Cats Trained to Use Their Carriers Find Vet Visits Less Stressful

Training cats to go in their carrier and for a short car ride leads to less stressful visits to the vet, study shows.

Training cats to go in their carrier and for a short car ride leads to less stressful visits to the vet, according to science. Photo shows a British grey cat in their carrier

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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When it’s time for cats to go to the vet, many owners struggle. It can be almost impossible to get the cat in the carrier (or even locate them if they flee at the sight of it). And this stress is a bad start to a vet visit that will likely be stressful in itself.

But research by Dr. Lydia Pratsch and colleagues at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna shows there is something that can be done: Train the cat to use their carrier.

In a blinded, randomized controlled trial, 11 cats were trained to use the cat carrier, while 11 cats were in a control group that was not trained. All 22 cats had a mock visit to the vet. The results showed cat carrier training reduces stress.

The scientists write,
“Training proved to be effective in reducing stress during the car ride and led to a shorter veterinary examination. Owners should be encouraged and instructed to carrier train their cats to reduce stress around veterinary visits.”

The cats live at the University of Vienna and a realistic pretend veterinary clinic (complete with the smells of disinfectant and other animals) was set up for the purposes of the study. One of the researchers acted as the owner of the cat, while another was the driver and vet.

A cat sleeping in the base of their carrier. Text explains that cats feel safe there.

Each cat had 28 training sessions which (on average) lasted 8 mins each and involved the cat getting 4 treats a minute. A range of treats were used as positive reinforcement depending on the cat’s taste, including tuna, meat sticks, and various cat biscuits.

The training plan had seven stages, starting from teaching the cat to go into the bottom part of the carrier and building up to going in the carrier for a very short car ride of 50-90 seconds.

Each cat progressed from one stage of training to the next if they had achieved the goal of that stage or if they had had 6 training sessions.

Only three of the cats completed the training. Six cats reached the seventh stage but did not complete it, and two cats reached the sixth stage but did not complete it.

Vet visits are less stressful for the cat if they have been trained to go in their carrier and for a short car ride before hand, according to research. Photo shows African-American woman vet holding a cat.
Photo: Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock

Before and after the training period, all cats (both control and training group) had a mock visit to the vet. This started with the cat being put into their carrier and being fed treats during a 10-minute car ride (unless they kept not eating them, in which case treat delivery stopped). Then the cat had a vet exam that included checking the eyes and ears, listening to the heart and lungs, and taking the temperature rectally.

Rectal temperature-taking was the part of the exam cats appeared to dislike the most, and was the only reason why some cats in the study had to have their vet exam stop early.

Video of the cats in the basket, in the mock waiting room, and during the exam was analysed for signs of stress or relaxation. The scientists then calculated differences between the two visits.

The scientists looked at Cat Stress Scores (scores on a standardized scale), behaviour during the car ride, and how well the cat complied with getting in the carrier and being examined at the mock veterinary clinic. As well, they took the cat’s ear temperature, and looked for signs of stress like vomiting, urination, and how fast the cat was breathing.

The cats who took part in the training showed fewer signs of stress than the cats in the control group. Cats who had had the training did not hide or pant in the car ride.

During the first vet visit, the majority of cats in both groups did not eat during the car ride. However, at the second visit, eight cats in the training group ate compared to four in the control group.

The scientists took care to use a style of cat carrier that is especially suitable because, as well as the opening at the front, it has a hole in the top which cats can go through. As well, the top and the base of the carrier can be separated, which means the top can simply be removed for the exam.

Training cats to use their carrier makes them less stressed during vet exams, science shows. Look for a carrier with a hole in the top, like this one, and which lets you remove the top (the base can be a safe place)
Cat carrier with an opening in the top. Photo: Monkey Business Images

During the vet exam, most cats went to the bottom of the carrier, suggesting that this was a ‘safe’ place for them. The scientists say,
“Our findings should encourage veterinary personnel to work “slowly” with cats and to provide them with a safe place to retreat.”

Cats in the training group had to move on to the next stage of training at a set point, even if they had not completed that stage. This means they might have been fearful during later stages of training. This is recognized at stage 7, where the cat was either rewarded for good behaviour or counter-conditioned with food. (See more on desensitization and counter-conditioning).

It seems likely that a more individualized training plan that allowed the cat to complete a stage before moving on to the next would be even more effective. This would be nice to see in future research.

It would also be nice to see research on how best to teach owners to train their cats to like the carrier, as no doubt many owners have tried and not succeeded.

If you would like to train your cat to use their carrier, there is a training plan at the end of my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Modern Cat magazine calls it "a must-have guide to improving your cat's life." 

As well, I have a blog post with links to resources for less stressful vet visits for cats and dogs

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and one cat. 

You might also like: Enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss) and the best way to train cats is with food.

Pratsch, L., Mohr, N., Palme, R., Rost, J., Troxler, J., & Arhant, C. (2018). Carrier training cats reduces stress on transport to a veterinary practice. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 206, 64-74.

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