Q: In April, I will be traveling with my cat round-trip by plane between Denver and New York City. My cat will travel with me in the cabin as carry-on. He’s very mellow but does not like being enclosed in the soft-sided cat carrier. If it is zipped closed, he will cry and struggle to get out. I can put my hand in during the flight to comfort him, but I’m worried it may not be enough if he really wants to stick his head (or more) out, which is prohibited on a flight. Is there a way to condition him to spending four to five hours inside a closed cat carrier?
A: Your cat’s negative feelings about the carrier can be gradually changed to a more positive association. Since your trip is scheduled in a few weeks, you need to start the counter conditioning/desensitization process as soon as possible.
The carrier needs to become a regular part of your cat’s life and routine. Place it open and in an area he likes to spend time in. Place puppy piddle pads inside the carrier for him. The carrier needs to remain open and accessible for your cat until it’s time to travel.
Treats and favored activities will help your cat view the carrier as a more pleasant place to spend time. If he enjoys playing, then throw or pull his favorite toys in and around the carrier. Food can be an effective way of changing his attitude about the carrier. Leaving the carrier open, feed him treats and regular meals inside of it. Before you go out for the day, put a T-shirt you wore the night before into the carrier to help reassure him. The carrier needs to become a place where only positive experiences occur when he’s in it and around it.
After he is used to the carrier and chooses to spend time in it, increase the criteria. While he is in the carrier, partially zip up or close the door. If he is not upset by this, close it completely and then immediately open it. Gradually and patiently increase the activities until you can pick up the carrier and put it down without your cat exhibiting anxiety. The next step is to help your cat become accustomed to being moved in the carrier. Gradually increase the distance and time you carry him in the carrier until you can put him in your car and go for short rides around the neighborhood.
You may want to consider changing the type of carrier you are transporting your cat in. Hard carriers, although more of a challenge to carry, may be a better choice than a soft carrier. Your cat may feel more secure in a hard carrier since there’s no flexibility in the sides and the top. Also, on long trips when cats have “accidents,” hard carriers are easier to clean than soft ones. Since your cat also has a history of not being comfortable in the soft carrier, using a hard carrier that he has no association with may help him adjust faster to being confined in the carrier for the duration of the trip.