Getting your cat used to his carrier for stress-free car rides!
Crate-training for cats is more of an art than an exact science! However, it’s an art worth committing your time to, for a less stressful cat travel experiences. In this article I’ll explain why this is the case, and how you can get your cat used to the carrier.The process of crate-training your cat will require patience. The steps may seem time-consuming and you may wish there were shortcuts. However, consider that this when done right, this is a one-time process. It may prevent a lifetime of struggling with a terrified, stressed cat every time a car trip is necessary.
Amy Shojai in this Spruce Pets article points out that many cats don’t get taken to the vet as much as they should because they “hate the crate”. That’s unfortunate because it may mean they’re missing out on life-saving shots and check-ups.
It takes more than a little patience when you train your cat to use his carrier. While dogs respond to pleasing their master, cats rarely respond to the same incentive. Use a little cat psychology, and you’ll have a much less stressed and fearful cat on your hands.
Cat psychology hacks!
- When training my cat to use his crate, I want him to think it was his idea! If a cat figures out that you’re cajoling them into doing something, you can be sure that’s the one thing they’ll avoid. Yes, you can call that stubbornness. It’s also just cats being cats. I set up the carrier as something irresistible to the cat – as if the cat made this discovery all by himself!
- Understanding why cats dislike car travel: Cats are territorial and like to feel in control. Traveling in a car wrenches the rug from under them! Travel sparks at least two of a cat’s fundamental fears: leaving its familiar home base and being enclosed.
- Wondering why your cat doesn’t simply chill out after a few times in the car? It can be frustrating for us as we expect that after repeated exposure to the situation, the cat will realize that everything’s fine. Well, without intentional training, the only places a cat will visit is a vet, kennel, groomer, or new house. These destinations are less than enjoyable, so anxiety is compounded every time.
In this article, I use ‘crate training’ as interchangeable with ‘carrier training’. I’m referring to getting a car ready for travel in the car, whatever the specific type of housing used for containment.
However, in the strictest sense, a crate and a carrier are different. A crate is typically large enough to accommodate a litterbox and food. A crate is positioned in the cat’s normal territory and is used for any of these purposes:
- Adoption of a cat or kitten that’s new to the environment.
- Training a cat to use the litter box (particularly in the case of improper litter box use).
- Protecting kittens from roaming around when you are not present.
- Containing cats temporarily when introducing a new pet, when there’s disruption in the home, or after an injury.
This article will deal with crate (or carrier) training specifically for car travel.
Traveling by RV? Check out our dedicated guide, linked below!
Select the perfect crate for your kitty
This is where it all starts. You want to take your cat’s unique temperament into account when selecting the ideal carrier. One size doesn’t fit all and it may take a few attempts until you really find the right one. I have a separate article linked below that dives into exactly how to select the best crate for your cat and situation. In a nutshell, you may choose hard plastic, expandable mesh, soft-sided or dog crate.
Introduce cat to crate
When you introduce your crate to the cat, the idea is to make it non-threatening and eventually just part of the furniture. Find a room in your house where you can set up the carrier. Somewhere quiet where your cat likes to sleep is ideal. The cat will sniff at it and will regard it with suspicion for the first few days. I would open all the doors or openings so it feels less threatening.
Place familiar items and treats inside
My goal is to make my cat feel as comfortable as possible hanging out inside and around the carrier. And, crucially, I want him to feel as if it was his idea – so don’t push or place your cat inside. I suggest filling up the crate with 1) a favorite soft toy, 2) a worn item of clothing, and 3) some treats or kibble. Your cat’s sense of smell will do the rest! Items that have the cat’s own scent will also work great with the acclimating process.
Allow more time than you might think for cat to explore on own terms
This can be the most frustrating part of crate training, and where most cat purrr-ents give up. A cat may well ignore the carrier, grabbing the treats as he departs. Just continue on with the training. Remember, don’t force the cat inside or get frustrated with him. Cats can take a while to warm up to new things and experiences. Your cat will likely go in and explore on his own terms. He may prefer to do so without you watching!
Use repetition and routine
I like to start the day by placing cat treats in the crate. I started doing this making sure my cat, Friday, did not me refill it (so that he thinks he discovered this exciting new food source). However, after a while he figured out the pattern and would beat me to the carrier, grabbing the treats immediately! That routine during this stage of the training was key. It’s the best way of forming habits. He clearly associated the carrier with the positive association of treats. Here he is getting quite relaxed in his Petisfam carrier!
Move the crate to a different area
After a week of the crate being situated in its first spot, I move it to another room. That’s because I want to make sure the positive associations are with the carrier, not the room or specific spot within it. I also refresh the items inside at this point for the same reason.
Close crate while cat is inside
After repeating the process in the second spot, close up the carrier. This is the part that’s tricky not to rush – but it pays to be patient. You can too easily undo the good work of both of you. When the cat is truly comfortable and goes inside the carrier of his own accord, zip it up or close the doors. Using treats and a calming voice to reassure him. Gradually increase the amount of time the doors are closed. You can also practice picking your cat and actually placing him in the crate, as this article on Best Friends suggests. Just don’t rush this step or the cat will see right through it!
Start to move crate around the house
Cats hate it when they don’t have control over their surroundings. My cat hates being in a room with the door closed, even though he will nap there without moving for the next several hours. Leave a few days between closing up the crate and actually moving him around. Just go from room to room and then let him out. For most cats this won’t be a particularly pleasant experience, so giving treats and using that reassuring tone of voice is essential in easing stress.
Take the cat to the car in the crate
Now he’s OK with the idea that hey, this thing moves, it’s time to take him out to the car. Now, we’re not going anywhere yet, we’re just letting the cat acclimate to the sights and smells of a new environment. You might want to let him explore the car outside his crate, sniffing all the nooks and crannies. That helps calm some cats, as they feel safe when they know their environment.
Is your cat the super anxious type of kitty? Check out our article on anxious cats, linked below!
Take short drives, increasing in duration
Short drives around the block are essential for building your cats’ tolerance to car travel. Not only that but it will give you valuable insight into how he might do for longer rides. At first, he might pant, howl or hunker down. After all, everything will seem so strange – the smell of the car, the feeling of motion, the purr of the engine, the world whizzing by. Normalizing car travel is a smart thing to do – with plenty of rewards and treats, of course. The key is the cat learning that getting in the car doesn’t always lead to unpleasant outcomes.
Pack special treats for the car ride
I love this tip from Preventative Vet that suggests throwing a treat-dispensing toy into the carrier with the cat, every time you’re about to start your journey. If you do this every time, your cat will soon be looking forward to that part of the car-ride routine (assuming they’re not a nauseous traveler of course!). A play feeder is compact and easy to bust out, plus it’ll keep your cat’s mind off being in the car.
More crate-training tips
- For kittens, this process is much easier. A young kitten will accept anything as normal when they are at the right age, providing it’s fun! They may take to the carrier right away just with a few treats inside.
- With older cats, it may be harder to change their habits. As for rescue cats, like Friday, it’s tough as we don’t know what possibly traumatic travel experiences he’s had.
- Though there are no shortcuts, you can use a calming spray or drops to help induce positive associations and remove stress.
- Clicker training is another option to get the cat to come to the carrier on command. However, clicker training is quite an undertaking and in my experience, needs regular ‘topping up’ to maintain the association.
Cats, as we know, are extremely smart animals. Too smart for their own good, you might say. One bad experience that all started in their carrier can lead them to ‘hating the crate’. But with a little patience and perseverance, you can get most cats to tolerate (even enjoy!) riding in the car.
Every cat is different so be sure to figure out what works well for your cat. and keep building on the foundation with treats, encouragement and positive affirmation. A little perseverance and commitment in the short term can result in a lifetime of stress-free and even enjoyable travels for both you and your cat.
To see my crating journey with Friday, check out our Insta story highlight here! I’d love to hear if you have had success crate-training your cat, and if there were any strategies you can recommend to others.
If you enjoyed this, we have a treasure trove of articles about traveling with your cat (and more) here!
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