Source: CN Traveler (Extract)
Posted: October 18, 2023

When I researched how to travel with a cat for the first time a few years ago, the logistics alone were almost enough to scare me off the option of flying entirely. Between parsing different pet-friendly policies and questioning whether furry lil’ Francis would hate me when we reached our destination, flying with a cat seemed like it would be way more trouble than it was worth.

But like many pet parents worrying about the best way to travel with a cat, I had my reasons for leaning toward air travel—namely, money and quality of life for both me and Francis—so I took the plunge. Luckily, with the right research and preparation, flying with a cat can be a viable and safe option for many. There are just a lot of things you have to consider first.

You don’t have to take just my word for it. Below, I’ve rounded up the best tips from other cat owners and pet experts to help you every step of the way, from deciding whether to fly in the first place to ensuring the journey is as low-stress as possible for both you and your favorite furball.

Figuring out if you can fly with your cat

There are several important details to consider when choosing whether to fly with your cat (or cats, plural), but before you dive into the nitty gritty, start with the basics: Is it even possible?

Thanks to varying policies across different airlines and destinations, the most precise answer I can offer without knowing your exact situation is, “it depends!” In many cases, yes, you’ll be able to find a cat-friendly route to your desired destination, especially if you’re traveling domestically within the US. However, there are a few factors that might make air travel a no-go from the get-go.

First things first: Some airlines have restrictions on the number, size, age, health, and breed of cats allowed both in the cabin and in the cargo hold, so be sure to read the policies of pet-friendly airlines carefully to understand your options.

After confirming that you can fly with your cat or cats on a particular airline, you’ll then have to make sure you can travel specifically to your destination and on the dates you want to travel. Certain airlines restrict the number of pets onboard at a time, which means you should book early to ensure there’s room for your pet on a specific flight. Meanwhile, if you’re flying internationally, you’ll run into various vaccination and microchipping requirements, as well as places where you can’t travel with a cat at all.

All that said, once you know that you can travel with your cat, there’s something else you’ll want to consider before booking your flight: whether you should.

Deciding whether to fly with a cat

“Flying with a cat can be a complex and stressful experience for both the pet and the owner,” says Keston Smith, DVM, medical director at BondVet’s location in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. But sometimes it’s the best or only option. When weighing practical needs against other concerns, bear in mind that the flight itself is one part of a larger (potentially taxing) journey: Your cat will also have to get to the airport, go through security, and acclimate to an unfamiliar destination.

Furthermore, travel-related expenses can add up, like paying airline pet fees, buying TSA–approved supplies, checking additional bags to compensate for your carry-on cat, and more. It might all wind up being as pricey as a pet sitter might cost, or as expensive as renting a car and going on a road trip with your cat, or another option you’re considering anyway.

So how do you decide? Dr. Smith notes that young kittens, elderly cats, and cats with underlying health issues may not tolerate air travel well, and for most cats, short flights will be more manageable than long ones. The same goes for nonstop flights versus those with multiple legs.

Physical health and flight details aside, your cat’s personality could predict how chill (or unchill) they might be on the journey. “A cat’s temperament is crucial,” says Dr. Smith. “Cats that are easily stressed, nervous, or aggressive may not be suitable for air travel.”

At the end of the day, though, these are cats we’re talking about. It’s impossible to know for certain how even the chillest pile of fluff will react to plane travel until you try it. Beyond your vet’s recommendations and acute safety concerns, you’ll probably have to make a decision based on a mix of your circumstances, your knowledge of your cat, and your gut.

The good news: You’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised than met with total disaster, at least anecdotally speaking. “It definitely wasn’t as bad as I worried it would be the first time,” says cat owner Suz Warshell, who has traveled twice with her cat Lentil, both times internationally to Mexico.

Frequent feline flier Sahalie Martin echoes that sentiment, noting that she didn’t run into many of the issues she was prepared to deal with when she traveled with her kitty Molly, like security chaos or accidents in her crate. That said, both Martin and Warshell agree that preparing for things to go wrong still gives them peace of mind when traveling.

Preparing to fly with a cat

Make an appointment with your vet sooner rather than later, especially if you didn’t consult them before booking your flight. According to Dr. Smith, they’ll assess your cat’s individual health, temperament, and general fitness for air travel, as well as ensure that your cat’s vaccinations are up to date.

And if you think your cat is in good health, or the airline you chose doesn’t require that kind of documentation? Pay them a visit anyway. Your vet can help you prepare and provide guidance on how to travel safely, says Dr. Smith. Importantly, they’ll advise you on ways you can manage your cat’s anxiety, including milder-than-sedation options like prescription medication, over-the-counter supplements, or special treats.

After that, Dr. Smith recommends getting your cat nice and comfortable with their carrier since familiarity can reduce stress during travel. (He also suggests packing favorite items, such as a toy or blanket, in the carrier for the same reason.) So if you buy a new carrier or don’t use the one you own frequently, try to acclimate them to it leading up to your flight.

From personal experience, there’s no need to take them on unnecessary strolls around the block in their carrier. I simply left mine unzipped around the apartment the week leading up to the flight. My cat Francis quickly took to sleeping in it, and when the time came to load him up for the airport, it was noticeably easier than taking him to the vet in it a month prior.

But again, these are cats we’re dealing with, so your mileage will vary. No amount of training helped Martin’s cat Molly acclimate to her collar, for example, so Martin now tailors her pre-travel routine accordingly. “I just put it on [Molly] right before we go because I know she hates it,” she says. “No matter how much I have her wear it, she’s gonna keep hating it.”

Stocking up to fly with a cat

Speaking of things your cat might hate, you’ll also need a few supplies before they can jet set with you. Most likely, they will be traveling in the cabin under the seat in front of you; few airlines allow cats to fly in the cargo, where they’re subject to more extreme temperatures, poor ventilation, and rough handling. This means you’ll need a pet carrier that fits the airline’s specifications for its size, shape, and material. You may also want to consider a harness, collar, or leash for added safety, since you’ll have to take your cat out of their carrier to go through security.

If you don’t already have one, there are a variety of TSA–approved carriers out there to choose from. For example, Martin likes this backpack-style carrier, which causes her less strain than one-shoulder options. Oh, and a tip from me: A durable carrier is worth the splurge. Trust me—if your anxious cat claws his way out of a cheap one and sprints free across the terminal, you’ll just have to buy a ridiculously overpriced replacement at the airport anyway. (True story.)

In terms of other supplies, Darnell Christopher, a New York City–based flight attendant with 10 years of experience, recommends coming prepared with what you need to be a courteous passenger. For instance, Martin and Warshell say it’s never a bad idea to stock up on sanitary items, like pee pads to line the carrier, which can simplify cleanup in the event of an accident. You might also pack sanitary wipes, a mini lint roller for excess hair, or extra foam earplugs to offer your neighbors just in case your kitty is noisier than expected.

Navigating the airport with a cat

Ahead of travel, don’t withhold food or water in an attempt to stave off unwelcome bowel or bladder movements on the plane. Ditto overfeeding to compensate for any meals they’d skip on the flight. Just feed and hydrate them as usual, says Dr. Smith. Other than that, leave yourself plenty of time before you board the plane. Give every cat-related step a generous buffer, just in case your cat decides to cat. For example, you probably don’t want to call your cab before your beast is safely in their carrier. And it might not be a great idea to unzip your cat at security before dealing with your inanimate belongings.

On that note, here’s how the process at airport security is traditionally supposed to go down: You’ll be asked to take your cat out of the carrier, send the empty carrier through the X-ray, carry your cat through the metal detector, and then put them back in on the other side.

But before you do any of that, do yourself a favor and ask a TSA officer for a private screening room instead. It’s not always advertised as an option, but one is likely available. Believe me, it is much easier to wrangle a struggling, scared kitty in and out of a carrier when you’re not holding up a line of frustrated travelers and worried about your furry companion getting loose in the airport. Plus, it allows you to take a second to offer your cat some comforting pets.

Actually flying with a cat

Good news, it’s the home stretch! The journey leading up to the flight is often more nerve-wracking than the flight itself, so you’re mostly in the clear from here. Once you board, Martin recommends giving your seatmates a heads-up that you have a cat, since many people won’t notice right away. “I always like to say, ‘By the way, I have a cat here under the seat. Let me know if that’s an issue,’” she says.

If there is an issue—like sitting next to someone who’s allergic to cats—Christopher recommends flagging down a flight attendant; he says it’s all part of the job. So if you’re worried about causing trouble on the plane by traveling with your fur baby, don’t sweat it. It’s not unusual for flight attendants to move passengers around or request passengers swap seats as needed. Same goes for them helping you in the event your cat has an accident. “These things happen,” Christopher says. “It’s just about communicating so we can utilize the tools that we have.”

During the flight itself, Dr. Smith suggests monitoring your cat throughout. (One of the reasons Warshell likes her carrier: It opens from both the top and the sides. “It’s nice because I can open it a tiny bit and slip my hand in when I’m on the plane to pet my cat from above,” she explains.) You’ll want to ensure the carrier stays well-ventilated and secure, and keep an eye out for signs of distress or overheating, such as excessive panting, vocalization, or lethargy. If you do see these signs, alert a flight attendant and ask if it’s possible to move your pet to an area with better airflow and lower temperature within the cabin, recommends Dr. Smith. You can also offer your cat a small amount of water.

Last but not least, once you reach your destination and arrive at your new or temporary home, get your kitty’s necessities set up and give them time to adjust to the new environment. “Be patient and provide a quiet, safe space for them to explore at their own pace,” says Dr. Smith.