How can I improve my cat's carrier anxiety?
August 13, 2012 11:26 AM   Subscribe

My cat is normally very calm and laid back, but he gets extremely anxious in the carrier. I'm about to fly cross-country with him again, and last time is was a disaster. How to improve his carrier anxiety?

Once my cat is in the carrier, he meows constantly and scratches the inside of the carrier to the point of hurting himself. Nothing I've tried improves the anxiety - catnip, toys, talking to him, petting him through the holes in the carrier, trying to desensitize him to the carrier in advance, nothing I have tried has worked.

When I brought him to California last December it was a pretty bad experience - there was blood inside the carrier when we took him out (he hurt one of his claws from the scratching) and the cat was exhausted. After a few hours he was back to his regular self, but the period inside the carrier was a disaster.

I am moving to back the east coast and taking the cat back with me. I know the flight is going to suck for him, but I want it to be a better experience. What can I do to improve this situation?
posted by gertzedek to Pets & Animals (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You can ask your vet for a sedative.
posted by adamrice at 11:27 AM on August 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding the sedative. Let the poor little guy sleep the whole way.
posted by pla at 11:28 AM on August 13, 2012

Definitely a sedative, but what kind of carrier do you have? I used a plastic carrier for my cat to generally ill effect(he started hyperventilating! poor kitty!), but he seems to do much better in a soft carrier with one of those fake lambswool bottoms.
posted by sawdustbear at 11:36 AM on August 13, 2012

Response by poster: I thought about sedation, but it's not allowed. From the United website:

Should I sedate my pet before the flight?

No. We do not accept animals that have been sedated or tranquilized.

posted by gertzedek at 11:39 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sedative. Start offering pill pockets (greenies brand makes them) as special treats so that when it's time to dose the kitty you don't have to force a pill down his throat.

Test the Sedative at least a few days before the trip in case kitty needs a larger dose. Give the drugs before the carrier comes out, for minim carrier related anxiety.
posted by tulip-socks at 11:40 AM on August 13, 2012

Response by poster: About the carrier: I used to use a small carrier that was perfect for his size, but I switched to a larger one that can fit a medium-sized dog (i.e. the cat can easily stand up inside of it and has lots of freedom of movement. He got a little less anxious, but not a lot.
posted by gertzedek at 11:41 AM on August 13, 2012

United is probably worried about heavy sedation. I would talk to your vet about anti-anxiety drugs for your cat, like elavil.
posted by nightwood at 11:42 AM on August 13, 2012

I flew my cats across the country (in the cabin) on United and sedated them. This was more than ten years ago, but it's possible United disallowed it then and I didn't know. My cats were not knocked-out sedated, just...chilled. Quiet. But not unconscious. So I vote you talk to your vet, and do a test run before the flight.

And clip his claws.
posted by rtha at 11:44 AM on August 13, 2012

Is the cat going in the cabin or in the cargo? If it's in the cabin, you have a lot more room to do a light anti-anxiety. Otherwise, I'd try to line the carrier with a lot of soft stuff, like the fake lambswool (which you have been sleeping with so it smells like you).
posted by jeather at 11:45 AM on August 13, 2012

I got a low-grade sedative (not to knock the cats out, just to get them pleasantly mellow) for my cats when I took my kitties cross-country about 10 or 12 years ago on United. One of them was still a bit twitchy, but they were generally fine.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:45 AM on August 13, 2012

Oh, yeah, this was in the cabin. I'd be incredibly wary sending a cat in cargo.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:45 AM on August 13, 2012

How about a new carrier, sprayed all to hell and back with Feliway?

And try putting it out in a favored safe (quiet) spot in the house for a week beforehand and he's allowed to go into it for cozy naptime, often treats appear in there, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:49 AM on August 13, 2012

Also, some people here have mentioned that you can get Feliway-impregnated collars - might try one of those, assuming he normally wears a collar.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:50 AM on August 13, 2012

They make a Feliway spray that you can use in carriers. I just used a Feliway diffuser that had remarkable, amazing results in my home, and the online reviewers seem to like the spray for relieving anxiety about being in cat carriers.
I have traveled with cats, and would not do so again without sedatives available. I don't know why United has a problem with it, but sedatives are pretty much necessary to traveling with cats.
posted by aabbbiee at 11:52 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Couple things:

You're planning on travelling with him in-cabin, yes? That's a better experience (for him). (If not for your neighbors, but, hey, people fly with babies.)

The rules for in-cabin are very different from cargo cats. You can (mildly) sedate cats that go in-cabin. (Your cat should not fly in a coma.)

Also, it was indicated at the time—I wasn't cheating! He has a severe stomach thing!—but the vet's strong diarrhea medication for cats is basically (as for humans) an opiate. Not only will they not crap on the plane, they'll konk right out. I would not suggest abusing this (as your cat may never crap again) but there's a number of things that you can talk to your vet about that'll take him down several notches, that are totally legit to fly with.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:56 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sedatives prevent a lot of vet treatment, and make diagnosis of anything else difficult or impossible - international airlines usually have a vet/tech in cargo dispatch and sedation stops them doing their jobs. Some sedatives also depress respiration and heat regulation, making pressures and temperature adjustment much more difficult. Animals can also fail to react to bumps and jolts correctly. And people are often stupid to the point of overdose.
posted by cromagnon at 11:59 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I would prefer taking the cat in the cabin, but I can't - to take him in the cabin I would have to use a small carrier. On a small carrier, where he doesn't have a lot of freedom of movement, he goes completely out of control with anxiety. The only thing that mildly improves the situation is the larger carrier where he can stand up and walk about. To use the larger carrier he's got to go in cargo. Which apparently is not that bad - United has a PetSafe program where the pets travel in a separate compartment and whatnot.
posted by gertzedek at 12:03 PM on August 13, 2012

You don't want to sedate your pet for the reasons cromagnon listed, but could you talk to the vet about an anti anxiety medication of some sort. You can get feliway pheromones in various formats that can be very helpful with anxiety. Can you get a more solid carrier so the cat doesn't feel exposed and so feels safer, you don't mention what type of carrier you are using, but you can get ones with pretty solid plastic sides at least half way up, if nothing else that might help reduce the damage your cat can do to itself along with some soft bedding.

Talk to your vet or possibly someone at the airline they might have some ideas too.
posted by wwax at 12:20 PM on August 13, 2012

Could you try sedation/anti-anxiety medication in conjunction with a smaller carrier? If the sedation helps enough with his anxiety, then maybe he could travel in-cabin. This is the kind of thing I'd want to do on a dry run ahead of time, though (i.e., try dosing kitty & putting him in the small carrier some weekend a few weeks before you move.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:23 PM on August 13, 2012

My dog has a fairly high level of anxiety, and we started using some calming tabs from Walgreens ( I don't know if they would be safe for cats or not, but Walgreens also offers one that specifically says it's formulated for dogs and cats. Different brand, so I can't speak to the results. It's at I'm sure you can find several similar things at PetSmart or any other similar chain.

Also, any toys that could go in the carrier with it?

Along the "something familiar" line, does the cat sleep with you? This may sound weird, but a t-shirt that you haven't washed (so that it has your scent) may make it a little more comfortable.

Or the shirt could just be a target for the cat to express its displeasure. Either way, it might distract it from the stresses of being caged for a time.
posted by goedekers at 12:55 PM on August 13, 2012

Do you put a fluffy towel or small blanket in the carrier?
posted by Thorzdad at 1:28 PM on August 13, 2012

You could try a Thundershirt, which helps cats relax without drugs. Buy it now so he can get comfortable with it before you travel. And if it doesn't work between now and then, they have a money-back guarantee.
posted by Fuego at 1:53 PM on August 13, 2012

What are you doing to make the carrier a safe and familiar place? Do you feed him in it? Make a nice bed in it with the top off? There's lots of tips online. Here's one site.

If the only time he goes in the carrier is for scary things, he's not going to get over being unhappy.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:57 PM on August 13, 2012

I have a carrier that is also a mostly-mesh backpack, and one of those blow-molded plastic ones. My cat doesn't like the blow-molded plastic one, fussing and meowing and sticking her claws through the holes in it. She loves the backpack because it's soft inside, and she thinks it is a perch when it is on my back. She moves around from side to side looking at everything. The backpack fits under airline seats and she curls up and goes to sleep in there. I took her on an 11 hr flight, then a 4 hr train ride, and back a few days later and she only fussed a little when she was thirsty once. She doesn't like to eat much on trips like that but she drinks a little water and she has never urinated. I line the inside of the carrier with flat paper diaper material that I could change if needed. On every mode of public transport she's been on with me, she makes lots of friends who show us their cat pictures.
posted by jet_silver at 10:13 PM on August 13, 2012

I mention these so often on MeFi that I should be getting a kickback, I swear. Start feeding your cat Composure Pet Treats now. I buy the ones for the dogs, they are the same formula but cheaper for the volume. I give my high strung cat one a day, broken into bite sized pieces. It has made a huge difference, and she really seems happier. It was recommended by my vet. I don't know what is in it that works, but a lot of people who have followed my suggestion have told me they've seen positive results as well. If your cat has it in his system, hopefully that will take *some* of the edge off, and it certainly won't hurt.
posted by gilsonal at 10:17 PM on August 13, 2012

I have 4 cats. They're all carrier-haters. My 10-year-old ladycat will yowl and literally turn somersaults trying to get out and the younger three cry and scratch and generally act miserable.

Thus far the ONLY thing I've found calms them down (and it works on all of them) is holding the carrier on my lap and sticking my hand inside it to pet them or even just hold the hand still against their side, etc. The physical contact seems to reassure them somehow.

Mind you, this only works with soft-sided carriers, some of which have little zippered openings specifically for the purpose of being able to reach in and touch the occupant without risking an escape. I'm wondering if your kitty might better tolerate a smaller carrier if it was a soft-sided one. It seems like being in the cargo area would be way more stressful for him, and I can't imagine you'd have a pleasant flight yourself thinking about him throwing himself against the carrier door for hours on end but being unable to check on him.
posted by aecorwin at 3:18 PM on August 14, 2012

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