At the dog park a few days ago, a pet owner was telling me about how much her cat hates to go to the vet’s office (she didn’t know what I do for a living). As is typical, the problems start as soon as the cat catches site of the carrier. Zip — the cat runs as fast as she can to the most impenetrable recess of the house, and the battle to get her out begins. No wonder the cat is such a terror at the clinic; she’s seriously stressed out before she even gets there.
I talked to the owner about the option of using a mobile veterinarian, but she really likes her current vet, who doesn’t make house calls. Next, I offered some advice on how to get her cat to view the carrier as a positive rather than negative part of her life. Carrier-related stress is a common problem for cats and their owners, so I thought I’d share with you what I told her.
First, let’s look at the scenario from the cat’s point of view. Does anything good ever follow being shoved into a carrier? Unlike dogs that leave the house with their owners for pleasurable outings like walks, cats are almost invariably being taken somewhere a whole lot less fun than home. One such experience is enough to color a cat’s view of the carrier, unless you make a concerted effort to change her mind.
If you can, leave the carrier out at all times in a readily accessible part of your home (this might be an argument for purchasing an attractive rather than purely utilitarian one). The carrier will then smell like home, rather than the attic, crawl space, or garage, where it is probably currently stored. Your cat will also have the opportunity to rub and leave her scent on it, which will make it more appealing to her in the future. Sprays that contain synthetic feline facial hormones can also be helpful in this regard.
Try to associate the carrier with good things. For example, feed her either a portion of her regular diet or especially yummy treats in it. Even go so far as closing the carrier’s door when she’s inside and then reopening it a few minutes later. In this way, you can use the very same chain of events to secure your cat in her carrier when a trip is imminent. However, it is a good idea to vary any cues that your cat might pick up on during your "training sessions." Cats are smart enough to think, "Hmmm, I always get my tuna in the evening … why is it being delivered this morning, and why does that person have her coat on … ? I’m outta here!"
Once you return home from any excursion you take with your cat, put the carrier back in its normal location and continue with your routine as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. It may take some time for your cat to willingly return to the "scene of the crime," but if the good times consistently outnumber the bad, she should soon come to view the carrier as a (relatively) benign presence in her life.
Dr. Jennifer Coates