If you’ve ever taken a cat to the vet, you’ve probably had an experience that goes something like this: You get the cat carrier out of the closet and suddenly your cat is nowhere to be seen. After locating the missing feline and hauling him out from under the bed, you attempt to lift him into the carrier, while he furiously resists your best efforts to get him safely inside.
The best way to avoid distressing your kitty as in the scenario above is through a process known as crate training for cats. The term “crate” refers to any type of carrier or kennel that can confine an animal for transport (or for any other reason). Crates may be made of plastic, fiberglass, or wire. Some of them break down into components: top, bottom, door-for easier cleaning. The basic idea of crate training a kitten or cat is for the animal to view the crate as a safe haven that’s associated with comfort. When the crate becomes your cat’s own personal space, he’ll feel more secure while traveling because his personal space is going with him.
Most cat experts advocate free access crate training – that is, the crate is always out and available to the cat, with the door open, and he can enter and exit on his own. Lining your crate with comfortable bedding can make it more enticing, and it should be large enough that the cat can move around inside it. (Some cat owners prefer it to be large enough to hold a small litter pan, as well as dishes for food and water.)
Crating your cat in a carrier that he feels secure in has advantages when traveling, making trips to the vet, or moving to a new home.
If you can begin crate training when your cat is still a kitten and hasn’t yet made unpleasant associations regarding the crate, the job will be easier. Kittens have a natural curiosity that will usually drive them to explore the crate on their own, especially if there is food, bedding, and a few toys inside. Kittens especially are likely to curl up in the crate just to take a nap. If you have children, teach them never to disturb the cat or kitten when it’s in the crate. This will reinforce the cat’s feeling of safety and comfort when he’s inside.
If your adult cat has already learned to hide when the carrier comes out, it may be helpful to start out fresh with a new carrier. If you buy a crate that breaks down into three parts, you can begin with just the bottom section, and line it with a fleecy blanket so it seems more like a bed. Toys and treats may also make the spot more appealing. Once the cat has accepted the bottom of the crate, you can attach the top, and eventually the door.
If your cat still views the new crate suspiciously, try leaving delicious treats right next to it. Once he gets more comfortable, you can begin leaving them inside so he has to enter the crate to get them.
Some cat owners have successfully combined clicker training with crate training. The first step is to get your cat or kitten used to the sound of a small plastic clicker. When you have your cat’s attention, give the clicker a click, and follow it immediately with a treat. Some cats will associate the click with the treat almost immediately, while others may be slower to catch on.
But once your cat readily makes the association between click and treat, he’s ready for clicker crate training.
Start by rewarding your kitty for small movements toward your goal, and then shape the behavior by raising the goal. For example, at first you’ll reward your cat for going near the crate at all, then for entering it. His movements should be voluntary, and you should click during the desired behavior, but reward after it.
Photo: Josh Berglund