Updated: Mar 10
When I adopted Percy, he came with an inherent dislike for being confined in any kind of carrier. The first I ever saw of him, was when he and his kitten brother were held in the arms of a shelter staff member who was waiting for me behind glass doors to pick up one of them. Due to special Covid procedures, the pick-up was meant to be contact-less, but apparently, those little 3-month-old kittens had thrown quite a fit about having to wait in their carriers and preferred to be held. After signing the paperwork, I was handed a meowing kitten in a cardboard carrier, which I quickly transferred to the backseat of my friend’s car. I had already bought a cat-pack into which I transferred the kitten before we drove off. But it was no good. The kitten just kept meowing, trying to push and claw his way out of that cat-pack, and refused to settle down. I relented, took him out of the cat-pack, and put him onto my lap. He instantly calmed down and started purring. Eventually, he proceeded to check out the entire backseat area and enjoyed looking out of the window and watching the passing cars, while I made sure to keep my hands always close to him so that he wouldn’t go anywhere beyond the backseat. He eventually dozed off next to me. So, this kitten who had only just met me a few minutes ago for the first time ever was totally happy to cuddle with me, ride in a stranger’s car on a busy highway, and even go to sleep there. – But being stuck in a carrier? He wasn't having that!
Starting too late
Cat-pack training is an ongoing process for Percy and myself. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I started training Percy for leash walks was that I didn't carrier train him before that. I was already aware of Percy’s strong aversion to carriers and thought it would make getting him used to going outside only harder. I hoped to first get him to love the outdoors, and only then introduce a proper carrier. Initially, I also took Percy only into the yards around our apartment complex, and using a cat-pack for this seemed superfluous. I instead bought a simple soft sling-carrier for this purpose, but Percy never really liked it. I soon dispensed with it altogether and proceeded to carry little Percy outside in my arms. Eventually, I shoulder-trained him and then usually took him outside that way.
The problem of not carrier training him, especially by not doing it right from the start, was that Percy didn’t have a safe place to retreat to whenever he got scared. Since we were always very close to home, he soon got used to simply hurrying back to our building entrance whenever he got scared or too nervous. It also meant that I wasn’t able to take him anywhere else, since he never developed the confidence to walk with me anywhere beyond the familiar yards, which are comparatively quieter than the surrounding areas.
Whether Percy’s ongoing carrier issues are a result of having failed to carrier trained him from the very start, or whether that's just part of Percy’s innate idiosyncrasies, I don’t know. But I assume it is a bit of both.
Good at training - bad in practice
The usual advice for cat-pack training – and which seems to work well for most cats – tells you to leave their cat-pack open and accessible at home, include it in play-sessions, reward your cat with treats for going into it, perhaps even feeding them meals in it, and then gradually begin to get them accustomed to carrying them around in it and rewarding them for that. That way, your cat will get accustomed to it, and create positive associations with it.
– So far, so good! Once I had finally started to cat-pack train Percy seriously, I did all of these tasks many times over, and it worked very well. Over time, I even did this with several different styles of cat backpacks, shoulder bags, and soft-sided travel carriers. The result was that Percy became an absolute pro at carrier training! Even if it’s a brand-new carrier, he will jump in as soon as I have set it up and he will let me carry him around in it, indoors, within a couple of minutes – at least, as long as he gets his treats for that. I even trained him to jump onto a cat backpack on command while I’m carrying it! He also quickly learned that to go outside, he has to go in (or on top of) one of his cat-packs, and as long as he really wants to go outside, he is happy to do that.
However, what none of the training guides that I have seen so far has been able to tell me, is how to convince Percy that his cat-pack is not just a nice place that means getting treats and going outside, but that it’s also meant to be his safe place. Apparently, for most cats, that association seems to develop automatically with the above-described training. But for a few cats, like Percy, things are not that straightforward. While it seems to be a more common issue that cats who are nervous in an outdoor place refuse to leave their cat-pack, it’s the opposite with Percy; unless I would zip him up, I couldn’t rely on him staying in his cat-pack whenever he would become too scared. He would be far more likely to try to jump out, run away, or find another hiding spot. Unfortunately, he would also hate being zipped up, and might even refuse to go inside the cat-pack whenever he would even just suspect that I was planning to zip him up.
Some small progress
Over time, many creative efforts on my part, and after many setbacks, those issues have improved at least to some extent. I found that especially travelling a lot with him during the summer actually improved Percy’s relationship with his various cat-packs (- I literally travelled with three different cat-packs for all different occasions, and then even bought a fourth one on the way!). Although he still didn’t like me zipping him up in any cat-pack in the first place, at least he would settle in it as soon as he was zipped up, and became much better about me carrying him around like this for a while. I even began to notice him occasionally ducking down inside an open carrier when he got scared, rather than trying to jump out.
Overall, things were getting better, but they were still far from ideal. Although he had begun to feel a lot safer in his carriers, he still refused to go into them whenever he was walking outdoors and became scared or nervous for some reason. And if I tried to pick him up and put him in his cat-pack in those moments, he would sometimes even put up a fight. This could potentially be quite dangerous, if, for example, we were to encounter an aggressive off-leash dog. It would be a lot easier for me to keep Percy safe if he would simply seek refuge in his carrier as soon as something scares him.
Baby steps toward success
A couple of months ago, after finally running out of ideas myself, I eventually enrolled Percy in the online CatSchool program, which was probably one of the best things I’ve ever done! (If you don’t know CatSchool yet, do check out their website and, at the very least, follow their Instagram and YouTube channel!!) Besides all the amazing training courses that it offers, it also gives you direct access to Julie, the animal behaviorist who has created this entire program. With Julie’s amazing help and advice, I have now taken Percy’s cat-pack training back to the basics to build up stronger and more reliable foundations. Since we are approaching this in baby steps to ensure success, it will likely still be a long and slow process to achieve the goals that I am hoping to reach with Percy. But so far, it’s working great!
Here are some of the things that have helped me so far:
Practising jumping in and out of the cat-pack on command: Although I had taught Percy to jump into the backpack a long time ago already, I had never thought of the importance of teaching him to exit in on command as well. Knowing that there is a “release-word” as well helps Percy to know what to do and what to expect when I ask him to jump (and stay) in the backpack. Moreover, regular practice and repetition are equally as important, no matter how good Percy already is as that exercise. This helps to not only make him understand what he's been asked to do but to also condition him to these commands. And the stronger this conditioning is, the more likely he will be to also perform this in more distracting situations.
Working on making Percy feel better about being zipped up in a cat-pack: We are currently practising something that Julie refers to as loopy-training. For this, I ask Percy to jump into the cat-pack (I’m using a different one for this purpose to the one we currently use for our usual leash walks so that Percy knows what to expect), then I zip him up, carry him briefly around, including into the hallway, and then return to our starting point and reward him with his favorite treat. At this point, I open the cat-pack and give Percy the opportunity to jump out if he wants to. But if he chooses to stay inside, I repeat that exercise (up to five times per session). Giving Percy the choice to end or continue the session after each repetition helps him to feel more in control, and thereby feel more comfortable about it all. I started by initially just opening and closing our apartment door, and then gradually expanded the loops down the stairs, and into our little lobby… and eventually, I will begin to take him outside as part of this exercise. – Considering all the adventures that Percy has already been on, this might seem rather strange. But it seems to work! Percy has already become a lot more willing to be zipped up in his cat-pack! At the same time, I have found that he has also become a lot more willing to go into the cat-pack when we’re out on our usual late-night leash walks and he becomes nervous or scared.
Working on cutting down on the treats: Due to my desperate attempts to make Percy more comfortable about his cat-pack, Percy has by now already become accustomed to me continuously feeding him his favorite treat while I’m carrying him. By, instead, rewarding him only in intervals, or even only at the end of an exercise, I have raised the “value” of that treat.
Being patient, accepting that there will be setbacks, and focusing more on the small successes during our progress, rather than on the end goal.
Follow Percy's adventures on Instagram: @percytheexplorercat