Today is National Pet Travel Safety Day. Last year, I had some tips on how to take your cat on a car trip. This time I wanted to tell you how to travel with your cat on an airplane. I travel by plane several times a year. Most of you kitties may never have to fly at all, or if you do, it will only be once because you are moving. But even if you never do, I bet that at some point, your human will know somebody who will need to fly their cat — and wouldn’t it be nice to have a lot of useful information all in one place? Since I’ve traveled so much, I figured I was just the kitty to do that! So here we go.
In the weeks before your flight, find out what the airlines require for traveling with your cat
Airlines will usually list their requirements for traveling with pets on their website. On all flights that allow cats to travel in the cabin, the cat and carrier must fit underneath the seat in front of the human’s seat. The carrier will count as your carry-on, so any luggage other than your laptop bag or purse and the cat carrier must be checked. There is also a fee to fly with your cat, and it varies from airline to airline.
Check what the size requirements are for the carrier — it may differ from airline to airline. While many brands will say their carrier dimensions are acceptable for plane travel, double check that with your airline. Most of the time a soft-sided carrier is best, although a hard sided carrier that’s the correct size may work too.
There may also be weight requirements, meaning that the carrier, with your cat inside it, must be under a certain weight. Some cats, like a full-sized Maine Coon, may be too big to fly with you. I’m a small cat, so I’m perfect for flying.
What about health certificates?
That’s another thing you need to check, both with your airline and the states you are flying to. Some airlines and states require a health certificate dated within 7 to 30 days of your travel time (it varies with airline and destination), and if so, you will need to bring your cat to the vet for a check up. One thing you should always travel with is your cat’s rabies certificate, even if it’s not required. If your cat bites somebody (even the sweetest cat may act out in a stressful situation), and there is no proof he has been vaccinated against rabies, that could be very bad news for you and your cat. Interestingly, when I traveled to Canada the rabies certificate was all I needed.
When you book your flight…
Let the airline know you are bringing a cat. If you are getting your ticket online and there’s nowhere to make a note of this, call the airline as soon as you’ve finished your reservation. Even if there is, you should call the airline anyhow and talk to a human to a) make sure the airline knows your cat is coming, and b) to pay the fee for your pet’s travel (you usually don’t have to wait until you get to the airport to pay). Each flight only has a certain number of pets they allow in the cabin, and you want to make sure your cat gets a spot.
Prepare your cat for your flight
When you are going through security, you will need to take your cat out of the carrier so that the carrier can go through the x-ray machine. So your cat should be used to wearing both a collar with ID, and a harness. My human recommends a properly fitting, strap-type harness because it is easy to grab if the cat squirms in your arms. The strap harnesses also have a minimum of metal and won’t set off the metal detector. Since most cats aren’t used to wearing harnesses, it is a good idea to acclimate yours to one in the weeks before you fly. Also get a leash to attach to the harness, so you have even more control of your cat. I enjoy sitting around the boarding areas on a leash myself, but your cat probably won’t, so the leash is just extra-added security for you when you go through TSA.
If you are getting a new carrier, get your cat used to that too. My favorite getting-used-to-the-carrier game involves leaving the carrier out all the time, and occasionally throwing a treat in there for me to go in and get. You can also toss toys in there. Also leave it open so the cat can go nap in there if she wants.
What you will need for your cat’s trip
- Puppy pads for the carrier, in case he has an accident while traveling. Line the carrier with one, and bring one or two extra.
- Pet wipes or baby wipes, to clean up any messes.
- Crunchy cat treats and a syringe (more on why later).
- A blanket or towel that already smells like him, to place in the carrier.
- If it is going to be a long trip, or a trip with connections, bring some sort of temporary litter box set up — a foldable box and some litter that you can set up and dispose of if they are used. Some cats will be too nervous to go to the bathroom when you are in an airport restroom, but others will be relieved that you thought of it.
- Remember to pack all the things already noted — the rabies certificate and, if required, health certificate, should go in the pocket of the cat carrier.
- Calming spray or chews, if you think your cat will need them. If you want to use Rescue Remedy, use the human version (with alcohol) and apply it topically. The pet version contains glycerin, which will set off the security alarm. (This happened to my human once!)
- The harness and leash, already noted.
The day of your trip and at the airport…
- Feed your cat no later than five hours before your trip. Don’t worry if this involves skipping a meal — you can feed her when you reach your destination.
- Put the harness on your cat before you place her in the carrier.
- You might try putting your cat in her litter box before you leave — who knows? She may actually use it. I do if I need to go.
- When you reach your gate, leave your cat in the carrier. Unless your cat is very self-confident (like me), being in this strange, noisy, open area is scary. Also keep your cat in the carrier while on the plane. You are not supposed to take your cat out anyway, and the flight attendants will let you know that in no uncertain terms. It is actually kinder to keep the carrier shut and just leave your cat alone. She will feel more secure being closed up inside.
Some additional tips…
- It’s better not to drug your cat for the flight. The stress and altitude may cause unpredictable side effects and create a medical emergency for your cat. If you really think your cat may need it, discuss it thoroughly with your vet first, and heed her advice.
- You can politely ask security to screen you and your cat in a private room. You won’t always be able to get it, but if you can, it’s the best thing you can do for a nervous cat.
- On the plane, let your row mates know you have a cat, in case one of them is allergic. That way, either they or you can make alternate seating arrangements.
- The cabin pressure during ascent and descent may make your cat’s ears hurt. If you hear him crying when the cabin pressure is changing, that’s actually a good thing because it helps his ears pop. You might also try giving him a crunchy treat or a syringe of water, which will also help relieve ear pressure. Other than doing this, leave your cat alone under the seat. If you open the carrier, she may try to escape, and the fewer chances you can give him to try, the better.
- If there will be someone at your destination, have them set things up for your cat’s arrival — a litter box, water and food bowls, a scratcher and anything else he might need. It saves you the time of doing it yourself, and you will able to get him settled in a lot quicker.
- Teach yourself to be zen and calm about the whole process. Your cat is extremely sensitive to your feelings, and if you are stressed out and nervous, it will make him anxious too. Remember, if you are prepared, there is nothing to worry about.
I hope this helps, in case you know anyone who needs to fly with their cat!