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Tips for flying with your cat

Tips for flying with your cat

Posted by Armarkat on 3rd Jun 2024

Most people don’t like airport travel and neither do cats, but flying can be an unavoidable fact of life for pets and humans alike. When traveling with your cat, there are many aspects to consider far in advance for ticketing, airline regulations, and keeping your cat safe and comfortable. The following information comes from cat experts Jackson Galaxy and Kitten Lady, as well as travel connoisseurs from Condé Nast Traveler and airline websites.

To fly or not to fly

The most common reason for travelers to fly with their cat is moving to a new home. Kitten Lady advises “Only fly if you have to. Don’t subject your cat to a flight just for the fun of it. Going to a vacation spot might be nice for you, but for your cat it can be a pretty terrifying experience. If you’re just going for a short trip, I highly recommend getting a cat sitter and leaving them where they’re comfortable. But if you’re moving permanently, of course your cats are members of the family and they’re going to come with you.”

Booking the flight

Riding in the cabin as a “carry-on”

Always have your cat ride with you in the cabin as a “carry-on” whenever possible. Some international flights do not allow cats to ride in the cabin with you, but it’s best to take that option whenever possible.

Riding in the cargo hold does not just expose your cat to uncomfortable temperature changes and the anxiety of being separated from you. It also treats your cat’s carrier, the box holding your precious pet, like other pieces of luggage that get shifted around mid-flight. In 2019, a cat named Milo went missing for two months outside of Dulles International Airport in Virginia. He ran away on the tarmac where luggage was being loaded for transport to baggage claim. Because Milo had been flying in the cargo hold, he’d been separated from his owner the entire flight. Unbeknownst to his cat mom and airline staff, his carrier broke during or shortly after the flight, leaving a hole wide open for his escape. Although Milo was eventually found in an area near the airport, the experience was a very trying time for his cat mom and he likely would not have been found without the help of professional animal rescue teams (information from The Washington Post).

Buying your cat’s ticket

Purchasing a spot for your cat to fly as a ‘carry on’ in the cabin is a multi-step process. Kitten Lady recommends calling the airline before you book your ticket to inform them that you have a cat you need to travel with in the cabin and ensure that there is still a spot for your cat within the pet carry-on limits for the flight you want. For example, American Airlines’ website says about carry-on carriers (or “kennels): “We can only accept: 7 kennels on American flights, excluding service animals; 5 kennels on American Eagle flights; 1 in First.” Delta Airlines’ website shows that a maximum of four carry-on animals are allowed for most flights total. Only one carry-on pet is allowed per person, so if you are traveling with a second cat, you absolutely must bring another person to fly with their own ticket and cat ticket. You should also check that there are no other restrictions regarding pets you can travel with. For example, Air Canada’s website says that for any flight with their airline, your carry-on pet must be “at least 10 weeks old and fully weaned.”

Once you’ve confirmed that there is still space open for a carry-on pet, you’ll need to purchase a ticket for your cat at the same time you purchase your own ticket. Although a cat’s carrier is technically a carry-on item, airlines require you to purchase a special ticket for your cat.

According to American Airlines’ website, the cat carry-on ticket typically costs $150, though it can vary according to how many layovers you have and other factors. Delta Airlines’ website lists $95 for the pet carry-on ticket fee for standard flights. Air Canada’s website shows that they charge $50 (CAD) for carry-on pets for domestic flights and $100 (CAD) for international ones. This data is liable to change, so please check with any of these airlines directly if you are preparing for a trip with them.

Preparing health documents

After you’ve purchased your ticket and your cat’s, you’ll need to prepare all documents required by the airlines you’re flying with as well as documents required by the locations you are departing from and arriving at. You will need to have an official health certificate for your cat issued by your veterinarian, which verifies that your cat is healthy enough to fly, as well as proof of vaccinations. Mandatory vaccinations vary by airline and government policies. International flights tend to require more paperwork than domestic ones. Also, prepare for any mandatory quarantines. For example, there are special animal quarantine regulations in Hawaii.

In addition to paperwork, for your cat’s safety, you also need to make sure that your cat is microchipped and that the contact information registered to the microchip is up to date. If your phone number or address has changed, make a vet appointment to add your current information to your cat’s microchip.

Selecting an airline-friendly carrier

Once you’ve checked all pet travel regulations for your airlines and locations, booked your cat’s carry-on ticket, and prepared the correct documents, you need to make sure your cat’s carrier meets your airline’s size and weight restrictions. Airline staff will strictly deny an animal the right to fly if their carrier is too large. A great carrier option for flying is Armarkat Pet Carrier PC102R, which is size compliant for most airlines and meets the recommended material and ventilation qualities detailed below. However, you should still check with your specific airline to make sure the carrier fits their size regulations.

Many airlines provide suggestions for the kinds of carriers (or “kennels”) that have been most effective for pets’ flying experiences. For example, American Airlines’ website says the following: “Soft-sided collapsible kennels are recommended and can be slightly larger but still need to fit under the seat without having to excessively collapse the kennel. They must be secure, padded, made of water-repellant material and have nylon mesh ventilation on 3 or more sides.” Delta Airlines also strongly recommends a soft zippered carrier with mesh ventilation.

Preparing for the flight

You’ve checked with the airlines to make sure you have a carrier that meets their requirements. Now you’ve got to get your cat used to that carrier!

Carrier training

Jackson Galaxy offers professional advice on how to get your cat used to its carrier: “You want your cat to be as comfortable as they possibly can in their carrier, thinking about their carrier as sort of their portable base camp, the panic room, the place that they will go when they’re feeling a little bit insecure. So, then, by the time that you go on a trip, they’re not associating that carrier with bad things happening. Their blankets are in there, things that smell like you. They get their favorite treats in there. If at first he’s just really not into the carrier, take the door or top off it. Make it into a bed, make it into a den. You’re putting his blanket in there for him. Then, add his favorite treats, whatever that jackpot treat is. Make sure he only gets it in that den, in that carrier.”

Kitten Lady adds the following advice for practicing carrier travel with your cat: “One of the best ways to prepare your cat for travel by plane is to do short trips in the car ahead of time. These guys have to be able to tolerate a six-minute drive if I want them to tolerate a six-hour flight.” When you get back from the drive, give them some treats.

Pack a carry-on emergency kit

No matter how long your flight is, you will need food and treats on hand for when you arrive at your destination and supplies for you to clean up after your kitty before boarding. If your cat takes medication, bring extra in your emergency carry-on kit in case your checked luggage gets lost. Some garbage bags, pet-safe wet wipes, and puppy pee pads can make a big difference for your cat’s cleanliness and for eliminating unpleasant smells that could disturb other passengers. You can put an old towel in their carrier under the puppy pee pad to make it easier to remove the soiled supplies and toss them. If you’ll have a layover, bring an additional towel you don’t mind disposing of and re-line the carrier.

Medication testing

Carrier training can make a huge difference in keeping your cat calm enough to travel, but if your vet thinks your kitty is especially nervous or fidgety, they may prescribe a sedative medication for your cat. If your cat has not been on that medication before, you’ll need to know ahead of time how your cat responds to it. In advance of your trip, give your cat the medication at home to see if they have any adverse medical reactions.

Kitten Lady described how her cat was prescribed sedatives, which she gave to them two to three hours before traveling. In her case, she was able to open the capsule and spread the powder into her cat’s food. Instructions may vary by medication. Always follow the guidelines from your veterinarian.

The day of the flight

Before you leave home, spray your cat’s carrier with a cat-friendly flower essence remedy. These are specifically designed to calm cats and can last a long time.

When you check in at the airline counter, you will be issued a tag to put on your cat’s carrier. Even if you completed online check-in, you must stop at the airline’s counter to receive that tag before continuing.

When going through the security checkpoint, you’ll be asked to remove your cat from the carrier so that the carrier can go through the luggage scanner. You have the right to ask for a private room for screening and regulations require security personnel to provide a private room when asked. Having the screening done in a private room makes it less likely that your cat will escape when outside the carrier and will be a calmer environment for your cat. If your cat is harness-trained, having your cat in harness with a leash ready will make the process go more smoothly.

On board

Once you’ve boarded the plane, place your cat’s carrier below the seat in front of you. If you have a flight longer than an hour, check on your cat a few times throughout the flight without opening the carrier. You can look through the mesh sides of the carrier to see how they are doing. It is very normal for a cat to feel distressed and be very vocal throughout a flight. It won’t be a wonderful time for your cat, but you can do your best to make it as less frustrating as possible for them.

According to Condé Nast Traveler, “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.”

After landing

Feed your cat as soon as possible after you reach your destination. Give them fresh water right away, along with some treats, and continue to provide them with items that have your scent so that they can transition better to their new surroundings.

Flying can be very stressful for both people and cats, but proper preparation is key to making the trip run as smoothly as possible.

Quote of the day: “People who love cats have some of the biggest hearts around.” - Susan Easterly


“How to Fly With Your Cat,” Kitten Lady

“How to Make Flying With a Cat Easier, According to Experts and Owners,” Condé Nast Traveler

“Jackson Galaxy's Tips for Flying with Cats,” Jackson Galaxy

“Pets”, American Airlines

“Pet Travel Overview,” Delta Airlines

“Milo the cat went missing at the airport. Two months later, he’s been reunited with his owner.” The Washington Post

“Traveling with your pet,” Air Canada