Carriers, Comfort, and Calm: Making Travel Easier for Your Cat

Traveling with cats can be a challenge, especially if your feline friend is not used to being on the go. Cats are creatures of habit and disrupting their daily routine can cause stress and anxiety. However, it’s important to note that this behavior is not normal or healthy. As pet owners, it’s our responsibility to prepare our cats for any situation they may encounter.

One of the most significant steps we can take to reduce stress and make travel more comfortable for our cats is to acclimate them to their carrier. Many cats associate their carrier with a trip to the vet or a move to a new home, which can cause them to fear or dislike it. By helping them feel more comfortable and relaxed in their carrier, we can make the travel experience less daunting for our feline companions.

Why your cat should be comfortable in the carrier

The carrier should serve as your cat’s “safe space,” figuratively and literally. In a figurative sense, the carrier should serve as a space where your cat can feel secure and safe from harm – a place to feel comfortable and relaxed. From a literal standpoint, that carrier serves as a form of protection during transportation:

  • To and from vet visits 
  • During home moving and/or vacations
  • If there’s an emergency that requires you to relocate on short notice

These instances are often unplanned, so it is best to be proactive in preparing your cat to be comfortable in a carrier ahead of time. 

Why are cats afraid of the carrier?

Cat carriers are rarely in sight. They’re kept in storage, usually in the garage or basement. Therefore, they don’t smell or look familiar to your cat. On top of that, carriers generally only come out when scary things happen (like leaving the house for a vet visit). Cats have a powerful sense of association. They will quickly make a connection between seeing the carrier and leaving their comfortable home territory to go somewhere with unfamiliar sounds and smells. Are we surprised that the carrier evokes fear in our cats?

How do we fix it?

It’s actually quite simple to minimize the stress associated with the carrier.

First, choose the right carrier. Occasionally I’ve seen cats prefer soft carriers over hard plastic, but it doesn’t matter a ton. I find that the size of the carrier is far more important, though. Cats generally feel more comfortable in a tight space than one that they can get jostled about in. Therefore, I recommend a carrier that is barely large enough for your cat to turn herself around in. 

The next step is to help your cat want to be in the carrier. This involves a bit of time and patience, but it’s incredibly easy to do with a few simple steps:

  1. Make the carrier visible and accessible to your cat as much as possible. This means having it out in your home, preferably someplace where your cat spends a lot of time. If they enjoy looking out the window, set it nearby so they may want to watch from inside the carrier. If they enjoy sleeping under a bed, try putting the carrier where they like to sleep. 
  2. Remove the scary parts. I’m a bigger fan of hard plastic crates because they give you the option to remove certain parts for slower acclimation. I recommend starting by removing the door and top hood so that just the base piece remains. It should essentially be like an open litter box. (If your carrier is soft, open all doors and openings.) Once kitty is comfortable with this open form, you can then add the top hood and repeat the process from the start. 
  3. Make the carrier comfortable and inviting. Put down a soft fleece blanket or towel inside so that it resembles a bed. Sprinkle some catnip in it or even a few treats. You can also encourage them by feeding them a couple meals near or inside the carrier. 
  4. Walk away. Sometimes this is the hardest part, but trying to physically push a cat toward the carrier or coax them in can sometimes have adverse effects. It’s best to ignore them and let them navigate it when they feel comfortable. 

The key here is to be patient and use positive reinforcement. Cats can take a long time to become comfortable with new things – sometimes several weeks – and rushing that process can potentially subtract any trust the carrier has ‘earned’ with them. 

Allow your cat to investigate, sniff, and venture into the carrier on their own and reward them accordingly. Offer verbal praise, pets, and treats when they go in independently. (Exceptions to this would be if they are asleep, in which case let them sleep uninterrupted!) This helps to build your cat’s positive association with the carrier. 

Reducing external stressors

While being comfortable with the carrier can reduce your cat’s stress, traveling to a new location with unfamiliar people, sounds, and smells can still be very scary. There are extra steps we can take to minimize this stress as well.

  1. Loosely cover the crate with a light blanket or towel when traveling, leaving an opening at one end of the carrier. This helps your cat feel safer and gives her the security of being out of sight – similar to how she would hide in fearful situations. 
  2. Natural calming aids can help your cat to stay calm in scary situations. These are not sedatives but supplements with natural calming herbs like chamomile, melatonin, tryptophan, or some with CBD. These supplements are available in liquid tinctures or chewable treats. If your cat remains calm during times of travel, then the carrier won’t be associated with scary things,lessening their overall fear of the carrier.

Lastly, practice, practice, practice! The less frequently you use your cat’s carrier, the scarier it may be forthem. Therefore, you can “practice” using the carrier to acclimate your cat to the sights, sounds, and smells of areas outside your home. 

  1. You can start this process by putting your cat in the carrier (always rewarded with a treat) and going outdoors for short periods. Start with your front porch or yard. Stay there with your cat for a couple minutes, then go back inside and let kitty out and give her a treat. Repeat this process once a day for a few days. 
  2. Repeat the process, but sit in your car instead. Start with the car off, then let it run in park. When your cat seems comfortable, take her for a drive around the neighborhood. 

These steps aim to help desensitize your cat to the new stimuli while also helping them learn that the crate can mean positive things (like treats!). 

Helping your cat become comfortable with their carrier can significantly improve her well-being and reduce her stress during travel. By choosing the right carrier size and making it visible and accessible to your cat, you can gradually acclimate her to the carrier and help build positive associations with it. With patience, positive reinforcement, and proactive preparation, you can make the carrier a safe space for your cat and ensure that traveling with them is as stress-free as possible.

*This article is for informational purposes only. It is not meant to provide medical advice or replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.