Traveling by air can be nerve-racking for cat and owner alike. Cats are territorial creatures who don’t react favorably to being removed from familiar surroundings. Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to leave your cat at home. Here’s what you should know if you find yourself forced to take to the friendly skies with your feline friend.
Make your airline reservations as soon as possible once you know that you will taking your cat with you on the plane. You will want to give yourself time to call around to a few airlines to inquire about their requirements with regard to pet transport. Each carrier has its own policies, and the policies are subject to change. Some airlines do not allow pets at all; others may allow pets to travel in the cargo hold but not in the passenger cabin. Some airlines will refuse to transport pets when the outside temperature is either extremely hot or extremely cold. Every airline that allows passengers to travel with pets will charge a fee, and the fee will vary from company to company. In addition, most airlines impose a limit on the number of pets they will accept in the passenger cabin on any given flight.
The important thing to remember is that you will need to make a reservation for your cat as well as for yourself. If you don’t give the airline advance notice that you’re travelling with an animal, you and your cat may be prevented from boarding the aircraft. Call the airline directly for your reservation or use a flesh-and-blood travel agent. On-line travel web sites like Expedia and Travelocity generally do not enable customers to make reservations for pets.
If at all possible, take your cat with you in the passenger cabin rather than checking her as baggage. It usually costs a little extra to take your cat in the cabin, but it’s worth it. Traveling in the cargo hold can be very dangerous for pets. Cargo holds are often not temperature-regulated. Depending on the time of year, your cat could be subjected to broiling heat or freezing cold. If the plane hits turbulence, your cat’s carrier could fall or be crushed by shifting baggage. Plus, a pet carrier can get lost in transit the same way a suitcase can. If you must check your cat as baggage, inform the pilot of the aircraft personally that she is in the cargo hold so that he can take steps to regulate the temperature. Also, ask the airline agents to allow you to be present or at least within watching distance when your cat is loaded into the cargo hold. Baggage handlers will be less likely to throw your cat’s carrier or handle your cat carelessly if they know that the cat’s owner is looking over their shoulder. Whatever airline you select will require a veterinarian to certify that your cat is healthy and fit to fly. Try to schedule the visit as soon as possible after you realize you will be traveling with your cat. Like physicians who treat humans, veterinarians are often booked weeks or even months in advance. When you call for the appointment, be sure to explain the purpose of your cat’s visit. The receptionist is more likely to make efforts to “squeeze you in” once she realizes your request is time sensitive and won’t take up a big chunk of the doctor’s time
Consult your veterinarian. Make sure that your cat has the medical documentation required by your airline. Most airlines require a certification that your cat is healthy and fit to fly and that she has been vaccinated for rabies. Generally, the vet’s certificate must be dated within ten days of your flight.
If a veterinary visit is required, try to schedule the visit as soon as possible after you realize you will be traveling with your cat. Like their counterparts who treat humans, veterinarians are often booked weeks or even months in advance. When you call for the appointment, be sure to explain the purpose of your cat’s visit. She will be more likely to “squeeze you in” once she realizes your request is time sensitive and won’t take up a big chunk of the doctor’s time.
While you’re at the vet’s office, you may want to ask about tranquilizers. Some cat owners give their cats tranquilizers before flying to prevent them from panicking or disturbing other passengers during the flight. However, many veterinarians advise against the use of tranquilizers during air travel unless your cat is particularly nervous. Cats tend not to respond well to tranquilizers under normal circumstances, and it can be tricky for your vet to calculate the right dosage to give your cat. On top of that, the changes in altitude and air pressure during a flight can intensify the effect that the tranquilizers have on your cat. There is a slight but real risk that a combination of stress and an overdose of tranquilizers could be potentially deadly for your cat.
Once you have your flight reservations and a veterinarian’s OK, it’s time to think about the logistics of actually getting your cat on the plane and keeping her in one piece. First, you need to make sure that you have the appropriate pet carrier for the trip. If you absolutely must check your cat as baggage, you will need to house her in a sturdy pet carrier made of a hard, inflexible material equipped with holes or an open-latticed door so that your cat can breathe. Make sure that the carrier is labeled with your name and your address and telephone number at your destination. The carrier should also be labeled conspicuously with words “Live Animal” and an indication of which side of the carrier is the top and which the bottom. It is important, especially for long flights, to include water and a small amount of dry food in the carrier.
If your cat will be traveling in the cabin with you, you will need to keep her in a soft-bodied pet carrier for the duration of your trip. The cat carrier must fit beneath the seat in front of you in the airline carrier, just like a carry-on bag, so it needs to be small and flexible. If you don’t already have a soft cat carrier, you can easily find one at almost any pet store. A popular brand is Sherpa, which was designed by an airline attendant specifically so that owners of small pets could keep their animal companions with them in the passenger cabin.
Once you have your cat carrier picked out, it’s time to get your cat ready for the big trip. Place her favorite blanket or one of your old T-shirts in the carrier. Your cat will find the familiar smells comforting. Leave the carrier with the blanket or T-shirt in it out in the open in your living or bedroom for a few days before you leave on your flight. This will give your cat time to get used to the carrier and she will be less likely to struggle when you place her inside when it’s time to go to the airport.
When you arrive at the airport, you will need to send your cat’s carrier through the x-ray machine. Before doing so, you will need to remove your cat from the carrier and hold her as you walk through the metal detector. Remember, security personnel at the airport will not allow you to leave your cat in her carrier when it goes through the x-ray machine. If by some chance, you are allowed or encouraged to send your cat through the x-ray machine, don’t do it! The heavy dosage of radiation can be harmful to your feline friend. If you are afraid that your cat may panic and leap from your arms, place a short leash or harness on her so that she won’t get away from you. You can easily find a cat-sized leash or harness at a major pet store like Petco or Petsmart. It may be a pain getting your cat to wear a leash, but it beats having to chase her down in the airport concourse.
Once you board the plane, place your cat in her carrier securely under the seat in front of you. It’s best not to take your cat out of the carrier during the flight. Your cat may cry a little, especially during take-off, but most cats surprisingly do calm down after the plane levels off and curl up for a nap. While your cat is taking her nap, you can feel free to take one too. Once you’re on the plane and in transit, the worst of the hassle of flying with your cat is over. You can just shut your eyes, nod off, and dream about how happy you both will be once you’re on solid ground again.