Life Skills for Pets: Crate Training and Confinement for Kittens and Cats

By Ellen Lindell, VDM, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior)

Why should I crate train my kitten or cat?

Being able to relax when confined is an important life skill for kittens and cats. For example, confinement may be necessary in any of the following situations:

  • When you are not available to supervise your young, untrained kitten who could be injured or cause property damage if left unattended.
  • When your cat needs to be separated from visiting workers or guests.
  • When other pets or children are active and might disturb your cat.
  • When your cat needs a safe place to rest, nap or sleep undisturbed.
  • When you travel with your cat.
  • When your cat goes to the veterinarian, veterinary hospital or groomer.
  • When your cat goes to a boarding facility.
  • When there is an emergency requiring evacuation or temporary sheltering.

A crate for a pet is like a crib, travel sleeper, or playpen for a small child. It is a safe area that can be associated with resting and sleeping. When crate training is done carefully, most cats derive comfort and security from their crate. The familiar cozy crate can be brought along during travel, allowing your cat to have a "home away from home."

When should I start crate training?

Crate training can start at any age. Starting early makes training easier. The majority of cats adjust to crate confinement easily. If you notice any signs of distress and are concerned about your cat’s comfort, for example if they salivate, persistently vocalize, try to escape, or do not settle, consult your veterinarian before continuing with your training plan.

"When crate training is done carefully, most cats
derive comfort and security from their crate."

How do I choose a crate for my cat?

There are many pros and cons to consider when choosing a crate.

Collapsible Wire Crates

Advantages

  • Easy to move and fold flat for storage
  • Allow you to view your cat easily

Disadvantages

  • If cats try to chew the wires, their teeth or jaws may get stuck
  • Not approved for airline travel
  • Not sturdy for car travel in case of an accident

Plastic Crates

Advantages

  • Medium weight
  • Easy to clean
  • Contain messes, keeping your floor clean
  • Provide a quiet area with less visual stimulation
  • Can be used for airline travel
  • Safer for car travel

Disadvantages

  • Not collapsible
  • More difficult to view your cat

Crash-Tested Crates

  • Sleepypod and RuffLand are examples

Advantages

  • Secure, safe, and sturdy
  • Sleepypod also acts as a comfortable cat bed when not in use as a crate

Disadvantages

  • Expensive to purchase

Crate Alternatives

  • Cats may be confined in mesh, metal or plastic play yards or exercise pens with secure ceilings
  • Exercise pens allow the cats more space for activity, toys, and a litter box
  • May be less secure, allowing your cat to escape
  • Cats may confined in a cat-proofed room with a sleeping area, scratching area, water station, and litter box
  • A cat room can provide a comfortable living space for extended time periods
  • Training for room confinement will not necessarily improve your cat’s tolerance of a carrier when travel is needed

If the crate is used for sleeping or confinement, the crate should be large enough for the cat to comfortably lay on their side, stretched out, and have room for a small litter box. For travel, the crate should be large enough for the cat to comfortably stand, stretch, and turn around, but no larger.

For travel, smaller crates are more secure and offer better protection during sudden stops. Larger crates are more comfortable for confinement in the home.

Your cat needs daily social interaction as well as physical and mental exercise to remain healthy. Crating or planned confinement is an excellent management tool for times when your cat cannot be supervised or needs a quiet rest period. Make sure your cat receives plenty of opportunities for exercise, and social interaction. Extended periods of confinement are not healthy for animals.

How do I train my cat to use its crate?

Positive reinforcement training is the best way to help pets learn to accept confinement. Before a training session, make sure your cat has had exercise and an opportunity to eliminate.

Make the crate a place for quiet enjoyment. Think of ways to encourage happy, still behavior. Ideas include:

  • Feed some of your cat’s meals inside the crate.
  • Provide edible chews, food-stuffed toys, and toys for batting around in the crate.
  • Reward quiet behavior by periodically dropping a treat through an opening in the back of the crate, or by using a remote reward system such as a Pet Tutor® or Treat and Train™.
  • When you progress to leaving your cat in the crate during alone time or separation, monitor with a camera for the first few separations to ensure they are not in distress when alone.

At first, leave the crate door open when providing happy, quiet experiences. Once your cat expects and enjoys the rewards, close the door and sit near the crate so that your cat is not alone and you can continue to offer rewards.

Finally, after a few successful sessions, try walking away for short periods of time, returning, and again relaxing in the area while your cat remains crated. Be sure your cat remains relaxed.

If your cat or kitten strongly resists being inside the crate, begin training just outside the crate. Offer the fun toys and treats on a soft fleece placed in the immediate vicinity of the crate. Gradually, over a period of a few days or weeks, move closer and closer to the crate for quiet fun time and sleep time.

It is normal for some cats to vocalize briefly, try to open the crate door, or act fidgety when confined, especially when confinement is new. Observe from a distance. If the behavior lasts a short time and does not escalate, watch and wait a short time to see if your cat will settle. If possible, avoid letting your cat out while they are meowing or scratching, as they will learn that those behaviors result in being released. However, if signs of significant distress are present, you will need to let your cat out and then create a new treatment strategy. You may share a short video of the behavior with your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist. They can help you design a well tolerated treatment modification.

Can I train my cat to get into the crate on cue?

Once your cat willingly goes into the crate, it is time to introduce a cue to ask them to enter. Set up a few training sessions each day.

  1. Pick up a few pieces of kibble or small training treats.
  2. Toss a treat inside the crate - your cat should enter eagerly.
  3. Once the cat goes inside, use a marker word such as "Yes!" or "Good!" and drop 2-3 more treats into the crate. Then toss a treat out so your cat leaves the crate.
  4. Repeat the process, continuing to deliver treats every few seconds. Then toss a treat out so your cat exits. Try to have 3 or 4 repetitions per session.
  5. Once your cat is predictably and eagerly trotting into the crate, add the verbal cue: quietly toss the treat into the crate and the moment your cat begins to run toward her crate, say “house”.
  6. After a few sessions, hold a treat and say “house” before you even toss the treat, to be sure your cat understands they must first enter the crate to get the treat.
  7. Finally, practice closing the door and delivering a few treats several seconds apart. At this point, begin to lengthen the time your cat spends in the crate, as described in the previous section.

Practice from further and further distances until your cat will happily run to their crate from anywhere in the home.

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