How to Carrier-Train a Cat

Oh, the dreaded cat carrier. Nothing says "scatter" like pulling that odious contraption out of the closet. Cat carriers, commonly employed by humans to take their feline faves to the vet, inspire amazing feats of acrobatic avoidance. As any cat's roommate will tell you, trying to get a cat to do something they don't want to do is nearly impossible. That being said, cats can be trained to use the carrier, it just takes time and a lot of patience.

Young striped kitten laying in a carrier.
credit: DjelicS/iStock/GettyImages

Choose the right cat carrier

Having the right cat carrier is the first step in getting your cat to use it. Before you begin the training process, explore some of the carrier options. Are you planning to go short or long distances? If your cat is a registered support animal, she might be traveling with you a lot. Are you planning a plane trip? Do you just need to get to and from the vet? Do you and your cat enjoy going on walks together through the neighborhood? Your choice of carrier will depend on your answers to these questions, and there are so many types of carriers to choose from. Hardshell carriers, like those you would use for longer trips or plane rides, soft carriers and carrier bags, or even backpacks your cat can ride in and get a glimpse of the great outdoors.

Large pet carrier with black defocused cat
credit: GemaIbarra/iStock/GettyImages

Size is important

Since travel for cats tends to be a stressful situation, the cat carrier should be a safe and comfortable place. A cat carrier that is too small doesn't give your cat the room to shift his position or move around. This confinement may add to his anxiety. If you travel a lot with your cat, or are planning to go on a road trip, make sure that your cat carrier has enough space to fit a food and water dish.

On the flip side, a cat carrier that is too large can be dangerous. Goldie Locks was onto something: it is important to get a carrier that is just right. Also important: have one cat carrier per cat in the household. It is not a good idea to place more than one cat in the carrier at a time. For each of your cats; comfort and safety, make sure they have their own carrier.

Make the carrier a safe place

Since your cat may have some pretty strong negative associations toward the cat carrier, it is important to create opportunities for your kitty to explore it on her own terms. If you have a kitten who has never even seen a cat carrier before, this is particularly important. Leave the carrier out for at least a few days before you plan to use it. Give your cat time to go in and out on her own. If your cat avoids it like the plague, take the door or lid off. It can also be helpful to put something comforting inside, like a blanket, small bed or towel that smells fresh and clean. Once you see your cat is starting to get comfortable, add the lid back on. By allowing your cat to take the lead, the carrier becomes a cozy spot instead of a cold, hard mode of transportation.

Cat in pet carrier. Copy Space
credit: Larasoul/iStock/GettyImages

Bribe your cat with treats

Bribe your cat with his favorite snack. Seriously, pull out the big guns. What is your cat's all-time favorite treat? From now on, that is going to be the carrier treat. According to Jackson Galaxy, cat behaviorist, using a treat every time your cat goes in the carrier will help build some pretty strong positive associations.

Train your cat when he’s hungry

Since the main way of creating a positive carrier association is by plying your pet with his favorite treats, it is helpful to train on an empty stomach. A cat who is hungry will be more willing to learn a new behavior with the promise of a snack. A cat who just had dinner will probably prefer taking a nap than jumping through metaphorical hoops.

backpack for carrying a cat
credit: Oleg_0/iStock/GettyImages

Take your time

Having patience with your feisty feline will make a huge difference when it comes to the carrier. While it may seem dramatic, one wrong move can offset hours of training. Give your cat the time and space to take it slow with the carrier. Cats respond well to shorter training sessions done over longer periods of time.

Practice makes perfect

Instead of simply pulling the carrier from the closet and shoving him in right before you have to leave for the vet, take the carrier out a day or two in advance. Give him the treats, put the blankie in and make vet or travel day the same as any other time. Jackson Galaxy also suggests practicing again and again. Open and close the door while your cat is in his carrier so that he will get used to how that sounds and feels. When he's in the carrier, close the door and practice lifting it up and putting it down. The more you go through the motions, the more familiar they will be to your cat. Not only does this minimize your cat's stress when it comes to the carrier, but it will help later on when it is time to leave or if there's an emergency. It may be cliche, but consistency is really the key, and practice does in fact make perfect. Or is it purrfect?