Cat Behavior and Training - Crate Training and Travel

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Why is my cat afraid of going into the carrier or riding in the car?

Going into a cat carrier and riding in the car are usually rare experiences for cats. Cats quickly learn that car rides routinely end in unfamiliar and potentially scary places, such as the veterinary office, grooming salon, or boarding kennel. In contrast to puppies and dogs that routinely travel by car to fun places such as parks and training classes, most cats do not have a positive learning history associated with travel. Without the chance to have pleasant experiences linked with traveling, it’s hard for cats to develop a positive outlook about the carrier and the car.

Can I teach my cat to travel happily in the car?

Cats can certainly learn to enjoy car travel. The best time to teach them is when they are very young. The best time to help kittens adapt to new experiences is during their primary period of sensitivity, up to 7 weeks of age; however, most kittens are not adopted at such a young age.

Don’t worry - it is never too late to start. The most important thing is to provide many car trips to pleasant locations (including short drives around the neighborhood and back to the safety of home). Try for at least 10 positive car trips for every one that might be to a slightly scary destination. Once your cat is traveling well, continue to take weekly drives to pleasant destinations in order to maintain that level of comfort.

For safety, cats riding in a car should always be in a safe carrier - they should never be free to roam around while the car is being driven .

What type of carrier should I use?

There are several things to consider when choosing a carrier. First, it is important that your cat can be easily removed from the carrier when needed. Typically, the more doors on a carrier, the better. It is often easiest to lift a cat out from the top of the carrier; having the option to open a carrier from the front or top is helpful.

Plastic airline carriers with removable tops can be handy for cats that worry when they go to the veterinary office. These carriers usually have tops that snap into place. Your veterinarian may be able to unclip the top of the carrier and do an entire examination while your cat remains safely in the bottom half of the carrier.

Another advantage of hard carriers is that they are easier to clean. This can be helpful if your cat tends to become car sick or needs to eliminate before reaching the destination.

On the other hand, soft mesh carriers are lighter. They also typically provide cats with a better view, which may be helpful for curious, social cats.

Another carrier option is the airline-approved carrier made by SleepyPod®. The bottom half of the carrier is a comfortable, high-quality plush bed, which the cat can use daily. The top of the carrier zips onto the bed for travel and is easy to open, close, and remove.

My cat hides when I bring out the carrier or try to place them inside. What can I do?

Cat carriers are not necessarily aesthetically pleasing. Hence, they are usually stored out of sight, taken out only when cats need to travel to the veterinary office or another unfamiliar and potentially unpleasant destination. Cats quickly learn that the carrier means going to the car and leaving the safety of home. Understandably, their response is to flee.

Through training, you can teach your cat to have a positive association with the carrier. If your cat is already fearful of a specific type of carrier, consider purchasing a new style. For example, if your cat avoids or hides from a plastic, hard-sided carrier, choose a soft mesh carrier or SleepyPod®-type convertible bed for positive training.

"Through training, you can teach your cat to have a positive
association with the carrier."

To begin, you will need to take the carrier out of the closet on a regular basis. Line it with a soft blanket and keep it in an area where your cat likes to play and sleep. Putting a dab of Feliway® pheromone onto a blanket may further attract your cat. Periodically deposit treats, toys or even a portion of their daily food ration into the carrier to encourage your cat to explore and spend time in and around the carrier.

Conditioning may be done more quickly with young kittens, but even old cats can learn new behaviors. Some cats may quickly adapt to the carrier as a sleeping, security, or hiding area. Do not attempt to force your cat into the carrier. Your cat should first learn to enjoy and feel comfortable in the carrier before you use it for transport.

I do not have time to introduce my cat to its carrier in this controlled way. What can I do to make the car trip next week more bearable?

If you must travel with your cat and do not have time to introduce your cat to its carrier, take steps to make the confinement as stress-free as possible. If you have purchased a new carrier for training but need to take a trip immediately, use the old carrier for the unavoidable trip so the cat is not taught to fear the new carrier.

Putting familiar bedding inside the carrier, together with a favorite toy, can be helpful. The idea is to make the carrier smell familiar and to help your cat feel safe. A synthetic feline facial pheromone, such as Feliway®, applied to the interior of the carrier may also increase your cat’s comfort and reduce anxiety during the trip. Be sure the spray has thoroughly dried before you put your cat into the carrier.

Could medication help my cat travel more comfortably?

Medications and supplements can often make cats more comfortable for travel and can augment carrier and car training. Medicines are not a substitute for training but may help to decrease the cat’s fear and anxiety during a trip. Motion sickness medication is also available if your cat shows signs of nausea during car trips. Your veterinarian will be able to prescribe medication that will be safe while helping your cat relax without causing heavy sedation.

Individual cats respond differently to medications and it is sometimes necessary to try more than one type of medication or supplement to determine the one that is most effective for your cat.

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