Train your Cat to Love the Carrier Basket

Also in Cat Psychology and Behaviour : -

Occasionally every cat owner has to take their beloved companion on a trip. Usually this is to the vets, although there are plenty of other possible destinations such as a new home or a cat show. Whatever the destination, one problem is common to all trips – under usual circumstances cats simply don't like cat baskets.

The great thing is that it doesn't have to be this way. In fact, you can actually teach your cat to love the basket!

The Problem

The main part of the problem is negative association. You may have noticed that cats don't actually mind being in confined spaces, and in fact most cats seek out confined spaces to have a sleep or just hang out.

The problem with the cat basket is that it is where one is involuntarily trapped for long periods of time and taken to generally unfamiliar places, where they may be poked and prodded by strangers.

You can see how this would make the cat feel that the basket is a bad thing, right? But trips are sometimes unavoidable, so what's a responsible cat owner to do?

Simple – teach the cat that the carrier basket is a safe a friendly place where they can feel comfortable as good things happen there.

You may think this is not as simple as it sounds, and I'll agree that it may take some hard work, persistence and a bit of patience on your part, but bear with me, it really is a straightforward process.

The following steps will show you how this fantastic situation can be created with almost any cat.

Step 1 – Use The Best Type of Cat Carrier Basket

Unsurprisingly, in this context the best type of cat carrier basket is not the one that costs the most or has the snazziest colour scheme; what I mean by ‘the best' is the type that is easiest for a cat to learn to love.

The most common type of carrier baskets are the front opening plastic ones such as the Voyager 200, but these are definitely not ‘the best' in this context!

Don't get me wrong, they are fine in the general sense. They are sturdy and offer a nice amount of outward visibility whilst keeping the cat nicely hidden. Cats that are used to travelling in them actually tend to like them a lot.

The problem is that front openers are difficult to get a resistant cat into. This leads to a struggle, which makes the cat feel trapped and out of control and makes the cat think of the basket as a punishment; clearly a counterproductive situation.

I used front openers for many years, unaware of any real alternatives, but in 2005 I was asked to take my friend’s cat for a routine appointment with the vet.

She had one of those large, top opening wire frame cat carriers, of the type we now sell in our online shop. I had seen these before but had never used one myself, and it turned out to be somewhat of a revelation. These large top opening carriers have such a wide opening that most cats can barely touch any two opposing sides at once, so struggling is not really an option!

Getting my friends cat into the basket was easy and to my delight didn’t involve any stress at all. The fact that he didn’t seem to mind was almost incidental, there was little he could have done if he had minded!

Removing this wrestling match has been the single biggest help in training my cats to love the basket. Sure, I've done other things to help the cats build a positive viewpoint (as detailed below), but removing the struggle to get them into it removed a lot of the problem almost instantly.

A slightly smaller ‘large' wire carrier is available too and is perfectly good, but I recommend the extra large for the purpose of this training.

Step 2 - Desensitise

The aim of this step is to remove the negative associations they have built up, and to show them that being around the cat basket has no significance at all.

The first thing to do is to desensitise the cat to the presence basket. This starts with giving the carrier a thorough clean to remove any smells and then leaving the carrier around the house at all times with the door wide open. (Note:Never use bleach or strong smelling chemicals to clean your cat carrier!)

Allow the cat to ignore or investigate as it sees fit, just don't make a big deal out of it.

Silently observe your cat's reactions and interactions to the basket. Maybe pick it up a few times and move it somewhere else, see if they get nervous. If they seem nervous around the basket then stick with this stage for a while longer.

After a few days (possibly a few weeks if a really strong negative association has built up) you should find that the cat is at worst indifferent to the basket, but possibly has now developed some level of interest.

With persistence they will eventually know that the basket is no threat, even when it's being moved. Don't rush to the next step, make sure the cat is as desensitised as it's going to get.

Step 3 – Positive Association

The aim with this step is to show that, far from negative things happening in and around the basket, most of the time good things happen when they interact with it. To put is succinctly, this means making the cat associate the basket with something they already like, such as toys, food or sleep.

Once the previous step has been completed and any negative association has been removed, or at least lessened as much as possible, you can start to create a positive association much more effectively.

Assuming you have a top opener, you will need to place the basket on its side, so that the opened lid lays flat to the ground, like a doorstep or porch.

  • Food - Begin by putting some highly desirable food in the entrance of carrier, something like chicken or tuna usually works well. If possible try to make sure the cat is in the area and is aware that you are putting something in the basket, but again, don't make a big deal out of it. If they ignore it, be patient and just keep trying.

    To start with leave the food on the porch so they can get to it without actually having to get inside the basket. Gradually move the food further inside until it is at the back and they have to show a little courage if they want the treat.
  • Toys – Try putting some toys in there, again start leaving the right in the doorway. Purr Mice were good for our cats because they got so distracted paffing them about that that they quickly got into the game and ignored where they were.

    Ping pong balls are also good, especially in the front openers because with a good ‘Paff' from the cat they will go flying about and as with the mice the cat will quickly be more interested in the ball than in the carrier.
  • Sleep – At other times, possibly after some success with the other two temptations, line the carrier with some nice soft bedding (Vetbeds are ideal for this) and leave it in some out of the way nook that offers invisibility for the cat, whilst also offering a good view of the surrounding area.

    (We have a whole article about training your cat to love the cat bed. The methods in that article can also be applied to getting the cat to sleep in the carrier voluntarily once you have successfully removed the negative associations.)

In general, the principle is to try to make good things happen when the cat has an interaction with the carrier. I'm sure you can think of some examples that would work in your own home that are not mentioned here.

Step 4 - Further positive association

The aim of this step is to take the positive association even stronger whilst removing all the novelty of the interacting with the basket.

If you've already managed to get the cat to eat inside the carrier then make sure you always feed the cat in the carrier for a while.

If the cat hasn't eaten inside yet, start putting the carrier nearer and nearer to the food at feeding time, until they are so used to it that you can actually put the food inside the doorway, and eventually at the back of the carrier.

Step 5 – Shutting the door

The aim of this step is to show them that being shut in the carrier doesn't mean being shut in for a long time and it doesn't mean they are going anywhere either.

From this stage onward, lots of praise when they go into the basket and more praise when they come out will help to strengthen the positive association in the face of potential stress.

Once the cat is comfortable eating inside the carrier, try pushing the door closed while they are eating. Don't lock it at this stage and if the cat becomes distressed or agitated open the door immediately and reassure them.

Once you can do this without a problem you can begin to lock the door. Start with just a minute or two, and if the cat becomes distressed open the door immediately.

After a few days you should find that you can leave the door shut for several minutes without too much complaint from the cat.

Step 6 – Getting them used to the car

Once the cat is happy enough to be inside the carrier for 10 minutes or more you are ready to try taking them out for a drive. The aim with this step is to show them that going in the car doesn't mean going anywhere in particular - specifically it doesn't mean going to the vet.

The handles on many baskets are movable, so you should be able to attach the handle to the side that is now facing upwards and shouldn't have to re-orientate the basket with the cat inside.

If your basket does not have movable handles, string can be used to make a secure handle that will serve the purpose until this training is complete. Be sure to make your handle secure – the last thing you need is for the handle to break and the cat to have a bad experience after all your hard work!

Line the bottom of basket with something absorbent (such as newspaper) in case of any accidents, and on top of that put something warm and soft (such as a towel, a fleece blanket or Vetbed).

Encourage the cat into the basket, or put them inside yourself if they don't struggle. If this is difficult then you may benefit from sticking with the previous two steps for a while longer. Don't use Purr or Catnip for encouragement at this stage as it can excite them, and increased excitement increases the potential for stress.

Put the basket securely on one of the car seats. The exact seat in the car is less important than making sure that the basket is sat on a pillow to reduce vibration and seat belted in so that it doesn't go sliding off. Also, make sure that little if any direct sunlight gets into the basket; this could be very unpleasant for the cat and may undo some of your hard work.

You may also want to cover the basket with something to reduce the cat's visibility. Make sure the cover is light so the cat doesn't overheat and if the cat starts panting remove the cover immediately.

Go for a drive that lasts considerably less time than the cat's shortest comfortable time in the basket so far. Even driving 200 yards up and down the road will be fine for the first trip.

Every day for the next week and regularly after that take the cat out for a longer drive, eventually going out in the cat basket with be no stress at all. If the cat seems to get too stressed, then feel free to go back a step or two and come back to this part later.

Continue building positive associations and in no time you will find that you have actually trained your cat to love the carrier basket!

Step 7 - If the cat just will not go into the carrier voluntarily …

If you have a top opening wire frame basket, and you've followed all the steps carefully, and you've repeated previous steps when something hasn't worked well, then contacting your vet is the next step to take.

The vet should be able to rule out or solve any medical reasons for the problem and will be able to recommend a good cat psychologist for one-to-one training. I'm confident in saying that any cat can learn to love the basket; it's just a matter of patience, persistence and the right approach.

In Conclusion

I hope you have found these instructions useful and you can take the stress out of journeys for both you ant the cat.

Everything you need for this training can either be found around the house or bought from our online pet shop - including Purr mice, toys, cat beds and bedding (including Vetbeds) and top opening wire frame carriers.

This article was first published in The Purr Company's regular Mews-letter, visit us for more cat stories and articles, a gallery of our visitors cats , cat videos and our online shop.

You may reproduce this article free of charge in any free newsletter or on any free web site on the condition that this resources box is included with any reproduction.

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Sue said:

Thank you, I am going to try this plan. It sounds a really sensible way to get my cat ready for a long journey in the car.