Cats, Cat Carriers, and Related Angst

There's none of this convenient business of opening the car door and having Rover hop in

Published: July 20, 2015
Photo by Dr. Teri Ann Oursler

Cats give new meaning to the experience of traveling with pets. There's none of this convenient business of opening the car door and having Rover hop in. Oh, noooooooo. No indeed. Not only that, but you have to figure out what works for each individual, so what works for the cat you had when you were a kid may not be the trick for the tiny tiger racing away from you at high speed.

In order to take a cat somewhere, you must first locate the target. As cats appear to be psychic and know what you’re up to before you even start, this generally involves looking underneath furniture and behind the washer and dryer. And once located, the challenge has only begun.

I have the advantage of an assistant when I'm trying to corral cats for transport. My husband is not a particularly willing assistant, but since nobody’s going anywhere until all the cats are in carriers, he plays along. Usually he’s the poker and I’m the chaser. We’ve used broomsticks, Swiffer dusters, fireplace implements, and golf clubs to gently urge crouching cats into the open savannah. (In my earlier, solo days, I took a cue from a client and resorted to “Mr. Hair Dryer” to get cats out from under beds.) If we’re lucky, they dart into a bathroom where they’re pretty easy to pick up once the door is closed. Such a lovely, limited landscape, the bathroom, in which the tiger cannot escape.

The key is to let the cat think he’s winning until you finally herd him into the room where you want him.

Then you put him in the carrier. This typically is like trying to shove a tiny squawking helicopter into a cave without damage to any of your appendages or the whizzing helicopter blades. For loading, one trick is to stand the carrier on end and drop the cat into it vertically, bottom first, not bottoms up. They seem less sure of what’s happening and less likely to whip out the razor blades if they: a) can’t see where they’re going, and b) feel like they’re falling backward. You do have to peel their little toes off the carrier door to get them all the way in, but that strategy often works pretty well.

For some cats, it's easier to use a cat carrier that has a top opening as well as a barn door, so to speak. The cover to the carrier "roof" can be opened so you have a larger entrance through which to drop your annoyed companion.

Another trick is a couple of hours before you have to leave, bring the carrier into the room in which the cat is napping, leave the carrier in there and then immediately shut the door behind you. After they are both in one room, you don't have to look for him in the basement and on the second floor.

Now, with everyone in the carriers, we’re in good shape to travel, right?

Not necessarily. Our most stoic guy — previous readers here know him as The Boulder — does not travel well. Despite the fact that he is utterly silent during transport, he drools, he pukes, he poops, and then he fingerpaints. It’s just gross. We only take the gang to the clinic when we absolutely must, which ends up being about once a year, so that’s when I get to experiment on what helps him.

Nausea medication helped a little, but not as much as I’d hoped. He backed it down to drooling and pooping. Then it dawned on me that perhaps he has travel anxiety. We tried adding an anti-anxiety medication for the next trip. We got within three miles of the clinic before he blew that time. Imagine riding with the windows down in the middle of winter. Uncensored cat poop is a foul stench. The next time we increased the anxiety med dose and ended up with a completely stoned cat. No puking, pooping or drooling, but we were afraid he’d kill himself falling off the furniture. Maybe next time I’ll find the perfect combination.

The Princess, a Siamese mix, is a screamer. All. The. Way. There. If I liked her less, I’d put her in the back of the truck and let her yell to the wind. Since we usually make the annual trip in frozen February, though, I just can’t do it. I don’t think she appreciates my consideration of her comfort.

Only the Terrorist rides reasonably well, but he hates it. That morose little gaze and plaintive mew are hard to take.

If you have a problem traveler like The Boulder (with or without finger painting skills), talk to your veterinarian about options. Medications are available for both motion sickness and travel anxiety; the Boulderis happy to testify that sometimes a combination is necessary. A pair of my favorite cat owners take their cat with them to visit family; their little cat does very well with a low dose of a common anti-anxiety medication. Some cats do better with different medications. Better living through chemistry! If at first you don’t succeed, definitely try again.

You are not the only one to struggle with taking Fluffy to the veterinarian or your mother-in-law's. You have plenty of company. Fortunately, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), a professional organization of veterinarians who are interested in feline medicine, surgery and behavior, have some suggestions for making the carrier a welcome retreat and not a destination to be feared.

AAFP suggests:

  1. Start early with your new kitten or cat, in getting him or her used to the carrier.

  2. Integrate the carrier into the household surroundings, by placing it in the room where the kitty spends the most time. That way, the carrier is just part of the environment, just like a favorite chair, and isn't an evil contraption that makes an appearance only once or so a year.

  3. Make the carrier a comfy place by placing towels and blankets in it. Consider offering treats in the carrier, too, to further make it an enticing place to be. Some cats even begin to use their carriers as favorite sleeping places.

  4. Use a synthetic facial marking pheremone spray, such as Feliway, in the carrier. The facial marking pheremones are only detectable to cats and cause them to feel good. Cats use their faces and lips to mark objects and people when they are feeling calm. Imagine your cat hanging out in his carrier, yowling "I Feel Good" to himself, not even caring if the neighbors hear his off-key rendition.

  5. Be patient. In time, most cats will accept the carrier with no problems, although if you're dealing with the feline equivalent of PTSD, it may take months before your feline buddy is ready.

More information is available from CatVets and in this video by the CATalyst Council.

By following these tips, the carrier and a trip in the car will be less like an alien abduction for your feline and tolerable, if not actually enjoyable, for you and your buddy.

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