You’re ready to take your cat to the vet, so you get out the carrier and — poof! — your cat is gone. As a veterinarian, one of the most common questions I hear is, “Why is it so hard to get my cat in a carrier?”
If the carrier only appears when the cat is about to get swooped up, the cat will associate the carrier with the scary things that happen at the vet and take flight. With some planning, however, you can make the carrier less scary for your cat. Here are some suggestions:
Make the carrier a safe zone: If you only try one tip, make it this one. Put the carrier near your cat’s favorite spot for several weeks before your appointment, giving your cat time to adjust to it. Better yet, find an accessible place to leave the carrier year-round, and place tasty treats, catnip, toys, or the food bowl near or inside the carrier. A nice blanket or bed will make it into a cozy cave for napping.
Use a stable hard-sided carrier: Hard carriers help your cat feel protected, but these carriers can be unwieldy, especially if your cat is on the heavy side, making it a bumpy ride to the vet. Some of my inventive clients use a cart or dolly to stabilize transportation, soothing your cat’s anxiety about taking a joyride in the carrier.
Soothe with smell: Cats’ olfactory sense are more sensitive than we can imagine. Line the carrier with a blanket from home, and spray the scent put off by a happy cat, like Feliway Classic Spray. Spray the inside of the carrier at least 30 minutes in advance to give the spray time to dry, as well as the inside of your car for added effect.
Bribe with food: Withhold food for several hours before the trip to the vet unless otherwise directed by your veterinarian. You can entice a hungry cat to enter the carrier with treats alone. Even if that does not work, a short fast will help reduce motion sickness and motivate your cat to accept treats at the vet’s.
Size matters: The carrier should be big enough for the cat to comfortably turn around in. If you have a kitten-sized carrier and now your cat is all grown up, it is time to upgrade.
Get a top-loader: It is easier to set a cat in a carrier from above than to wedge one in through the front.
Try a carrier with a removable top: Start by turning the bottom half into an inviting bed. After your cat has spent time in it, assemble the carrier around it. Cat-savvy veterinarians like carriers that come apart, leaving only the bottom half-shell, because your cat can remain in the safety and comfort of its home base during the appointment.
Towels are your friends: Gently wrap your cat in a towel to protect yourself, as well as restrict your cat’s movement, when lifting your cat into the carrier.
If you have tried these tips and are still struggling to get your cat in a carrier, do not despair. Some cats are more prone to anxiety than others are. If you have an easily excited cat, ask your veterinarian for some anti-anxiety medication to give at home prior to the visit. People too often view medication as a last resort, while taking the edge off your cat’s nervousness can make all the difference. A relaxed cat is less likely to have a negative experience and will learn to enjoy trips in the carrier.
A word of caution: Because cats break out of carriers when you least expect it, it pays to take extra precautions. I have heard of cats jiggling open clasps, so if you have a carrier that comes apart, use zip ties to further secure it. You will want to bring extra zip ties to put on for the ride home, too Avoid cardboard carriers, as they are no match for the claws of a determined escape artist. No matter what type of carrier you use, double check that your cat is secure before leaving your house or your car.
Shira A. Rubin, D.V.M., works at Porte Veterinary Hospital in Campbell, where she enjoys calming scaredy cats. She regularly consults for several local rescue groups and fosters through Four Paws To Love. She is currently fostering Wizard, a one-eyed diabetic cat with a cleft palate and a mom with seven kittens.