Flying with Your Cat

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

I need to make an extended trip away from home and I have planned 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 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 for travel, including vaccination records and a health certificate for travel. Most airlines provide this information on their website.

Acquire your cat’s travel carrier well before your trip. Consider a relatively soft-sided travel carrier, as it is more “forgiving” for fitting under the airline seat, but not one that will collapse on your pet and make them uncomfortable. 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 routine – this will be important during security screening.

"Practice entry and exit from the carrier to make it routine – this will be important during security screening."

You can also spray your carrier with a feline pheromone spray (such as Feliway®) 15 minutes before your cats enter to help decrease the stress associated with riding in it (see handout “Life Skills for Pets: Crate Training and Confinement for Kittens and Cats”). Likewise, acclimatizing your cat to wearing a harness before you travel can significantly improve their experience (see handout “Cat Behavior and Training – Enrichment for Indoor Cats”).

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, 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 and any other necessary travel certificates handy when traveling.

What details should I 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 or 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 a long day for 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, but 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. Follow these steps:

  1. Prepare yourself and your belongings. Remove any items the airline requests from your carry-on bag, and 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 pets in the airplane cabin remain in their carriers for the entire flight.

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

On the day of travel, do not feed your cat breakfast. Traveling on an empty stomach minimizes the risk of nausea and vomiting. 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 a bowl, and do not forget to bring any medication. Until you get to the plane, be aware of where you put your cat in their carrier. Try not to put them on the floor where they may feel threatened.  Place the carrier on your lap or the seat beside you. Stay away from areas that are noisy or that have other cats or dogs.

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

Most of the time, cats travel quite well, without needing 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® swaddles a cat much like an infant is swaddled and can reduce anxiety.
  • Feliway® pheromone wipes and spray can be used in the carrier to help lower anxiety.
  • A pheromone calming collar can help to lower anxiety.
  • Buprenorphine (brand names Buprenex®, Simbadol®), gabapentin, and alprazolam are sometimes prescribed by veterinarians to reduce the anxiety that some cats experience when traveling. Test the medication at home, before your trip, so you know how your cat will react.

With planning, attention to detail, and consultation with your veterinarian, flying with your cat can be a great experience.

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