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How would you feel if a member of your family scooped you up during a lazy afternoon and suddenly crammed you into a small box that you rarely go in and drove you around in a strange car? It is no wonder we often find ourselves scratched and bleeding as our cats mournfully meow from the inside of a vomit and diarrhea filled cat carrier. Whether it is a family trip or a visit to the vet, what we need to do is reduce stress and make this experience better for our feline friends.
First, it is important to always use a carrier. Cats that are allowed to roam free in the car can cause automobile accidents and are at increased risk of severe injury in the event of an accident. It is often difficult to hold on to a cat when it tries to get away. Even for the most easy going cat it is hard to predict how they will react to loud noises or other animals.
Hard plastic carriers with removable tops are best. We have all wrestled with cats trying to squeeze them into the tiny door at the front of the carrier. It is always easier to place a cat in the bottom of the carrier then put the top on. By reducing your and your cat’s stress, you will start your trip off on the foot. When you reach your destination cats often try to stay in the carrier. Removing the top allows easier access and prevents added stress from pulling the cat out or dumping the carrier. Some portions of a veterinarians exam can actually be performed while the cat remains in the bottom of the carrier.
The most important way to help is to allow your cat to establish a relationship with the carrier over time. We want to eliminate the association between stressful events, like long car rides and visits to your local veterinarian, and the dreaded carrier. We need to make the carrier a safe and enjoyable place to be. If the carrier becomes a happy place for them, then they will actually feel safer in scary places. The best strategy is to leave the carrier out so that the cat can access it at anytime. Be sure to create an inviting space by adding a blanket, toys and intermittent treats. Be sure to be positive around the carrier with play to encourage investigation. If your cat is cautious at first, it may help to remove the top and door. Place it in a spot they usually rest in a quiet area of the house. You can even try elevated locations like a bench. The carrier can often become a refuge for your cat.
The next step in reducing stress is to make sure all trips in the carrier and car are not linked to stressful events. Make happy visits to the vet. Go for trial rides down the driveway and around the block. Over time gradually increase the amount of time in the car. While in the car try to close the windows, turn the radio down and turn the air vents on. The car shouldn’t be too hot or too cold. At the same time be sure not to forget positive reinforcement. Some cats like food rewards while others enjoy play. These steps will allow your cat to get used to the sights, sounds and smells of travel in the carrier.
When you return home make sure your cat has access to refuge. Cats may even need to be slowly reintroduced to housemates to avoid conflict as they are recognized by smell and may be treated differently.
With these techniques a carrier is usually accepted as a safe haven and is associated with comfort rather than terror. It allows you to take their happy place with them wherever they go, reducing stress of veterinary visits, travel and boarding. It even eliminates their need to compete for territory helping curb fighting and urine marking.