If your cat’s had a bad experience with a carrier – and most cats consider any trip to the vets a bad experience – you’ll find it difficult or even impossible to get them in the carrier. They may run, hide or become aggressive and may feel stressed when they’re finally inside.
Cat carriers are important and useful, so it’s worth training your cat to make the experience as stress-free as possible.
Choosing the right carrier for your cat
Before starting training, make sure you have the right carrier. Look for one that’s secure, with plenty of space for your cat to stand up, turn around, sit and lay down in – but not so big they feel overwhelmed.
The carrier should be made of easy to clean materials, such as plastic – wood, cardboard, fabric and wicker carriers can be difficult to keep clean. It should be easy to enter and exit. A carrier with a door at the front so your cat can voluntarily walk in, and a lid on top so your cat can be carefully lifted out at the vets would be the best option.
Some carriers have clips securing the top of the carrier to the bottom – these can be extra handy for cats that are very nervous at the vets. The vet can take the top off the carrier and leave your cat in the bottom of the carrier, so they feel like they have some protection. These carriers are also perfect for training.
Try to choose a lightweight carrier – some can become extremely heavy when they have a cat inside. If you have more than one cat, each should have their own carrier. No matter how close your cats are normally, when they’re stressed and confined in a carrier they may redirect that stress on to each other and fight.
How to train your cat to get into the carrier
Teaching your cat to enter their carrier is a step-by-step process. If they haven’t already had an experience with a carrier, you can complete many of these steps in just one or two training sessions. If your cat is already frightened of the carrier, the training may take several weeks.
Throughout the training process, you’ll know your cat is ready for the next step when they’re calm and accepting of the step you’re working on. Training cats takes patience and empathy, so make sure you don’t rush through the steps. Keep these key rules in mind:
- Do your training between vet visits and when you don’t need to transport your cat. You’ll be gently and gradually teaching them to associate the carrier with pleasant experiences, so it’s vital they don’t experience any fear or stress around or inside it during the training period. If they do, teaching them to accept the carrier will be much more challenging, if not impossible
- Keep all background noise and movement to a minimum while you’re training. Cats have an acute sense of hearing and smell, so things we don’t notice could startle or scare them. This could be doors slamming, washing machines or tumble driers on spin cycle, an alarm on the oven, other pets or strong smelling cleaning products. If they get scared while you’re training it can undo all your hard work
- Always use tasty treats as a reward for desired behaviours. All cats have at least one tasty food treat that motivates them – this can be anything from commercial cat treats to a small pinch of smelly fish, like tuna. Try finding one treat your cat finds tasty and another they find extremely tasty! This way you can increase the reward value to your cat by using the extremely tasty treat when the training becomes more intense.
Step 1: getting used to the cat carrier
The first step is to teach your cat to be comfortable and relaxed just being near the carrier before you try to train them to enter it.
If your cat is really frightened at the sight of the carrier, or panics when they know you’re going to the cupboard where you keep the carrier, then get them used to something else first. The best way to start is feeding them treats on a blanket or towel on the floor of the room where you plan to do the carrier training. Do this for a few days without any sign of the carrier in the room.
Once your cat is comfortable with this, place the carrier in an open space in the same room before they enter. If you carrier has clips that fasten the top to the bottom, take the top off and introduce the bottom half of the carrier first. You can also spray the carrier with Feliway spray before bringing it into the room – this may help your cat to feel more at ease with it.
Continue to feed treats on the blanket or towel every day and very gradually move it closer and closer to the carrier, before your cat enters the room. If your cat looks suspicious of the carrier, you may need to move the bedding further away until they seem relaxed again. You can then try moving it closer to the carrier the next day.
Never try to move the bedding with your cat on it, this may frighten them. Always try to move it before they enter the room, but if you need to while they’re in the room, entice them off it with treats.
You can train your cat to step off the blanket by using a word like “good” just before you give them a treat. This word will eventually become a reward, but this may take several training sessions. When your cat eats their treats comfortably right in front of the carrier, they’re ready for the next step.
Step 2: entering the cat carrier
Place the bedding in the carrier gradually over a number of sessions. If your cat is very nervous of the carrier, leave the lid removed to begin with and keep it out of sight.
When your cat is comfortable lying on their bedding in the carrier, you can put the lid on the floor next to the carrier. And gradually move to put the lid on the carrier. Remember to do this before your cat enters the room and not when they’re in the carrier.
If your cat isn’t happy to enter the carrier with the lid on, go back a few steps and place the bedding outside the carrier again and feed tasty treats on it. Gradually move the bedding back into the carrier with the lid on, even if you have to move a tiny bit of bedding in the carrier each time. Once your cat is lying relaxed on the bedding in the carrier for a few minutes each time you can move onto the next step.
Step 3: closing the cat carrier door
Close the door a tiny bit and then open again, and give your cat a treat. Close the door more and more each time, opening in between times and giving a treat. Repeat this until you can fully close the door with your cat looking relaxed inside the carrier.
If your cat looks worried or moves towards the door, open it again. This way they feel in control at all times. Build up the time with the door closed gradually, so your cat will stay relaxed in the carrier with the door shut for a few minutes.
Then you can try locking the carrier door. Again, build the time up gradually that your cat sits in the locked carrier until you’re sure they’re comfortable in it for the time it takes to go to the vets. Open the door again and give your cat some treats and allow them to come out and stretch their legs.
Once you’ve achieved this, leave the cat carrier out – with the door taken off – in a safe and secure place in the room your cat spends most of their time in. This means your cat can get used to it being there and not just associate it with a trip to the vets.
Occasionally place some treats or your cat’s favourite toys in the carrier, and cover it with a blanket to make it look warm, cosy and inviting. Your cat is now ready for the next step.
Step 4: lifting the cat carrier
Now your cat is happy to be shut in their carrier, it’s time to get them used to be being carried around. Being lifted off the ground and carried around is usually stressful for cats, as they like to feel in control. Go nice and slowly, and don’t feel disheartened if you need to repeat the previous training step.
Start by just touching the handle as if to pick the carrier up. Stop and feed some treats through the bars and talk soothingly to your cat. If they seem relaxed, try lifting the carrier just a few inches off the floor and place it gently down again.
Talk to your cat in a soothing voice and give them some treats through the bars of the carrier – if they still look relaxed you can continue. If your cat looks panicked, miaows or starts to paw at the door, open the carrier and let them out. You can then try again another time, going back a couple of steps.
Step 5: transporting your cat in the carrier
Once your cat is relaxed with you lifting the carrier, you can progress gradually onto walking a few steps. After this, place the carrier down again and feed treats through the bars.
Carry on with this until you can carry your cat towards the front door and finally outside and into the car. Try to carry the carrier with one hand on the handle and one hand underneath if possible, to stop it from swaying or wobbling around.
Once your cat is comfortable being placed in the car, try switching the engine on and off again and giving your cat treats through the bars of the carrier. Remember to talk to them in a soothing voice.
You may decide to take your cat out in the car in their carrier. When you return home scatter treats as you open the carrier door. You could then try taking your cat to the vets, walking into reception and out again, then go home and repeat the treat scattering process.
You can even book an appointment to just take your cat to the vets. Place them on the table and give them some treats without the vet touching your cat. Repeat the process until your cat is comfortable at the vets, before actually taking them for a real appointment.
Once at the vets, you can train your cat to exit the carrier onto the examination table by placing it on the table, opening the door, and scattering more treats.