There’s probably nothing a cat owner dreads more than a trip to the vet–even if the cat isn’t sick. Most dogs will happily jump into the car, but for cats the ordeal starts with a struggle to get into a carrier that’s stressful for both of you.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A recent study published in Applied Animal Behavior showed that teaching a cat to go into a carrier willingly does more than eliminate that struggle. Trained cats showed less stress on the car ride, and the vet exams were shorter.
You probably don’t need a study to convince you that life would be easier if your cat liked the carrier–the hard part is believing that it’s possible. Sure, experienced researchers can do it, but can you really try this at home?
Absolutely, says Monique Feyrecilde, a Fear Free Certified Professional Level 2 vet tech and coauthor of the book Cooperative Veterinary Care. Cats are trainable, and it doesn’t take as much time as you might think.
First, you need to understand a few basics. One is that training sessions need to be very short–just a minute or two. “You might have five or six treats’ worth of training per session and have to stop because they’re satiated,” she says. “That’s part of what feeds that wrong belief that cats can’t be trained for food–it’s because they satiate faster than dogs.”
Second, cats are suspicious of new things, so the carrier should be familiar to them before you start. “Make the carrier visible to your cat as part of the normal living environment all the time,” Feyrecilde says. Finding a space to leave the carrier full-time instead of pulling it out of a closet when it’s time to train will make it more likely that you’ll do it, and less likely the cat will be hesitant about the strange new thing.
For rewards, offer store-bought treats, or try a little cream cheese, tuna, or fish paste. Feyrecilde says some cats like the Kong stuffing pastes in liver or salmon flavor, and all of these soft rewards can be delivered on a spoon or the end of a chopstick, which some cats might prefer: “Some cats don’t like it if you touch their food, so they might not like it if it’s on your finger.”
Step By Step
Break down the carrier-entering experience into very small steps. If you have a hard carrier that can be taken apart, start with just the bottom half. Your first goal is to get the cat to voluntarily walk into the bottom half of the carrier and stay there for increasing periods of time.
The details of this will differ depending on how your cat reacts. Some may walk right in if you put treats in the bottom; others may need to be coaxed step by step. If that’s the case, start by rewarding for merely approaching. Once your cat is comfortable with that, reward for putting one foot in; then both front feet in; then all the feet; then for staying while being treated for increasing amounts of time.
Again, cats are individuals, so how many baby steps it will take to get to each goal will differ, but the rest of the procedure is basically as follows:
– Add the top of the carrier, but not the door. Again, reward for approaching, entering, then staying. Once the cat does this regularly, add the front door, leaving it open, and repeat.
– With the cat in the carrier, reward while moving the door. Then close, open, and treat. Leave the door closed for increasing amounts of time while treating.
– Once the cat is comfortable staying in the carrier with the door closed, lift the carrier, put it down, and treat. Again, increase the time, and start adding walking a few steps while carrying it.
Once the cat is comfortable being carried in the carrier, it’s also a good idea to get her accustomed to short car rides that don’t end up at the vet.
Don’t have that kind of carrier? No problem, says Feyrecilde. The method can be adapted. If the carrier doesn’t come apart, you can use the same procedure of rewarding approach and entering; if there’s a top opening or another door at the other end, that can help you deliver rewards while your cat is inside. You can even train the cat to go in through the top door of a carrier if he seems more comfortable with that – just be careful with the door. “If you’re trying to train the cat to jump in through the top, you need to secure the lid open so they don’t jostle it and close the lid on themselves,” she says.
How long this process will take depends on the individual cat. Different steps may be more difficult for different cats, so pay attention to their body language and reactions, and don’t rush. Previous experience also matters. “If you’re teaching it as a new idea, for a kitten, it could take as little as few days,” she says. “If you’re teaching an adult cat who has already learned that the carrier goes to bad places, it might take several months.”
But remember–that’s several months of only a couple of minutes per day. Feyrecilde says two sessions of about a minute each day are ideal, and you can work that into your routine such as before you feed your cat twice a day, or when you’d ordinarily play.
The result will make life easier and safer, and not just for going to the vet, she observes. Think of it as part of disaster planning, so you can evacuate quickly with your cat in case of something like a hurricane.
But it’s not all about disaster and vet trips. Training is a good way to spend quality time with your cat, and it will blow your cat-owning friends’ minds when you show them your cat walking straight into a carrier. She says, “Have fun training your cat; they can learn stuff!”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.