Many cats have only bad associations with that horrible plastic and metal torture device humans call a cat carrier. “You capture me, put me in a noisy moving terrifying car, then we end up at the vet! And you want me to go back in there?”
Trying to get an unwilling cat into a cat carrier sometimes feels like you need to be a reverse Houdini, or perhaps wear full body armor. While owned cats, if they’re lucky, may only have to get into a carrier once a year for their annual vet checkup, fostered cats very often have to endure the carrier and car trip torture once a week! Of course, it’s worth it for them to find a home.
Amazingly even once-a-year cats can have a surprisingly good memory when the cat carrier comes out of storage – hey, where did the cat go? Telling him it’s for his own good won’t likely convince him (see illustrative photo above, of our foster cat George). So what can you do to get a carrier-phobic cat safely and as happily as possible into a cat carrier?
After getting thousands of kittens and cats into carriers over many decades, we use one of TWO techniques...
A) Fast Purrito Technique
The fast cat burrito technique is if you don't have at least a few days or longer to work on slowly reconditioning your cat to go in the crate easily. That's our 2nd technique, scroll down for that one. Though that is usually very effective, it takes days -- and sometimes you don't have that much time. The purrito can help you get a cat into a carrier quickly, reducing the anxiety and potential injury for both humans and felines.
Our “burrito-cat-into-carrier” technique is meant for friendly, uninjured cats.
Use the bathroom because if a cat escapes after your 1st attempt, being closed in a bathroom increases your chances of a 2nd chance.
Ideally 24+ hours before you need to get the cat into the carrier, casually put the carrier in your bathroom. Do this while your cat is distracted by something, say eating, or someone playing with him, or when he’s sleeping.
Just before go-time, prop the carrier against the closed toilet so the door is open & facing the ceiling. For hard plastic carriers that only have one door, stand the carrier on its end, tilted slightly (imagine the leaning tower of Pisa) so the door will not easily slam shut, even if you knock it when lowering your purrito into the carrier. This lets you take advantage of gravity and with plastic carriers, their slippery plastic sides. You can also place a bunched-up bath mat or towel on the floor under the carrier, to make a less slippery base.
Locate a lightweight bath towel that is big enough to wrap around your cat and contain all his legs/paws/claws, but thin enough so that wrapped around your cat the cat-in-towel purrito will fit through the carrier door. Put that towel in the bathroom too.
Get the cat into the bathroom with you and the carrier. Depending on your cat, you may be able to pick him up and carry him in or lure him with food or a toy. Quickly close the door.
Gently but confidently (as possible!), wrap the cat in the towel like a burrito, with only its head sticking out. You may not get this right the first time! You need to wrap and hold the towel securely enough so the cat doesn’t escape, but obviously not so tight that you are hurting them or inhibiting their breathing.
Putting the tail end in first (so the cat doesn’t see he’s being put into the carrier), lower the burrito cat into the carrier, and swiftly shut the door. Do NOT worry about unwrapping the towel, they will unwrap themselves.
B) Crate is My Happy Place
This is great if you adopt or are fostering or rehoming a cat and have at least a few days or even longer to get your cat happily going into the crate on its own. YES, IT IS POSSIBLE! With enough time we have yet to find a cat that will not eventually go into the crate, not yet anyway. :)
Ideally, use a big dog crate, the metal wire kind, with a blanket over it. Cats don't usually associate those with going to the vet like they do regular plastic carriers. But plastic carriers will work if that's all you have. I like using one big enough for a small litter box and room for a bed, but I can still pick it up with a cat in it to put it in the car. For a longer trip, having a litter box in the carrier may save you a big mess too.
Your goal is to get the cat to eat in the crate. Being fed in the carrier helps the cat feel like it's a good safe place. Usually, they won't go in right away to eat. I put the crate where their food bowls were. I split their meals up into 3 meals so they get to practice 3 times a day, and also will toss treats into the back of the crate randomly in addition to the feeding too:
Day one: food bowl right in front of the crate.
Day two: bowl is just inside the crate.
Day three: in the back of the crate.
Depending on how much time I have before the pet has to go to its new home, once the cat is eating in the back of the crate, I will make a tiny noise with the crate door, moving it. They usually bolt out, but eventually get used to eating in the crate with me making noise moving the crate door around, and even closing and opening it right away.
Then on adoption (or vet visit) day, I feed them in the crate, close the door while they are eating, and off we go!
Then when we get home, we go back to feeding in the crate. Often it's back to Day one, but it is important to erase the trip as much as possible with at least a few more days of crate feeding before you put the crate away, at least until a week before the next cat trip!