move it a few inches toward the back of the carrier each day until she's standing completely inside as she eats.
7. Once you and your feline companion have successfully completed all the above steps, it's time for lots and lots of patience. What you must wait patiently for is the sight of your cat hanging out in his carrier, and hopefully napping there. This process could take several weeks or even several months, which is why you must be patient while continuing to put meals, treats, toys, catnip and other fun stuff in the carrier, and heaping lavish praise on him whenever he approaches it.
8. Once your cat is feeling at home in her carrier, try closing the door for a very short time with her inside, making sure to let her out before she becomes anxious or panics. Slowly extend the time in the crate by 30 seconds to a minute during each practice session. When you can close the door for significant periods of time without upsetting your cat, you can start bringing her along on short car rides to get her accustomed to being in the carrier in a moving car that doesn't stop at the veterinary clinic.
9. If your cat has had a negative experience with a carrier in the past, Brunt suggests getting a new carrier that is a different type from the "bad" carrier, and start from the beginning following the steps above to get kitty comfortable with it.
10. When you reach the point where your cat is spending time on his own resting, playing and eating in his carrier, when the time comes to take him somewhere, it shouldn't be traumatic for either of you. If you have an appointment with the vet at, say, 10:00 am, and your cat goes into his carrier at 9:00 am to nap, just close the door until you're ready to leave the house.
Each time you return home with your cat, go right back to providing meals, toys and treats in the crate so he continues to associate his carrier with goodness. Ideally, your cat will come to view his carrier as a comfy, safe space.
Cat carriers are "necessary, but they shouldn't be a necessary evil," says Brunt, and I certainly agree. If you need to travel with your cat, even just to vet visits, or heaven forbid you find yourself in the middle of a natural disaster and must evacuate your home, you want a safe, comfortable way to travel with your feline family member. The more familiar and comfortable your cat is with her carrier, and the safer she feels in it, the less stressful it will be for her when you need to move her in it.