Greetings cat lovers! Skye Blake here with a familiar feline problem… Many people don’t take their cat to the vet because they hate the Battle of the Carrier.
They end up scratched, bruised and battered, with a really freaked out cat hiding for days!
The information here is for general knowledge… always see your vet with questions about your cat’s individual needs.
- Who Is Skye Blake?
- What Not to Do
- A Cat's-Eye View of the Carrier
- Changing Your Cat's View of the Carrier
- Training Your Cat to Love the Carrier
- Where Do I Start?
- A Word About Treats
- Steps for Successful Carrier Training
- Getting Your Cat To the Car In Her Carrier
- Driving With a Loose Cat
- Winning the Carrier Wars
- After Training Your Cat
- List of Sources
Who Is Skye Blake?
Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a veterinarian or trainer) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you!
Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides and explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, linking you to experts on each page.
All sources are given at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping.
What Not to Do
- get the carrier out only when you have to take her somewhere
- grab the carrier out of the closet just before a vet appointment and try to cram your kitty into it
- dump your cat out of the carrier at the vet or anywhere else. Let her come out on her own or take the top off
Let’s start with seeing it from your cat’s point of view…
A Cat’s-Eye View of the Carrier
You suddenly get very tense and nervous.
Your body language and voice change as you start talking nervously in baby talk (which you only do when it’s vet time)!
You pull out the Box of Doom from the back of a closet or, even worse, the basement or garage.
Your cat puts two and two together and heads for the hills. That box smells bad and means bad things will happen.
She fights tooth and nail to stay out of that terrifying thing!
Changing Your Cat’s View of the Carrier
The good news is that you can change her view of the carrier and make it a safe, comfortable place.
Even if your cat stays home when you’re gone on trips, she needs to be comfortable in the carrier to go to the vet.
This is vital in an emergency situation… her life is worth it!
The key is doing this NOW… before you need to take her anywhere.
Don’t wait until the day before a vet visit to start training her. That’s too little too late.
Training Your Cat to Love the Carrier
Make adjusting to the carrier a pleasant, positive experience (treats, affection, a relaxed attitude).
Teach him to get in the carrier on command and respond to his name. Teach him to be unafraid of the motion, smell, and noise of a car.
Where Do I Start?
Start by being aware of your attitude and approach… cats read body language and energy just as dogs do.
If you’re calm, they’ll be calm too. If you’re nervous and tense, anticipating a fight, they’ll oblige you with one!
Your voice is your best training tool! Genuine praise (not nervous baby talk) helps your buddy trust you.
Combine it with small bits of treats as rewards and you’ll have a willing cat-in-training!
Get him used to coming when you call his name… Teach a Cat to Come When Called
Don’t push too far too fast! Tiny steps forward for a few minutes at time are the best way to do it.
Patience will get you there faster than pushing.
A Word About Treats
Treats are yummy for pets and fun for you or your kids to give them, but they’re to be used sparingly.
Don’t give them because you think it’s cute or feel guilty about leaving him alone all day… that’s all about you.
If you shower him with them constantly, you can make him fat, which leads to serious illness and a shorter life.
“The Jackpot! Effect”
From a training perspective, treats have to be what Jackson Galaxy calls “The Jackpot! Effect”.
Cats are motivated by that one food where you see your buddy’s eyes open wide and his nose flare out, sniffing with great interest.
“What is this yummy smelling thing? Jackpot!”
It could be a special cat food, kibble, or human food such as turkey slices, hot dogs, salmon, chicken, tuna, or liver.
If your cat has more than one jackpot food that you can alternate using them.
Break the food up into tiny bits (remember you’re not feeding him a meal, just using tiny bits as a reward.)
Keep in mind it’s not just taste, but also smell and texture that a cat likes.
Chicken, for example, comes in many different textures, such as chunks, smooth paste, crunchy nuggets, shredded, etc.
You might hit on the jackpot food right away, but if not, try combining tastes and textures until you find it.
Avoid grains like in crackers, bread, and some kibbles.
It quickly fills up your cat and he’ll stop being interested in learning. It can also add on pounds, which, we all know, is a problem.
Jackson Galaxy recommends using freeze-dried meat treats, but work with whatever you find gets that “Jackpot!” reaction.
Treat Size Matters
Use tiny pieces, not meal-sized chunks, and ONLY when training… never any other time! You’ll only confuse him and make it harder for him to understand the training sessions.
Remember you’re not feeding him, just motivating him with a small treat. Train him when he’s hungry and you’ll have his full attention.
This makes it important to control when he eats by feeding him only at certain times each day rather than free feeding.
Since training sessions are short, you won’t be giving him enough to fill him up.
Steps for Successful Carrier Training
Make sure you have the correct carrier for your size cat.
The best ones have both a front and top opening (plastic ones have a removable top and door).
Soft-sided ones should have enough structure to surround, but not collapse on, your cat.
Have one carrier for each cat in a multi-cat household, where possible. Find out more about carriers at “What Are the Best Cat Carriers?“
Clean the carrier completely with regular dish soap and water (don’t use bleach since the smell is too strong for cats).
This removes negative alarm pheromones that she left when last in the box. You want her smelling positive calming pheromones, not scary ones.
Spray calming pheromones (like Feliway®) in the carrier 30 minutes before using it to help give a positive association.
(Products and brands mentioned on this page are for your convenience and information only.)
Clean the carrier after every use to remove any negative alarm pheromones left behind if your cat was upset when in it.
Then before going out, put a clean, new blanket in, preferably one he’s used when calm and relaxed.
The scent will help keep him calm and content in the carrier.
Put the carrier in his living space (living room, bedroom, bathroom, wherever he’s comfortable and happy).
Take the top off of a plastic carrier or open a soft one as much as possible to make it inviting.
If your cat is a tree dweller (instead of a floor/bush dweller) and prefers to be up high, put the carrier up where he likes to be… on a favorite chair or sofa, for example.
Make sure it’s secure because if it falls with her in it, she’ll never go near it again!
Put your cat’s bed or something soft like fleece in the carrier.
Be sure it has both his scent and yours to make him comfortable.
This will make it a positive experience, essentially making the carrier into his bed.
Let him check it out on his own.
Whenever he gets near the carrier give him a treat, even if he doesn’t go in or just sniffs at it.
Only give him treats around the carrier during this process.
You can also use clicker training to teach him to get in the carrier on command.
Put favorite toys (felt mice, catnip bag, etc.) in the carrier to help him understand the carrier is a fun place to be.
Get him eating food in the carrier as soon as you can without forcing him.
This will help him associate the carrier with wonderful things.
You may have to start with his food bowl a short distance away and gradually move it closer until it’s inside the carrier.
Do this daily and be patient!
It can take a few weeks for him to sit in the carrier and be comfortable, so think of it as part of the furniture in the room.
Let it sit undisturbed and neutral, with no negative emotion from you.
Once your cat is comfortable eating and/or sleeping in the open carrier, put the top back on and keep encouraging him with treats and food.
The next step is to add the door and keep it open.
Once he’s comfortable with its presence, you can close it for short periods of time.
This could be a stumbling block because some cats associate the sound of the latch or zipper with bad things happening.
If your cat reacts badly to the latch sound, try taping it so it doesn’t latch and slowly work on getting him to accept the door being closed.
Once you can feed him with the door closed and latched, you’ll know he’s ready for the next big step.
Getting Your Cat To the Car In Her Carrier
To start getting her to the car, pick up the carrier (making sure you’re not swinging it or otherwise making her insecure) and take her outside for a moment on a nice day.
If she’s sensitive to the carrier moving, take it slowly by picking it up and moving only a few feet before putting it down.
You can then progress to the door. Keep giving her praise and treats when she stays calm.
Once you get outside, bring her back in, set the carrier back where you had it, open the door, put some treats inside and let her enjoy the good experience.
Always take care to make each step a completely positive experience or you’ll have to start over again.
Patience is the key! Take small steps forward.
Driving With a Loose Cat
Many people drive with their cats loose in the car, probably because they’ve lost the Battle of the Carrier.
Kitties are cute sleeping on the dashboard and looking curiously out the windows.
But in a heartbeat even the most loving, calm cat can become a ball of slashing, biting fury if something scares him.
If you have to slam on the brakes, your cat has no protection and can go flying into the windshield, door, dashboard… even you.
Ever drive with a freaked out clawing cat on your head?
How about controlling a car with a terrified cat under your foot pedals? Definite accident there folks!
Enjoy your drives together… just be aware of the risks.
Winning the Carrier Wars
Now that you’ve won the Battle of the Carrier, win the Car Wars by changing her view of the car from a vehicle of doom to a fun, safe ride that takes her to new and exciting places.
Since your cat’s now comfortable in the carrier, get her in it every day and carry her to the car.
Be aware of how you handle the carrier. Try not to bump or swing it around.
If you scare her, she’ll associate the carrier with something bad and you’ll have to start over.
First, set the carrier in a secure spot in the car. Feed your cat treats she loves when you shut the door and while in the car.
You’re conditioning her to accept the sounds, sights, and smells of the car as something good.
Being in the carrier will help your kitty feel secure in the car. Don’t turn on the engine or radio at first.
Just have her in the car securely for 10 minutes, give her praise and happy treats, and take her back in the house. Always end on a happy note.
Then, as you see your cat becoming comfortable hearing the car door shut, add other sounds and movements, such as the seatbelt, radio, turn signals, and whatever else you think could be an issue.
Then try being in the car for increasingly long periods of time.
Finally, when she’s content with these things, turn on the motor and watch her reaction.
It’s good to have someone else in the car to give her treats while you drive.
If she’s still comfortable, back out of your driveway onto the street and park. Or drive the length of your driveway.
Give her treats and praise when she’s calm and happy.
Keep increasing the length of time you drive with your cat in the carrier. Start with going around the block or a short distance down the road and back.
Each day increase it as long as she responds well. If she gets nervous or doesn’t like something, back off, let her calm down and then give her treats.
Always end on a positive note.
Some cats do fine on local short trips, like going to a nearby park, but not as well with distance travel (moving, RV cross country, or camping trip).
Cats can get motion sickness, so you’ll need to watch for this as you increase the amount of time you have together in the car.
At some point, you’ll be able to drive to the vet just to say “Hi” and get her used to being there with good things happening, like treats and attention from the staff.
Be sure to work on this process daily and end every ride with treats or her meal.
You’ll learn to read your cat’s behavior and pick up on clues quickly. It’ll be rewarding for both of you!
Here’s a great video about using clicker training to get your cat into a carrier…
After Training Your Cat
You’re training your cat for a reason, whether going to the vet, vacationing together, going for walks, or moving to another house.
Once your cat is trained, you’ll need to know more about taking your cat on your travels. Discover more at… “Traveling With a Cat“.
Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.
Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.
Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.
Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.
However, sometimes they refer to primary sources.
When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.
List of Sources
“77 Things to Know Before Getting a Cat”, by Susan M. Ewing, Companion House Books, Fox Chapel Publishers International, Ltd., 2018, pp. 54-56, 153-156
“Cat Speak”, by Bash Dibra with Elizabeth Randolph, New American Library, Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, NY, 2001, pp. 80-81
“CatWise”, by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016, pp. 6, 14, 202-206, 283-287, 289-90
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting & Owning a Cat, by Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D., Alpha Books, Penguin Group (USA), Inc., New York, NY, 2005, pp. 46-47, 201-208
“Decoding Your Cat”, by American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, editors: Meghan E. Herron, DVM, DACVB, Debra F. Horwitz DVM, DACVB, Carlo Siracusa DVM, PhD, DACVB, DECAWBM, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2020, pp. 47-48, 57, 107, 123, 159-60, 207-9, 254, 276
“Think Like a Cat, How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss”, by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY, 2000, 2011, pp. 47-49, 60, 137, 220, 235, 257-264, 266-67, 271, 307-8
“Total Cat Mojo”, by Jackson Galaxy with Mikel Delgado, PhD, Tarcher Perigree, Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2017, pp. 145-7, 251-3
“What Your Cat Wants”, by Francesca Riccomini, Thunder Bay Press, Octopus Publishing Group, San Diego, CA, 2012, p. 68-9, 88-92
Updated July 15, 2023