Here’s an easy, step-by-step process that will give your cat a positive new association to the carrier:
Step 1 - Turn the Carrier into a “Den”
Our first step in making the carrier a more appealing place for your cat to be is to simply not make it look like a carrier; ultimately, the carrier should be a destination. As previously discussed, base camp is a defined area of your home that is the heart of a cat’s territory. Think of turning the carrier into a "portable base camp” by taking the top off and placing one of their favorite beds inside. (Donut beds are perfect for this.) Or consider using one of your sweatshirts as bedding (your scent will always be a source of comfort to them), and also including any of their favorite scent soakers—soft items that absorb your cat’s scent.
Step 2 – Place in Social Area
Place the carrier in a social area where your cat already feels comfortable. (Near the couch, your bed, etc.) This will deepen the positive association with the carrier.
Step 3 - Provide their Jackpot Treat
Now, let’s take the cat treat that is always the winner in your house—I call it the “jackpot treat”—and give it to them while they’re in the carrier. In fact, only give them their jackpot treats when they’re in the carrier. This is the way to make this a daily ritual so they equate the carrier to their favorite treats.
Step 4 - Add the Lid Back On
Once you’ve established the carrier as your cat’s new “home within the home,” it’s time to put the top back on. Just make sure you do it when they’re not around. And do continue with your jackpot treats ritual.
Step 5 - Add the Door Back On
As one of our final steps, we need to get the door back on the carrier. But this can be problematic because the sound of the door opening or closing can be a real trigger for cats. So I would suggest taping the door open initially so it doesn’t swing back and forth. Eventually, perhaps when you’ve given them their jackpot treats, try closing the door for a few minutes, but then opening it again. This will get them used to the idea that it’s no big deal if the door closes.
A Final Step: The Pick Up/Put Down
Once you get to the point where you can actually have your cat in the carrier with the door closed, try picking up the carrier, then putting it back down, before opening the door again. This is all part of replicating the conditions your cat will experience when it's time for that vet visit. What we’re trying to get to is a place where every time the cat goes into the carrier, it isn’t the dreaded “green station wagon” syndrome. In fact, ninety-nine times when they go in, the door closes, and everything remains predictable. But only one time out of a hundred will they go in for an actual vet visit. These are odds that your cat can manage just fine.
Furthermore, in emergency situations (like earthquakes, for example), don’t be surprised if your cat chooses to go into their new safe haven of the cat carrier for added security. And by keeping the carrier in a socially significant area, this gives you immediate access to it, rather than you having to rummage through closets trying to find it. (Just make sure that, for multi-cat households, you are working with a one-carrier-per-cat ratio.)
I really want the carrier to be a safe and desirable place for your cat so you can get them to the vet without undue drama, travel safely with them, and give them a portable base camp: a safe place to go whenever they feel stressed.
As always, this is a very basic overview of a sometimes very complicated process. To get the full skinny on all things carriers—as well as everything else about your cat—check out my latest book, Total Cat Mojo.