Making Veterinary Visits Less Stressful For Cats. Part 1 The Carrier

Bringing cats in for veterinary care is stressful for the cats as well as the humans. Some cats freak out when they see the carrier. Others get sick in the car. Still others do well until they see the vet. I am starting a series on how to make veterinary visits less stressful for cats and their human family members. In part 1, we will discuss carriers and acclimating your cat to them. Part 2 will deal with the visit itself.  Part 3 will discuss what to do when the cat gets home.
Part 1: The Carrier
    Selecting the proper carrier: The proper sized cat carrier should allow the cat to stand and turn around. In my experience, cats feel more secure with a solid top and back.  Although the soft carriers are easier to carry, I prefer the hard plastic carriers over canvas because they provide more protection for the cat. The big drawback is the slippery bottom.  I recommend placing a bed or large, folded towel inside to prevent sliding. 
    Inspect the carrier prior to use to make sure it is safe. Check soft carriers for holes along the seams. I see them develop where the handle attaches to the carrier as well as the ends. Also check the zippers for rips, to make sure they glide easily and stay closed. One of my patients nosed the zipper open and took a tour of the parking lot. For hard plastic carriers, check all the nuts and screws along the sides of the carrier. Tighten loose ones and replace missing ones. I have seen tragedies when an animal sticks its head through the side of a carrier missing some fasteners and then chokes. Also check the door lock to make sure it closes tightly. Overtime, the spring softens and needs to be replaced. Some cats learn how to stick their paws through the mesh and pull the latch open.
    Acclimating to the carrier: The biggest mistake people make with carriers is with acclimation. If the cat only sees the carrier when it is going somewhere bad, like coming to see me or going to a boarding kennel, it won’t take long for them to hate the carrier. The experienced cat sees the carrier and goes into hiding. If the family can eventually find it, getting the cat inside the carrier then becomes a major battle. Here are my recommendations for acclimating cats to carriers:
    Step 1: Place the carrier in the cat’s environment. At first, experienced cats will go into hiding. But over time, they will realize the carrier is not a threat and ignore it. Remember, cats like high places. Put the carrier on a chair, bed or table to entice them to explore. Make sure the carrier is level and secure. When the cat is no longer afraid of the carrier, it is time to move to step 2.
    Step 2: Secure the door in an open position. Place a towel or bed that the cat regularly uses inside. The scent will reassure the cat. Allow the cat to see the open door for a day or two before proceeding to step 3.

    Step 3: Use food to entice the cat into the carrier.  When the cat is hungry, give them one of their favorite treats in the vicinity of the carrier. Get closer and closer as the cat becomes more comfortable.  When the cat’s confidence is high, place the treat just inside the door. Move the treat further and further inside, until the treat is as the back of the carrier. Before the cat can exit, reach inside and give it another treat or pet it before allowing it to leave. Keep doing this until the cat waits inside the carrier. Now you are ready for step 4.
    Step 4: Leave the cat inside the carrier for brief periods of time. Now that the cat will voluntarily go inside, it is time to close the door. I recommend feeding the cat inside the carrier and closing the door while they are eating because most cats go into a grooming mode after a meal. They lie down, groom and go to sleep. Start with short periods of time and gradually extend until they are comfortable for an hour. If the cat appears anxious, open the door immediately. Signs of anxiety include meowing, flicking the tail, dilated pupils and pawing at the door. 
    Step 5: Pick the carrier up. Start by sliding the carrier along the ground a few inches. Give the cat a treat for being calm. Gradually work up to picking the carrier up and walking around the house. 
    Maintaining the cat’s acceptance of the carrier: Once the cat is acclimated to the carrier, the process needs to be repeated occasionally. Once a month bring the carrier out for a practice session. In addition to food, you may place cat nip or a toy inside.     

Published by kristennelsondvm

Dr. Kristen Nelson grew up on a farm in Watertown, Minn., where she developed a deep love for animals of all kinds. She received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. Kris then completed a small-animal internship at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. In addition to writing and speaking, she cares for small and exotic animals in Scottsdale, Az. Dr. Nelson is widely quoted in the media. Her credits include Ladies’ Home Journal, USA TODAY, the Los Angeles Times and numerous radio and television interviews. Dr. Nelson has written two books, Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life and Coated With Fur: A Blind Cat’s Love. Kris and her husband Steve share their home with rescued cats, birds and a dog.