By Meredith Kennedy, DVM, Long Beach Animal Hospital (LBAH)
Photo courtesy of Dr. Meredith Kennedy.
Cleo the kitty looks a little nervous in the veterinary exam room, so when I’m finished with my exam, I ask her if she wants to go back inside her carrier.
“Oh no, Doc, she hates the carrier—,” her owner insists and then stops in amazement as Cleo rushes right into it and I close the door.
“It took me half an hour to get her in that carrier this morning!” her owner exclaims.
That was then, this is now. At home, since Cleo rarely sees the carrier and it usually comes with a scary car ride, she’s not inclined to get inside it because she doesn’t feel safe. Now, in a strange environment, the carrier looks like the only thing that’s safe, and she can feel as if she’s hiding when she’s inside.
The beauty of the cat carrier is that we can use it to help our cat feel safe in it all the time, so that’s what we’re doing with our foster kitties. The carriers are out all the time, so they’re never seen as something strange or frightening. With the door open and soft blankies inside, the kittens sometimes will sleep inside it and often just go in and out as they play. The cat carrier is part of their home environment—a surrogate den, a place to play and nothing to be afraid of.
If the carrier is moved to a new location and something new is put inside (a cardboard toilet-paper tube, a wadded-up piece of paper), it now becomes irresistible—they have to go inside and investigate. If they’re closed up inside the carrier, they don’t make a big fuss although they’d rather be out running around, and feeding them their canned food inside it makes it even more attractive. Shutting them in the carrier and going for a car ride for a short errand—if someone else can go along too—helps the kittens become accustomed to the noise and movement of the car.
With this kind of conditioning, they should be easier to handle as adult cats and get over the stress of travel and veterinary visits much better. The whole idea is to lower their stress level and avoid a “red alert” situation—stressing out completely and going into “survival’ mode.” A cat in this state can become so aggressive or terrified that no amount of sweet-talking or petting will get through to the little psyche, and the cat may need to be sedated just for handling. You can get your cat off to a good start by helping him or her to see the carrier as a familiar, safe place, before there’s ever a need for transport. This helps tremendously in avoiding the state of hyperstress.
When the cat carrier becomes a familiar part of the environment, you can play a game called “The Carrier Is Now in a Different Spot,” and chances are high that your cat will walk right in!