RECENTLY, when travelling by train, I overheard a pet owner talking to her friend. “We have to bring the basket out the night before for the cat to get used to it,” she said, “and even then we get scratched to bits getting him into it.”
To the educated eavesdropper this naturally comes as no surprise. Whilst the woman’s idea was sound and undoubtedly well-intentioned, her method of execution was frankly hopeless!
Most cats, even bold, socialised and inquisitive individuals, usually take time adjusting to something or someone new. If they are of an anxious disposition, had an unfortunate start in life or experienced later upheaval, they may well need a very long time indeed to adapt to changed circumstances and/or novel beings or objects in their environment.
Therefore, bringing out the basket the night before an outing was worse than useless. In fact, it probably served to signal very clearly that something awful was about to happen; the cat’s inevitable arousal was no doubt magnified by his already established negative associations with the carrier.
As so often happens, his owner’s transmitted tension as she nerved herself up for yet another basket-associated struggle, with attendant risk of injury, in all likelihood additionally helped to push her pet firmly into “fight or flight” mode, with emphasis on the latter. No wonder that, despite her best efforts, “we get scratched to bits getting him into it”.
Cats soon cotton on
Many people, of course, adopt routines when gearing up for clinic or cattery outings. Sadly, these frequently provide another signal to any cat with unfortunate memories from previous trips.
Is this, for example, the only time that owners go into the loft or under-stairs cupboard to retrieve something, having first locked the cat flap and the doors to all the rooms in the house? Or perhaps the cat-container makes a characteristic, tell-tale, wicker related creak when it’s handled. Worse still, a kindly neighbour may drop by to lend his or her cat’s carrier in full view of the resident feline.
All these actions, so sensible from the human perspective and regrettably so commonplace, simply compound the communal stress and make “loading the cat” more nightmarish, and invariably more dreaded with each repetition.
Things don’t have to be so bad! For sure, many cats, unless positively conditioned to the paraphernalia of travelling when young, may never exactly relish being corralled, then trapped into any style of carrier.
It’s also obvious that the older an animal and more established its reluctance to co-operate, the more time and dedication will be required to change things around; though surely, even a degree of improvement is worth some effort?
And, as we can now do so much more for our ageing feline patients, this becomes an especially important issue. Many pets as their years advance are destined to spend more time going to and from various medical facilities. When the experience is stressful, it is not hard to see how the associated negative effect on welfare quickly becomes significant.
Our role is clear
Happily this is where we, as veterinary professionals interested in our patients’, clients’ and our own welfare (it’s not pleasant dealing with distressed, aroused cats) come in.
Devising a dedicated, practical and relatively straightforward desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme related to a cat’s carrier is not difficult. But, as the tricky bit is constructing a coherent plan of action based on a sound understanding of the principles and all relevant issues, owners often need help.
The motivation to put this into practice on an on-going basis is also required plus some positive reinforcement to keep spirits up, particularly if success is not instantaneous but hard-won.
It’s hardly surprising that many owners, like the disgruntled train passenger, have the right idea but somehow make a mess of things. They need our help and longer-term support.
Advising clients how to do the job “properly” takes only a few minutes. When they visit the clinic with this, another pet or to make an appointment or purchase, enquiring how they are doing creates opportunities for encouragement and/or further advice should tweaking their action plan be necessary. And making a positive difference to how any cat feels about his or her carrier can be immensely satisfying.
Practising what we preach
Few things, for instance, gladden my heart as much as the sound of gentle crunching as dry food rewards are consumed while my mature “rescued” cat’s furry posterior protrudes from her carrier, kept permanently in the kitchen and constantly open.
Resident for a year, she was once a confirmed non-co-operator where transportation was concerned. At first, treats she particularly enjoyed were only available in the vicinity of the dreaded contraption, importantly though only as close to it as she was genuinely happy to venture.
They gradually migrated towards, then inside the carrier, later being replaced by a small dish of regular dried diet culled from the daily ration. Once this stage was well consolidated, intermittent reinforcement continued before occasional “tactical exercises” involving inconsequential “loading up” for varying periods of time were introduced.
The result? A cat that often just checks out the carrier and one that walks in happily when – or despite the fact that – a trip is in the offing. It is not, as they say, rocket science!
New year, new regime?
We know that many resolutions made in turn of the year euphoria quickly come to grief.
Some people, however, are genuinely motivated by a new year to instigate change and tackle established challenges.
What better time, therefore, for us to give owners of travel-troublesome cats a judicious push in the right direction? We may not produce instant miracles but any reduction in carrier-related feline distress is worth aiming for.
What’s more, when cats benefit from our effective intervention, their owners are likely to be grateful – especially if in future they can contemplate a trip to the vet or cattery free of the need for disinfectant, Elastoplast and gin or, worse still, a subsequent visit to A&E!