Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have trouble taking my cat to the vet. She runs from me and then when I catch her to put her in the carrier, she gets all her claws out and lets me have it. Help! Is there an easier way to do this? Also, once she’s locked in the carrier, she pees and poops all over herself. Makes for a nice visit to the vet.
Siouxsie: Well, Syndie, most of us cats don’t like the carrier or trips to the vet. But we know there are times when it’s necessary. To make it easier for both you and your cat, you’re going to have to retrain your cat to accept the carrier. And we’ll tell you how.
Thomas: We assume you have a plastic carrier with a wire door on the end. If not, we recommend that you get one. It’s easier to use and easier to clean, both of which are good for cats like yours who don’t like to travel and tend to make messes in the carrier.
Dahlia: You’re going to have to go slow and steady to reintroduce your cat to her carrier, particularly because she’s been so traumatized by her carrier experiences.
Siouxsie: Start by cleaning the carrier very well to remove any residue of old urine and feces odors. Don’t just clean the bottom half of the carrier; take it apart and clean the whole thing from top to bottom, inside and out. Remember to clean door and the fasteners that clip the carrier together, too.
Thomas: Use hot water and dish detergent and a dish cloth or soft sponge. Rinse all the pieces very well to get any soap residue off. Then do a second rinse with white vinegar and lukewarm water (one part vinegar to two parts water should be fine) to lift cat urine oils that might have gotten into the plastic. Rinse the carrier very well once again, and if possible let all the parts dry outdoors for a day or so.
Dahlia: Now the training part begins. Put the carrier in a corner of your living room. Take the door off — or if you can’t remove the door without taking the carrier apart, secure the door so it stays open. Put a towel in the bottom. Then just go about your business for several days, leaving the carrier there and getting your cat used to the idea that it’s just another piece of furniture.
Siouxsie: After it’s been out for a few days, play with your cat in the area around the carrier using her favorite interactive toy — a thing on a string or a feather wand toy, for example. Do this at least once a day. This is helping your cat to associate pleasant activities with being near the carrier. Don’t bring the toy too close to the carrier itself, though.
Thomas: Next, put a few treats in front of the carrier, but at a safe enough distance away from it so your cat feels safe. Once she’s accepted those treats, put the next treats a little bit closer. Then put a treat on each side of the carrier and a couple in front.
Dahlia: Don’t rush this step, though. You may want to take a couple of days with each stage of the treat process. If there’s a point where she won’t get close enough to the carrier to take the treats, back off and put the treats where they were the day before. It’s really important to go slowly here, because you’ll need to make sure she trusts you for the next part.
Siouxsie: The next day, put a couple of treats right in front of the carrier. The next day, put them on the edge of the carrier’s door frame. Each time, move the treats a little bit farther into the carrier. During this stage of training, be sure that the carrier is the only place your cat gets treats. If you have roommates or family members, they should also agree not to give her any treats outside the carrier.
Thomas: Once your cat is going in and out of the carrier and it’s no big deal, you can put the door back on. Then when she goes in to eat a treat, close the door, count to five, and then open it again. Give her a treat and play with her as soon as she comes out. Do this a few times so she gets used to the closed door.
Dahlia: Next, put a treat in the carrier and when your cat goes in, close the door, walk a few steps, put it back down, and open the door. Follow this with play time, a treat, or dinner. Practice this step every day, each time walking a little farther. Talk soothingly to your cat and hold the carrier as still as you can.
Siouxsie: Once your cat is no longer terrified of the carrier, you can try putting her in there yourself. Pick her up and gently guide her in. Don’t shove her inside. Keep the experience positive and reward her each time.
Thomas: Once she’s reached this stage, you can get her used to traveling in her carrier by taking her in the car for short rides. Start by just going around the block and home again. Reward her as soon as you get home. Increase the distance you travel gradually.
Dahlia: By taking your cat for brief rides, you’ll be helping her to understand that the carrier doesn’t always mean a trip to the vet. You can sometimes even bring her to the vet for something other than a checkup; for example, stop by and let the staff pet and greet her. This will help her get used to the hospital smells and form good associations with the vet clinic.
Siouxsie: Also, try spraying one squirt of Feliway spray in the carrier before you go on a car trip. This product is a synthetic version of “happy cat” pheromones and can be very helpful in reducing stress.
Thomas: After you’ve gotten her trained to the carrier, get in the habit of taking it out and setting it up with the door open at least a day before you need to take your cat anywhere in it. Mama does that to us, and darned if it doesn’t get us every time! Humph!
Dahlia: And if you need to get an uncooperative cat into the carrier in a hurry, behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett offers this tip: Spray one squirt of Feliway in the carrier half an hour before loading. Stand the front-entry plastic carrier on its end so the opening is now on top. Hold your cat by the scruff of the neck with one hand and hold her hind legs with the other. Quickly and carefully lower her into the carrier, hind end first. As soon as she’s in, quickly let go of the scruff and close the door, being careful not to slam it on her paws or ears. Latch the door quickly, before she has a chance to lunge at it. Then slowly upright the carrier back into its normal position.
Siouxsie: Two more quick tips. First, to minimize the amount of poop and pee your kitty can eject into her carrier, try to feed your cat at least an hour before you need to leave. Cats generally do their business within half an hour of so of a meal.
Thomas: Consider lining the carrier with dog urine pads (they sell them at pet stores) rather than towels because they’ll absorb urine better than towels and make cleanup of urine and feces easier.
Dahlia: Good luck, Syndie. Please let us know how you fare in getting your kitty used to the box!
Great advice, kitties. We do the same thing at our house — we leave the carrier out for a few days and all three end up taking naps in it!
This is great advice. Keep the cat carrier out as part of everyday life so it’s not such a tip-off that the cat will be going to the vet just because she sees the carrier.
The best thing that I do for my cat is give her a valium tablet that is prescribed by her vet. If she doesn’t have a valium she tears me and the vet to shreds in fear and she will also wee in her cat cage either on the way to or on the way back from the vet. A valium really helps her to calm down so that she doesn’t mind the trip to the vet in a cage. Also accordingly to my vet, valium works really well for cats but they cannot take it long term as it increases their appetite and they can get fat. My cat came to me as a stray and so I think she probably had a rough time of things and feels fear easily still even though she has a loving home with me now.
This is great advice. My last trip to the vets with Lou (my cat), was horrendous. It was a 6 mile drive and she was so terrified. I will definitely try this method, beginning at least 2 weeks before her next appointment is due. Thank-you so much!
I’ve just read your comment Selina (and noticed that my last comment was posted at 3.08 am! I’m in the U.K and it’s currently 10.15 am here)! I take it that it is safe to give your cat valium as the vet prescribed it for your cat. I am on a valium prescription myself;would it be ok to give my cat, say, 2mg before a trip to the vets? I have asked them about sedating Lou and they said no way! (He wasn’t in the car with us, obviously).