Most cats associate the car with one thing: the vet.
And that is rarely a good thing.
Worse even, for some, it symbolises being crated in the dreaded pet carrier for hours on end in a place that smells all kinds of wrong, dragging you off to God knows where for God knows how long while you could be at home, snuggling safely in your favourite spot.
These are the ones who’ve been taken on holiday before (without sufficient prep) or have been transported over great distances when their family moves.
So what can you do when those big life events – be it the vet or a big move – do come knocking and you have no other choice but to subject your kitty to this Hell on Earth?
Well, we can show them that the carrier and the car can be extensions of their own safe haven at home.
By slowly introducing them as desirable spots instead of prison, you’ll manage their perception of what ‘Hell on Earth’ looks like. Now, if you’re working with a kitty who has been traumatised before, this will take longer as you walk them through this phobic reaction.
But it is certainly feasible.
- Go at their pace – always!
- Be their support, not their stressor
- Go as slowly as you can
- Watch for that tail-up and food gobbling before you move to the next step
- Keep them focused on the task at hand by blocking of ways of avoiding it
- Keep training sessions short – no more than 10 minutes and in the beginning even 1 minute can be too long!
Think of it as helping someone who is afraid of heights cross a bridge over a ravine.
The Ravine Analogy
Don’t force them on the bridge, but do stand behind them – that way they can lean back against your chest for support, know they’re not alone, while having their flight path to the car blocked off by someone who will gently remind them of the importance to his.
For every step forwards they take, you gently step with them.
You don’t push them, you don’t sigh at them, you don’t call them a pussy for taking so long. You respect their process and their pace and gently encourage them, telling them that they can take all the time they need.
You back up when you see their stress level approaches flight or fight, but only one or two steps, until their fear is manageable again, and you try again.
You point out the wonderful things that they can look forward to once they get to the other side and you do not invalidate their fear.
Your job is just to be there and let them take lead.
The Cat Application
With cats, that means you use food, toys, attention and Feliway as distractions and anxiety management.
It also means you wait for them to stop pushing themselves through the floor or against the back of something, with their ears back. In fact, when you see that, it means you need to actually take that step or two back.
You’re looking for a cat who goes from being cautious to curious in the environment – who will eat in that same place that frightened them so, because fear and food are incongruent. The moment they eat in a place, they go from fear to curiosity.
And that is what we’re looking for.
The tail-up is the cherry on top, indicating a cat who is comfortable and curious about what is going on.
The tail-up tells you they’re ready for the next step of the process. Perked ears and attention for what is going on outside while sitting near the door of the pet carrier can indicate the same things
This is where we break the exercise down to the smallest baby steps possible, to really parse this difficult thing for your cat.
And we’re going to start with the pet carrier to then move on to the car.
Remember, the idea is to turn the pet carrier first into desirable territory, to then use it as a trojan horse in the car, while we turn that into desirable territory.
The Pet Carrier Project
1. Place the pet carrier in a socially significant room – typically the living room, kitchen or bedroom
2. Put a blanket or towel inside, preferably one that has been drenched in your smell (place it a night in your bed).
3. If you have a Feliway spray, spray the pet carrier for good measure.
4. Add their favourite treats, then show them without forcing them inside the goodies inside the pet carrier.
5. Leave them be to check things out.
6. Over the next few days, replenish the snacks in the pet carrier several times a day and point it out to your kitty.
7. Watch as your cat starts sleeping or at least voluntarily go into the pet carrier. Wait for that tail-up+ eating.
8. Gently close the pet carrier for 10 seconds, then open it up again. Build up the amount of time gradually
9. Look for your cat to be comfortable while the pet carrier is locked – purring, eating, sleeping, blinking, tail-ups.
The Car Project
1. Take the cat out in the pet carrier to the car – monitor their reaction to see if they’re stressing yet.
2. If they are stressing, let them see the car from the safety of their pet carrier as you feed them treats.
3. Put the pet carrier on top of the car and feed treats. Proceed once they’re comfortable.
4. Spray the car with Feliway and add snacks and blankets with the cat’s (and your) smell everywhere.
5. Put the pet carrier inside and open it. Then close the car and wait. Slowly build up how long they’re in the car.
6. Wait for your cat to explore the entire car and eat the snacks. If your kitty is social and motivated by attention, join them inside and encourage them both vocally and with petting.
7. Once they’re comfortable in a car that’s standing still, start the motor and watch how they respond. Don’t move the car until they’re once again comfortable.
Try to keep the training sessions short as overstimulating them will be counterproductive.
8. Once they’re good, back up on the drive way and drive back to your spot.
9. If they’re good with that, put them back in their pet carrier and go for a very short drive around the block.
10. Slowly build up the length of your drives until you can tell your cat actively relaxes in their pet carrier. That means no vocalisation or escape attempts from their pet carrier.
11. As you’re going on longer trips, you may want to get them used to a big crate inside the car which can hold a litter box and a water and food bowl. Pro-tip: fill the water bowl with ice cubes so it will melt slowly over the duration of the trip.
Reminder: go at their pace at all times and back up 1 or 2 steps if you feel you’re not making progress and they seem stuck in their fear!
If you’re driving your kitty up to your new home a couple of hours away, make sure you also prep them for the new territory waiting for them there. In my own experience, it makes things just run so much smoother. They’ll feel right at home before you know it, without keeping you up at night or peeing on your new couch due to the stress of moving to a new home.
And there you have it: you’ve just expanded your cat’s safe haven to include 2 (maybe even 3!) more places!
Yes, it is a lot of work – and it will be a challenge. But before you decide it’s not worth it or you’ll never be able to pull it off, realise that this will make such a difference for your kitty – and for you. It will bring you closer together, grow your appreciation for your kitty’s fear, and make you spend quality time together.
And most importantly, it’ll keep you from resenting your cat when they start meowing non-stop on that long drive in a desperate effort to cope with the insecurity they feel, or scratch you to pieces for taking them to the vet.
If you want to learn more about how to train your kitty and how to optimise your lives together, join us by signing up for the email list and receive The First-Aid Kit For Cat Guardians