June 17, 2018

Carrier Training Cats for Veterinary Visits

Do cats that have been trained to use a carrier show fewer stress-related behaviors during car travel and veterinary visits?
By Natalie Stilwell, DVM, MS, PhD
Researchers in Austria recently performed a study to examine whether cats that were trained to use a travel carrier were more cooperative and showed less stress during veterinary visits compared with untrained cats.
 

Methods

The study assessed 13 male and 9 female healthy, sterilized adult cats living at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna. After passing a basic behavioral assessment, cats were divided equally into experimental and control groups that were balanced for age, sex, and shyness level around humans.

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The blinded study began with each cat undergoing a 10-minute car ride to a mock veterinary clinic in a hard plastic cat carrier. The veterinary visit consisted of a 5-minute waiting period followed by a standardized physical examination using minimal restraint and regularly offered treats. One researcher represented the role of owner throughout the study, while a second researcher drove the car and conducted the veterinary examinations.

Then, over a period of 6 weeks, half the cats underwent positive reinforcement training, consisting of 7 sequential phases, to gradually acclimate them to carrier travel. Afterward, a second test repeated the car ride and mock veterinary exam for each cat using the same procedure as the first test.

During both tests, the investigators recorded the following:
  • level of compliance in entering and exiting the carrier
  • stress level according to the previously published Cat Stress Score (CSS)
  • physiologic parameters (heart rate, respiratory rate, and rectal and ear temperatures)


Results

The 11 cats in the carrier-trained group each completed 28 training sessions lasting an average of 8 minutes. Three cats completed all 7 phases, while the remainder reached level 6 or 7 within 6 weeks.

The average CSS of all cats ranked relatively high, indicating that the cats were “very tense” throughout the duration of the first test. CSS levels in both groups decreased from the first test to the second test, and the experimental group had significantly lower stress levels than the control group after carrier training.

During the second test, the cats that received carrier training exhibited more positive behaviors compared with the control group, such as searching for food, sitting upright, kneading the paws, grooming, purring, and facial rubbing on the carrier. Meanwhile, several fearful behaviors (such as hiding and panting) were eliminated after carrier training. All 11 trained cats accepted treats during the second test, compared with 4 control cats, and the duration of veterinary exam was significantly shorter in the trained group than in the control group. Heart rate and rectal temperature were within reference ranges in both study groups, while respiratory rate was increased in both groups during both tests.
 

Take-home Message

Although most cats were compliant throughout the veterinary exam regardless of carrier training, those that were trained to use a carrier were more inquisitive during travel, had shorter veterinary exams, and displayed fewer stress-related behaviors compared with untrained cats.  

 
Dr. Stilwell received her DVM from Auburn University, followed by a MS in fisheries and aquatic sciences and a PhD in veterinary medical sciences from the University of Florida. She provides freelance medical writing and aquatic veterinary consulting services through her business, Seastar Communications and Consulting.

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