For far too long, the majority of our indoor cats have reacted with hisses and desperate hopes of becoming feline Houdinis when confronted by what they view as the Three Horrible Cs: the car, the carrier and the veterinary clinic.
But I’m living proof that we can acclimate our feline friends, from kittens to seniors, to at least tolerate car rides, whether they are short jaunts to the clinic or cross-country treks. Yes, I have survived the feline serenades inside my SUV from San Diego, California, to San Antonio, Texas — and back — with Zeki, my former certified therapy cat. I have endured the seemingly instant car sickness from my senior cat, Murphy, each time she is put in the carrier to travel to the veterinary clinic (a mere 15 minutes away) for her annual examination. And, now, I am patiently conditioning my new kitten, Casey, that car rides are cool… even for cats.
The secret to success when it comes to training cats to accept being tucked inside pet carriers and placed inside moving vehicles begins with you. And, your catitude. Remember, our cats are masters at reading our emotions. That explains why many seem to disappear moments before you fetch the carrier to make the veterinary appointment on time. They can smell our apprehension and anxiety and know that it is in their best interest to — poof! — disappear, or strategically position themselves under the king-sized bed in the middle, just out of arm’s reach.
So, let me share some cat-car harmonizing secrets:
1. Inhale and exhale. Yes, before you attempt to capture your cat and place her in a carrier — or give her medication — take a deep breath in, and exhale slowly. You need to center yourself. Your cat needs to know you are cool and confident when she needs you the most.
2. Remind yourself that you are transporting your cat out of love. Yes, indoor cats need and deserve regular veterinary care, including annual wellness examinations. Don’t apologize to your cat for the necessary car ride to the clinic. Instead, proclaim your devotion to keeping her healthy. If necessary, repeat this mantra out loud: “I’m doing this out of love.”
3. Turn the pet carrier into a kitty palace. Purposely leave it in a high-traffic room — such as your living room or dining room — and keep the door open. Add a comfy bed inside and, occasionally, while your cat is watching, toss a couple treats inside for her to go eat. If she is sleeping inside it, nonchalantly close the door, even for a few minutes, and when you open it, simply walk away in silence. You are conveying that the closed carrier is a safe haven for her.
4. Fool your feline. Cats are clever. If the only time they ride in the car is to be poked and prodded at a vet clinic, they quickly figure out the destination. About six weeks ago, I adopted a then 5-month-old kitten named Casey from the local animal shelter. Each week, I fit him with his harness and leash, place him in his wheeled carrier and take him with me when we need to pick up pet items at the pet supply store. Casey loves it when I open a small cat treat bag at the store and allow him a few nibbles while we are in the checkout line. He has done his math: He gets more treats out of car rides than he does veterinary exams.
5. Stock up on car supplies. When I need to take Murphy in my SUV, I do my best to time it when she is on an empty stomach. Remember, she is my motion-sickness cat. My cargo area contains a tote with all the cleaning supplies necessary to address any mess Murphy may make. I also spritz the car interior with a popular feline pheromone spray that seems to calm Murphy a bit. And I am careful to position her carrier (strapped in through the seat belt in the middle seat) so that she can face the front of the vehicle and be in constant eye contact with me. I also switch to a classical music station because studies have shown that felines favor this music genre over rap or punk music.
Car rides for cats are the necessary “evil” that filing federal income tax returns are for us. Too many indoor cats have shortened lives because their owners do not take them in for annual veterinary visits because of the car dilemma. Trust me, condition your cats as soon as you can that car rides can be safe, because you never know when you may need to relocate or usher your cat into a carrier and evacuate due to a house fire, flood or other disaster.