Traveling With Cats By Air

Extreme close-up of the bright green eyes of an all black cat staring at you.

Before you book your airline tickets, consider the additional risks and stress to our cat — and you — traveling by air and plan accordingly.

Okay, let me start by saying I’m in agreement with the Humane Society and do not recommend traveling by air with cats (or any other pets really). As unpleasant and often frightening as the experience is for us, imagine it from your cat’s perspective. We can’t explain air travel to our cats. Why do their ears hurt? What is that horrible roaring noise? (They don’t even make noise canceling headphones for cats!). What causes that stomach-lurching sensation during take-off and landing? Not to mention experiencing the crush of people and strange smells. It’s akin to taking an infant on a flight — and shoving the child in a tiny box placed under the seat until we arrive!

In addition, air travel can prove risky for your cat, particularly cats with “pushed in” or Perisan-type faces. There’s a medical term called “brachycephalic” to describe this facial feature. It means the animal is more susceptible to oxygen deprivation and heat stroke. There is also risk of long-term trauma causing behavioral changes.

Flying your cat in a cargo hold is dangerous. Avoid cargo transport at all costs.

No matter what the airlines promise in handling and care, the reality is usually quite different. Check out this insightful article from Condé-Nast Traveler on Is Your Pet Safe Flying in Cargo ( If you absolutely, positively can find no other way, then book a direct flight for your pet.

Also, BEFORE booking your tickets with an airline, research companion animal incident reports for each airline you are considering. All U.S. airlines must file reports with the government:

Consider driving instead or, if driving isn’t an option, consider boarding your cat or getting a cat-sitter.

Most cats prefer to stay put, preferably at home. Unlike dogs, very few cats suffer from separation anxiety when left on their own. As long as they have food, water and a clean litter box, most cats are delighted to be home alone. Even if they aren’t named Kevin. Consider getting a reliable friend or neighbor, or hire a professional cat sitter, to check-in on your sweetie. It may actually be cheaper than the extra airline costs!

If you don’t like the idea of anyone having access to your house while you’re away, consider boarding your cats. Most areas have at least one decent cat kennel. Or you might find a friend with a guest bedroom that can be converted to a temporary kitty AirBNB.

If you must transport your cat by air, she should travel in the cabin.

Check with the airlines BEFORE booking your tickets.

Most, but not all, airlines will allow you to travel with your cat in the cabin for an additional fee. You need to book your cat’s place well in advance. Most airlines have limits on the number of animals permitted in the cabin for each flight. You may need to split up the humans and take separate flights to transport multiple cats. There will be definite restrictions on acceptable cat carriers as well.

BEFORE booking your flight, make certain you get the answers to the following questions:

Are you allowed to take your cat with you into the cabin?

Are there any specific health or immunization requirements, such as recent health records?

Make certain you understand what is meant by “recent.” Canada now requires pets entering the country to have a health certificate issued within 10-days of entry as well as proof of complete, current immunization.

What are the cat carrier specifications and requirements?

While most airlines accept both hard-sided or soft-sided carriers, some require you use only certain brands or models. Keep in mind soft-sided can be more comfortable for your cat, but riskier if your cat ends up in the cargo hold or squeezed into an over-crowded flight.

Consider carefully what else you are packing. When the overhead bins are full or too small, passengers are forced to place all carry-on luggage under the seat. This is happening more and more often and without warning. The results are carry-on luggage consigned to the cargo hold. If you have your cat carrier for under the seat, can you still slip a bag with essentials like wallet, passport and tech gear?

If for some reason you can not take your cat with you into the cabin, are there restrictions on transporting your pet in the cargo hold of the same flight?

There are business that can act as a “travel agency” for your cat, if you find all the restrictions and regulations overwhelming.

Steps for Safer Traveling With Cats By Air

NEVER ship brachycephalic cats like Persians or other cats with a “pushed-in face” or other respiratory issues.

Air travel can create respiratory problems for many humans, let alone brachycephalic animals.

Use direct flights.

While they may cost a bit more, if you love your pet, it’s worth it. First, you avoid the common mistakes and problems from transfers between flights, particularly the increased chance of a delays in getting your pet on or off planes. Second, direct flights are less stressful for you and your cat. Both of you are confined in a small space for the shortest period of time. There is less stress transporting luggage and cat carrier through multiple airports and plane boardings. And the risk of errors, flight bumps, delays and other accidents is reduced.

Travel on the same flight as your cat.

Obviously, if you bring your cat with you into the cabin, this shouldn’t be a problem. But be prepared if something forces a change in plans. Whenever possible, stay with your cat. If your cat must fly in cargo, request that you be allowed to watch your cat being loaded and unloaded.

Choose flights to reduce temperature extremes.

Especially important if the cat is flying in cargo. In summer, schedule early morning or late evening flights when the temperature has dropped. And in winter, choose flights in the afternoon.

Avoid peak or busy travel periods such as holidays and summer vacations.

Crowded airports and flights only increase the chances of accidents, delays, or rough handling. Not to mention the additional discomfort and stress to the airline staff, your cat and you! If your cat has to fly cargo, busy periods greatly increase the danger to your cat as airline staff deal with the pressures of a hectic schedule.

Make certain your cat is wearing a collar or harness that won’t catch on the carrier doors, wiring or other extrusions in the event of escape or accident.

Save the diva jewels and cool spikes for the party. Use a sensible, plain, properly fitted collar with two forms of I.D. attached: your name and permanent contact phone number and address (and ideally, email address), as well as your temporary travel contact phone number, location and contact person.

Watch your cat being loaded into the cargo area to make certain your cat is not only on board but loaded safely.

If you cannot watch the loading, then ask the gate staff or flight attendant — before you board — to contact the area and ensure that your cat is indeed on the plane.

Let a flight attendant and, if possible, the captain know that you are traveling with an animal.

This is critical if your cat is forced to travel in the cargo hold. As fans of the brilliant BBC comedy series, Cabin Pressure, know from Episode 1 (Abu Dhabi), the captain can make certain decisions to improve your cat’s comfort and safety. In addition, flight attendants may choose to make safety or comfort adjustments to accommodate your pet — and you.

Put a travel label on your cat carrier.

Again, this should contain your name, permanent address, contact phone number, final destination and an alternate contact phone number and person. If your cat is flying cargo, add a note that you are to be called as soon as the animal arrives. (And turn your mobile phone on as soon as you are allowed by the captain!)

Attach an eye-catching label to the cat carrier with the words “Live Animal”!

Make the label at least 2-3 inches/5-7 cm tall with arrow showing which side is up. Also attach a note in large letters saying, “Please place me in the live bin!” If traveling internationally, make certain to include the notices in the language of your destination and departure.

Clip your cat’s nails to prevent claws from catching on things.

You may also want to do some other grooming to reduce the loose fur you cat will shed from nervousness or temperature shifts. And remember, airport security may take any clippers, so do the grooming at home.

Do not feed your cat for 4-6 hours before a flight.

You can give your cat water, but don’t put a full bowl into the pet carrier.  It will simply spill when the carrier is moved. However, here’s a handy travel tip: place 1-2 ice cubes in a small container for your pet. The cat can lick the ice cube as it slowly melts over the course of the trip. (FYI, filling a water bottle with ice cubes works for traveling humans as well.)

If your flight is delayed, remind the crew that an animal is on board and ask that the captain be informed.

If it’s going to be a long delay, your animal must be removed from the cargo area until flight time. Insist on this, especially in summer and winter. Remember, you are the only advocate and voice for your cat.

Never give your cat tranquilizers unless specifically prescribed by your vet.

Talk about your travel plans with your veterinarian, carefully explain your plans and concerns. Cats, particularly under stress, are highly susceptible to overdoses or unexpected consequences. Suppressed systems can prevent your animal from responding correctly to a changing environment or danger.

Have a current, full body photograph of your pet available.

And, ideally, have a photo of any distinguishing marks or features. If your pet is lost in transit, you have something to give airline employees and airport security to aid in the search (and, hopefully, safe recovery).

Save a copy of the photos on your phone, computer or tablet and store them in the cloud. Services such as Dropbox make the photos available from anywhere with internet access.

Upon arrival, open your cat carrier as soon as safely possible and examine your cat’s condition.

If something seems wrong, take your cat to a veterinarian immediately. Research emergency veterinary clinics or hospitals at your destination before your cat flies to save time under stress. Have the vet provide the results of the exam — and a list of any treatment — in writing with the date and time. You may need this to get a damage settlement from the airlines. And you need this for your cat’s complete medical record for home and travel.

Say something!

Don’t be shy if you see something wrong in the handling of your cat — or someone else’s. (Heck, even if it’s a dog) Ask to speak with a manger or someone with authority where the incident occurred. Break out that smartphone and record the incident with photographs or better video. Make certain the airline staff see you are recording the mishandling, then make your complaint both in person and in writing. Act as if it were a child being abused by airline staff because our animals, like children, have no voice or authority of their own. It’s our responsibility.

Air travel is not only stressful for your cat but it is stressful for you, particularly these days with increased security hassles and declining customer service. Make your travel plans with everyone’s comfort and safety in mind.

Remember, our goal is to make cat travel as safe and comfortable as possible for our cats — and ourselves.

Besides, do you really want to resemble the cat equivalent of a Paris Hilton?

Share your cat stories or questions in the comments below:

(or send them to me though the Contact Form). Please note, to prevent trolls and spammers, all comments are vetted until a certain number have been approved.

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