Flying with Your Cat

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

I need to make an extended trip away from home and I have made arrangements for my cat to join me. I'll be flying to my destination. What do I need to consider?

A successful flight with a cat begins long before the day of travel. It requires planning and preparation in order to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for both you and your cat.

Do your homework with the airline. Confirm that your cat can travel in the airplane cabin under the seat in front of you. Identify with your airline the precise weight requirements and dimensions under the airline seat as this will dictate the size of your transport carrier. Determine what paperwork you must have in preparation for travel including vaccination records and a health certificate for travel.

Acquire your cat’s travel carrier well in advance of your trip. Consider a soft-sided travel carrier as it is more “forgiving” for fitting under the airline seat space. Teach your cat that the carrier is a great everyday place to hang out; feeding your cat in the carrier can help create a positive association. Always have the carrier open and available in your home and make it as inviting as possible. Practice entry and exit from the carrier to make it as routine a process as possible – this will be important during security screening.

Once your cat’s flight reservation is made, schedule a visit with your veterinarian close to the date of travel. Most airlines require a valid health certificate for travel completed by your veterinarian in order for your cat to fly with you. Be sure all relevant vaccinations are up to date and be sure to have your cat’s rabies vaccination certificate handy when traveling.

Are there details I should attend to when booking my flight?

Some airlines restrict how many pets may travel in the cabin or on a particular flight, and they may have certain flights on which no pets can fly in the cabin. Book your travel early to ensure a spot for your cat. When choosing your seat, be aware that you will not be able to sit in an exit row nor against a bulkhead (there must be a seat in front of you for the carrier). Try to travel non-stop if possible as layovers and transfers only add to what will be a long day for both you and your cat.

How will I move through the security checkpoint at the airport?

Your cat’s travel carrier must go through the luggage X-ray screening device at the airport, and your cat cannot, so you will have to carry her in your arms through the human screening device. She should be wearing a firm-fitting harness with a leash attached to prevent escape, and you should follow these steps:

  1. Prepare yourself and your belongings, removing your shoes and your toiletries and laptop or tablet from your bag, then place them in the bins to go through the X-ray machine.
  2. Remove your cat from the carrier and send the carrier through the X-ray machine.
  3. Once you are through the screening with your cat, find the carrier and safely reposition your cat inside before gathering your belongings.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires that pets in the airplane cabin remain secured in their carriers throughout the duration of the flight.

What else will help my cat be comfortable on this trip?

Traveling on an empty stomach minimizes the risk of nausea and vomiting, so withhold breakfast on the day of travel. Line the carrier with an absorbent “puppy potty pad” in case your cat needs to urinate or defecate during travel. Carry extra pads as well as a couple of zip-lock bags, some paper towels, and a few pairs of latex gloves for any necessary cleanup and containment of a mess. Carry some of your cat’s food with you, a water bottle and bowl, and do not forget to bring any medications she takes.

Should I ask my veterinarian for a cat sedative for travel?

Most of the time, cats travel quite well without the need for medication. Some cats, on the other hand, experience tremendous stress when subjected to air travel. Consult your veterinarian to create the best travel plan for your cat if she does not travel well. Strategies to de-stress feline flights include:

  • A Thundershirt® which swaddles the cats much like swaddling an infant and can reduce anxiety.
  • Feliway® pheromone wipes and spray can be used in the carrier prior to flying can help lower anxiety.
  • A pheromone calming collar can help to lower anxiety.
  • Buprenorphine (brand names Buprenex®, Simbadol® ), gabapentin (brand name Neurontin®), and alprazolam (brand names: Xanax®, Niravam®) are examples of medications that are sometimes prescribed by veterinarians to reduce the anxiety that some cats experience when traveling. Be sure to provide a dose at home as a “dry run” ahead of your trip in order to know how your cat will react to the medication.

With some advance planning, attention to detail, and consultation with your veterinarian, flying with your cat can be as “smooth as silk”!

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