Forget cat's in the cradle. How about, cat's in the crate?
Though in recent years letting dogs indulge their denning instinct in crates has become commonplace, felines are not usually offered those molded-plastic refuges, except for being placed in carriers -- often under audible protest -- for the occasional vet visit. And veterinarian Myrna Milani, of Charlestown, N.H., thinks that's too bad.
"The one belief that is doing more damage to cats than anything else is the human reticence to accept that they are solitary animals in the behavioral sense," says Milani, who is also a veterinary ethologist. "Solitary means that they can function by themselves. They don't hunt in packs, and that makes them very territorial."
In a home setting, free-access crate training helps manage these deep instincts, says Milani, by giving a cat a permanent refuge from other resident cats or household situations he finds stressful.
Initially, Milani used crating to deal with cats that had elimination problems; marking with urine or feces and scratching are natural reactions when a cat feels anxious or threatened. When their owners could not supervise them, the cats were confined to a crate large enough to accommodate a makeshift litter box; soon, their potty habits were under control.
And Milani found that most of the cats not only didn't mind the crating but settled right down and snoozed contentedly. "One thing you hear all the time from cat owners is when they bring home groceries and drop that empty brown-paper bag on the floor, there's soon a cat in it," she says. "It seemed to me that we had these cats who are looking for these little, snug places where they can go."
As a result, Milani recommends crates even for cats that aren't stressed or marking, as a preventive measure.
Crating also can be helpful in multicat households, to prevent or stop conflicts between individual kitties, which often are over territory.
"If you can crate-train them, then that becomes their personal space, and the rest of the house becomes neutral territory," Milani explains.
Plastic carriers are fine for most cats; if you live in an area where weather-related evacuations are common, you might want to buy a slightly larger crate to accommodate a small litter box. Another option is a cat-size cardboard box, taped shut, with an entrance hole cut in one side. To add to the comfort factor, line it with a clothing item that carries your scent, such as an old sweatshirt.
Place the crate in an area of the house where the cat likes to be unless another cat has claimed that for its own. If at all possible, start crate-training in kittenhood, feeding and stroking the cat in the crate with the top removed at first.
When the cat is comfortable, you can reattach the top portion, but always err on the side of caution: Later is better than sooner.
If you have an older cat whose only experience with the carrier has been that harrowing trip to the vet's office, Milani recommends thoroughly washing the crate, then spritzing it with Feliway spray, which simulates the calming pheromones released by a cat's facial scent glands.