Cats in Carriers: What's Going Through Your Cat's Head?

Ken Lambrecht, DVM
By Ken Lambrecht, DVM on Aug. 15, 2017

Traveling with your cat at some point is inevitable. Whether it is a trip to the vet, a move, or even a vacation, all of these will require safely transporting your cat in some sort of cat carrier. It is best to start that process when your cat is young and work with his natural instincts and tendencies to make the experience as easy as possible. As a practicing veterinarian for over 30 years and one who travels the world with his cat, here are a few tips I’ve learned that I want to share with you and your cat.

So, what goes through your cat’s head when he sees the carrier? If you haven't done your homework and slowly acclimated your cat to the carrier, it is likely that he will have a fearful response and run away from the carrier or hiss at it. This is also true if your cat has ever been placed inside a carrier against his will. There are some simple things you can do to help prevent your cat from having a negative association with his carrier.

How to Get Your Cat Used to the Carrier

First, provide your cat with a very gradual introduction to both the carrier and the experience of being transported within the carrier. Incorporate his natural instinct to feel safe and secure by adding soft, familiar bedding in his carrier. Cats regard a small cozy space as safe, almost like a cocoon or sleeping bag. We see it all the time when they play and hide in bags or boxes. Any carrier you use should provide that same feeling of security.

Another important tip is to make your cat’s carrier part of your home’s normal “furniture” so it smells familiar to your cat. This helps make the carrier not as scary and eliminate its association with negative experiences. If it isn’t possible to move the carrier into your cat’s normal living areas, place the carrier out in your home at least 24 hours before you plan on transporting your cat. A cat’s sense of smell far exceeds humans. To your cat, there is a world of difference between the smells in the living room and the smells in your garage or basement.

Finally, one of my favorite tips is to serve your cat his favorite cat treats, food, or catnip in the carrier. He will likely love it immediately. Simply placing your cat’s favorite toys in the carrier and leaving the door off can all make it much more cat-friendly in your cat’s mind. Once he is comfortable inside the carrier, you can try moving its location by a few inches. If your cat tolerates the move, then try moving it a few feet, or even placing the carrier up on a chair to work with your cat’s desire to have a “vertical advantage.” Once your cat is totally comfortable with the carrier, you could even take him outside in it. This simulates what will happen when you take your cat on his annual or semiannual trip to the veterinary clinic to keep him healthy.

So, in summary:

  1.  Start carrier training when your cat is young.
  2.  Integrate the carrier into your home as much as possible, ideally creating a normal resting spot.
  3.  Place treats, toys, and catnip in the carrier.
  4.  Place familiar bedding or a towel in the carrier.  
  5.  Be patient. If your cat senses that the carrier is unusual, he or she will act accordingly!   

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Cat Friendly Practice Program has a great infographic that explains how to turn your cat carrier into a “home away from home.”

Finding the Right Cat Carrier

When it comes to choosing the best type of carrier for your cat, consider this advice from feline veterinarians:

  • Look for a carrier that is sturdy and made of impact-resistant plastic or fiberglass. 
  • It is helpful to have a carrier that has a top and a front opening.
  • Carriers where the top half may be removed allow your veterinarian to examine your cat while he or she sits in the bottom half of the carrier.
  • Look for a carrier that comes apart easily without loud noises that may startle your cat.
  • It should be small enough to be cozy for your cat and easily carried by you.
  • Many cats also prefer a carrier that has sides that offer a visual shield so they can hide and have some privacy.
  • Look for a carrier that can be positioned safely on a floorboard or level seat where you can secure it with a seatbelt.
  • It is helpful to look for a carrier that is easy to clean.

For airline travel, a soft-sided carrier is needed to accommodate the “under-the-seat rule” for cabin transport. Again, since cats love bags, a soft-sided bag carrier with a shoulder sling and front, back, and top entrances is ideal. A thin blanket should be on hand to cover your cat’s head. And, of course, make sure to bring along your cat’s favorite treats. A harness and short lead is also ideal, as you will need to carry your cat through security.

Bug, my adventure cat, has traveled to Spain, Portugal, Canada, and Mexico, and loves her travel bag as a direct result of starting with her early, feeding her in the bag, and almost always respecting her wishes. (Sometimes she doesn’t want to leave paradise!)             

I hope this helps make your cat a better traveler to allow for those very important veterinary visits, a successful cross-town or cross-country move, or even to become a globetrotting or adventure cat like Bug!

Dr. Ken Lambrecht is medical director of West Towne Veterinary Center, an AAHA-accredited, gold-level designated Cat Friendly Practice in Madison, Wisconsin. Dr. Ken currently serves on the Cat Friendly Practice Committee. He is pet parent to four cats, including Bug, his world traveling adventure cat.

Read more: Why Cats Don’t Get the Care They Need (and Deserve)

Ken Lambrecht, DVM


Ken Lambrecht, DVM


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