People, including other rescuers, are often surprised to see me using a carrier to rescue a cat since their general expectation is that cats are terrified of carriers and will run away from them. Many of these people are then astounded to see the cat calmly and voluntarily walk into the carrier as I hold it in front of him in the tree. This is not unusual. It is not rare for a cat in a tree to voluntarily walk into a carrier. More than a quarter of all the rescues I have done were accomplished in this manner, and the percentage could be even higher if I had not used the lap or lap bag method on numerous cats instead. I am often told that I am a cat whisperer, but that is not the case. I simply understand that a cat’s attitude toward a carrier depends on the context in which he sees it.

Nearly every cat owner has experienced or understands the difficulty of putting a cat in a carrier to take him to the veterinarian. The stress on both the cat and his owner can be tremendous, and the cat’s determination not to be placed inside the carrier can lead to some feisty battles. Yet, once you are in the veterinarian’s examination room, and the examination and treatment are finished, the cat can’t wait to get away from the doctor to hide inside the carrier. There is no battle to place the cat back inside the carrier now. Instead, he voluntarily runs inside it the first chance he gets because, now, the carrier represents safety. The context has changed.

A similar change can occur in the tree. When a cat has been miserably uncomfortable standing exposed on small limbs for a long time with no place to safely rest, a carrier looks like a spacious, covered, and comfortable place of relief where he can safely stretch out without fear of falling. A carrier can be a very attractive place to be, and many cats do not hesitate to go inside. Some cats may be more hesitant due to an unpleasant association in the past, but even they will often go inside, or can be enticed inside, if given more time and reassurance. However, it is certainly true that some cats whose past experiences with carriers has been most unpleasant will react negatively to the sight of a carrier in the tree.

Before I climb the tree, I always ask the cat owner how the cat feels about carriers so I can have at least a vague idea about the kind of reaction I might expect from the cat. I like to know just how much difficulty they had getting the cat inside, how the cat handled being inside over time, how often this has happened, and when it last occurred. Since most of the cats I rescue are one- and two-year-old cats, I often learn that the cat has had only one experience in a carrier, and it was a long time ago. Even if it was an unpleasant experience for the cats, they are still often receptive to a carrier in the tree. Sometimes, I learn that the cat has had several traumatic times in a carrier, and, in those cases, I won’t even bring the carrier up in the tree with me. In a few cases, I have even learned that the cat loves his carrier and sleeps in it often, and, in those cases, the carrier might be the only thing that attracts the cat to me.

Overall, in my experience, I have not found a clear correlation between a cat’s history with carriers and his reaction to one in the tree. This could be due to incomplete or incorrect information or other unknown factors. Some cats will avoid their own specific carrier but not other carriers, especially one that is sufficiently different. I used this trick once many years ago with my own cat who hated her hard carrier. Prior to her next trip to the veterinarian, I bought a soft carrier and kept it hidden until minutes before her appointment. I placed the new carrier in the middle of the floor and walked away knowing, of course, that she would be compelled to investigate. She went to the carrier, checked it out, and stepped inside. I then came to her calmly and closed it. Of course, there is a limit to the number of times that strategy will succeed.

Even when I get reports about the cat’s attitude toward carriers that are less than encouraging, I typically will bring the carrier with me into the tree but watch the cat’s reaction very carefully. I will usually pull the carrier up to my lap level and stop there while watching the cat. If he becomes more tense or backs away, then I will return the carrier back to its position hanging on my harness and never raise it again. If he seems relaxed, then I will slowly raise the carrier higher but not directly toward him and continue to watch his reaction. I avoid raising the carrier above the cat because the sight of anything that large above him may frighten him. As long as he appears to be tolerating it well, I will continue to move the opening of the carrier indirectly closer to him until I reach a position where I can rest the carrier on a limb or brace it against the tree to help me hold it steady. It is important to hold the carrier where it is stable and will not move when the cat begins to step into it. If it slips as he puts weight on it, he will likely pull back and, sometimes, refuse to go back in again.

Some cats will walk straight inside the carrier with no hesitation. Other cats may look at it and remain unalarmed but have no interest in it. Typically, however, most cats will look at it and then move closer to sniff it, some more thoroughly than others. They will sniff both the outside and the inside. Be patient while they investigate it and decide if it is safe or not. Sometimes I spray Feliway on the outside and inside opening of the carrier at least fifteen minutes prior to this moment to be sure the inactive ingredients have had time to completely evaporate. Sometimes I don’t spray Feliway, or forget to do so, and I don’t know if it makes a difference or not. Regardless, I always make sure to have a clean carrier free of any other cat’s scent.

As long as the carrier passes the sniff test, the cat will usually walk inside. As soon as his back legs are inside, you should close the door as much as possible until you can push the tail all the way inside and latch the door. In those cases when you are holding the carrier away from you with both hands, you will need to slowly and smoothly pull the carrier back to your body before you can close the door.

Some cats are more reluctant to step inside the carrier either because they need a good reason or need reassurance that it is safe to do so. Sometimes, I will pull the carrier away and spend some more time with the cat before presenting the carrier to him again. Petting him frequently and scratching his back, especially as he pokes his head inside, also help to reassure him. Some cats need a longer time and multiple attempts before they will go all the way inside, so be patient with them. Some cats will walk halfway in and stop, and that makes it very tempting to push them in and close the door. I have never done that and advise against it because cats hate being forced into anything new, even that delightful cat tree you just bought for them, and you risk losing the cat if he panics. In addition, if the cat has gone halfway inside, it’s only a matter of time before he will go all the way with no trouble.

If the cat needs a good reason to go inside, or if you just want to speed the process, then open a can of food and let him have a bite or two. Move the food closer to the opening of the carrier and let him have another bite. After that, place the food all the way in the back corner of the carrier and wait for him to go inside. Even if he shows no interest in the food at first, place it in the back of the carrier to see if it draws him inside. You can even place a toy mouse in the back of the carrier to see if that will attract his attention.

If you decide to use a hard carrier, be sure to read the preparations that must be made to it before it can be safely used for a rescue in a tree. Never hold a hard carrier with a cat in it by the top handle. The carrier must be supported from the bottom to be safe, and the instructions in the Gear section will describe how to do that.

Just as with the cat bag, I have a safety backup lanyard to catch the carrier if I should drop it. I have never dropped one, but I do worry about it. The lanyard is long enough to allow me to hold the carrier at arm’s length to reach a distant cat when needed, and it is elastic to help absorb the shock if the carrier is dropped.

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