How to Get Your Cat in a Carrier—Without Getting Clawed

Your cat doesn't like getting into a carrier any more than you like wrangling him into one. Luckily, there's an easier—and scratch-free—way.

Not every cat hates carriers, but lots of them do. And for those cats, fear overwhelms every other emotion for them—and every directive and plea from you. This reaction often occurs because they’re not used to being in a carrier, and then they get stuck in a cycle of negative reinforcement. Think about what happened the last time you got the cat carrier out of the closet. Your fearful feline probably hightailed it out of the room and hid under the bed until you coaxed or pulled her out. Here’s how to teach your cat to like—and maybe even love—a cat carrier.

Why do cats hate cat carriers?

Cat carriers are mainly used for going to the vet, something that doesn’t happen very often. “Less than half of all cats in the U.S. receive annual veterinary care, compared to nearly 80 percent of dogs,” says Natalie Marks, a Chicago-based veterinarian and a spokesperson for Royal Canin. When you think about that, it’s no wonder that you struggle with how to get your cat in a carrier. “Many cat parents will only pull them out just before a vet appointment or a car ride, both of which have classically been stressful or sources of anxiety for cats,” says Dr. Marks. “And this visual reminder escalates with every episode.” Don’t miss these 17 things your cat would love to tell you.

Kitten parents: Develop good habits early

So, what happened to the carrier you bought to bring your new kitten home? If it’s in the closet, take it out. Then keep it in plain sight and make sure it’s accessible all the time. The best room to put it in is the one wherever you spend the most time. “It should be visible at all times, with a fleece or soft blanket in the bottom, desirable treats and/or food, and even sprayed with calming compounds called Feliway pheromones to relax your kitten,” says Dr. Marks. Be sure to leave the carrier door open, too. Introducing the carrier in kittenhood creates a safe place for your cat to hang out and a positive association instead of a source of stress and anxiety. If you want a calmer cat, look to adopt these affectionate breeds. 

Starting from scratch

Pardon the pun, but if you’ve ever tried to get a resistant cat in a carrier, you know what we’re talking about. Hissing, scratching, and thrashing about is stressful for both of you. So how do you get your cat in a carrier if he hasn’t been in one in ages? The same method Dr. Marks suggests for kittens also works for adult cats, but it might take some time, so don’t wait to try it the day before a visit to the vet. If this doesn’t ease anxiety or stress over time, Dr. Marks suggests talking to your vet about other natural or pharmaceutical strategies to help relax your cat around this stressful trigger. Don’t miss these 15 signs your cat is secretly mad at you.

Make a few trial runs

Once your cat starts enjoying the crate, think about closing the door to simulate a real travel experience. Having the carrier door closed for a very short period while at home is OK, but trial runs are more effective. “I prefer for cat parents to do ‘trial runs,’ where they simulate the entire veterinary appointment experience, including car travel,” says Dr. Marks. “This allows us to see where and/or when their cat becomes nervous and try to address it from behavioral modification and/or with anti-anxiety supplements or medications.”

Visit the vet, for real

If your cat vomits from motion sickness or from being a ball of nerves, consider making the appointment before his normal feeding time. “Ideally, for routine appointments, we prefer patients to be fasted and/or coming hungry, which benefits us in a few ways,” says Dr. Marks. “If we are doing blood work, we have a fasted patient for accuracy. It also allows us to offer high-reward or patient-appropriate treats for Fear Free or other low-stress strategies and have a patient more willing to accept them.” And if your cat experiences motion sickness, this also lessens the chance of vomiting during travel. (Fear Free is a method that many veterinary clinics follow to eliminate an animal’s fear, anxiety, and stress.) Don’t miss these 50 secrets your veterinarian won’t tell you.

What if my cat is sick?

A cat who isn’t used to a carrier and who’s ill isn’t an ideal combination, but there’s hope. “Pheromone use is always a great option for the carrier and car,” says Dr. Marks. Or ask your vet if there’s a safe anti-anxiety medication to give your cat before the visit. In this scenario, Dr. Marks recommends using a top-loading carrier and lining the bottom with a thick towel in order to handle the sick cat safely. Check out these 13 signs that your “healthy” cat is actually sick.

Carriers for nervous cats

Hard-sided carriers are more durable, easier to clean, and dry quickly after washing, Dr. Marks says. “Most good-quality hard carriers will have a traditional entrance on the side and then a top-door loading space with ventilation,” she adds. “For nervous cats, hard carriers aren’t as easy to escape compared to soft carriers.”

Carriers for chill cats

Soft carriers are great for cats who are already well adjusted to the carrier or have a naturally calm personality,” says Dr. Marks. “These carriers are typically lightweight, easy to carry, and fairly comfortable for cats.” If you plan to travel by plane often, this airline-approved carrier has a pliable top that allows you to stow it under the seat in front of you. But a word of caution: Even if you know how to get your cat in a carrier, you might have a bigger concern in terms of choosing the right carrier. Dr. Marks says that anxious or stressed cats can sometimes escape from soft carriers.

The cat’s meow of carriers

The best carrier is the one that suits your cat’s size, temperament, and preferences. First up: making sure that you get one that’s the right size. “The general rule of thumb is to find a carrier that is 1.5 times the length of your cat,” says Dr. Marks. “Cats should be able to stand up, turn around, and feel their back against the side of the carrier.”

Next, line the carrier with a fleece blanket. Cats like certain textures and fleece is one of them. If you’ve ever noticed your cat kneading like he’s nursing from his kitten days when he’s on a fleece blanket, that’s why! And don’t forget those pheromones. “More often than not, cats prefer to have a towel impregnated with pheromones over the carrier with a smaller window as an option,” Dr. Marks explains.

Overall, comfort is key—and that doesn’t include just physical comfort. Getting your cat used to one carrier for all of your travel needs can also help to get them mentally comfortable with this whole carrier idea. Dr. Marks’ favorite cat carrier is an all-in-one option that functions as a carrier, a bed, and a car set. If you’re a cat owner, you need to know these 13 things you do that your cat actually hates.

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and Realtor.com., among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center. Follow her on Instagram @lisamariewrites4food and Twitter @cornish_conklin.