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How to Deal with Cat Carrier Drama and Trauma

By Julia Williams

Many cat owners cite their kitty’s fear and loathing of the cat carrier as the main reason they don’t visit their vet more often. I can totally relate to that. I know annual checkups are important for pets, but I dread the day. Now, I have heard of cats going into their carrier without a struggle, and some that regard it as just another cozy napping spot. I’ve even heard of cats who enjoy car rides and don’t wail like they’re being mercilessly tortured. However, I’ve been a Cat Lady for a long time, and I’ve never had anything close to a carrier/car-ride-loving feline. Hence I liken them to unicorns, dragons and other mythical creatures born from imaginative minds.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t take some steps to lessen the drama that ensues when the “evil PTU” (Pet Transport Unit) comes out. In addition to taking kitty to the vet, cat carriers are vital for moving, traveling and evacuating in an emergency, so it behooves us to make using them as stress free as possible. Your cat may not ever come to love the carrier, but there are things you can do to help them accept it. The goal is to ensure they don’t have a full-blown panic attack at the sight of the carrier, or go into meltdown mode in the car.

The first thing you should do is consider the context of the carrier. If it only comes out right before your cat goes to a place where they have a not-so-fun experience (to put it mildly), it’s easy to see why your cat would fear the PTU and run for their favorite hiding spot at the mere sight of it.

The solution is to make the carrier part of your cat’s surroundings, by leaving it out somewhere in your home. It doesn’t have to be conspicuous, like in the middle of the living room – just where your cat will see it often and become used to its presence. Additionally, the cat carrier will then smell like your home instead of a musty basement or dusty garage. The carrier may even eventually smell like your cat if they become comfortable enough to rub against it. You might also want to use a synthetic feline pheromone spray in or near the carrier. You won’t smell anything but your cat will, and the pheromones are said to have a calming effect.

Since the aim is to get your cat to view the carrier as nonthreatening, you should begin to create positive associations with it. First, place an old towel or t-shirt where your cat normally sleeps. Let them sleep on it for a few days so it smells like them, then place it in the carrier. Next, begin to play with your cat near the carrier. Use “fishing pole” type cat toys to encourage your cat to jump over the carrier or on top of it. You can also throw catnip toys near the opening and eventually, inside the carrier.

Feeding your cat her CANIDAE food or some TidNips treats near the carrier is another great way to create a positive association. When they’re comfortable eating near the carrier, place some treats inside to lure them in, and nonchalantly close the door for a few minutes. Give them a treat and praise when you let them out, and leave the door open. The more often you do this, the more comfortable your cat will be going into the carrier. Then when vet day dawns, you can use the treats to lure them in without major drama. Of course, you may suffer a setback after the vet visit. Just resume their positive association training, and they should eventually relax.

If your cat is the stubborn type, and won’t go willingly into the carrier no matter what, your best bet is to get a top-loading model that allows you to drop them in bum first. If you do have a front-loading carrier, just put it on its side and lower your kitty down into it. You should also make sure your cat is contained in an escape-proof room on the day of your vet visit.

Some people recommend going for short drives around town with your cat, as a way to “get them used to the car.” I’m fairly certain this wouldn’t work with my three scaredy-cats, but it might for some cats, particularly kittens. For those with cats like mine, who yowl for the entire car ride, the best thing you can do is try not to let it rattle you. Easier said than done I know, but definitely worth a try because your cat will pick up on your anxiety. Try to stay calm, and either ignore them or talk to them in a normal voice. You don’t want to coddle them, because that only reinforces the behavior.

I hope these tips help your cat learn to accept their carrier, so that vet visits become less stressful for all!

Top photo by Rob Marquardt
Bottom photo by Ewen Roberts

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