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Air travel can be stressful. Add a cat to the mix and you’ve just ratcheted it up a notch. While flying with a cat can be an intimidating thought, it’s often necessary for those moving long distances and can be the best (i.e. fastest) way to get you and your kitty from one point to another.
A little bit of planning ahead can go a very long way in making the experience a smooth one. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be for you both.
This guide covers everything you need to know to fly with a cat including how much it costs to fly with a cat, airline regulations, how to prepare your kitty for airplane travel, and some day-of travel tips to ensure you and your kitty have the best trip possible.
The majority of major air carriers in the U.S. allow people to travel with cats. While some allow pets to be checked as cargo, your best bet for flying with a cat is to bring your buddy in the cabin with you. Checking a cat as cargo is not recommended for a variety of reasons, including extreme temperatures, shifting baggage, and issues with cabin pressure.
“We can’t ask cats directly how they feel when they fly–but keeping in mind how sensitive they are to noises and how loud airplanes are, we can assume that for many cats it will be a little scary,” points out Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior consultant and postdoctoral fellow at the School of
Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis.
Keeping your companion at your side will make air travel less stressful for her, not to mention be a safer and more comfortable experience for you both.
When considering an airline choose one that offers, if possible, a non-stop flight. Not only will this cut down on travel time, but it’ll also relieve you of the potential hassles of delays, long layovers, and even missed connections.
Another consideration is choosing a seat. A window seat can be less stressful for your kitty, insulating her from the noise and visuals of busy aisles.
Once you have chosen an airline, place a direct call to reservations to check its policies concerning flying with a cat. Each carrier has different rules and regulations. While most publish their policies for traveling with pets on their official websites, calling to make your reservation and confirm policies will ensure there are no surprises on your day of travel.
Making a reservation directly with the airline is also required to confirm there’s space in the cabin for your kitty. Each airline Rover checked with has a maximum number of pets allowed in the cabin. Because flying with service animals has become more common, you’ll want to be sure there’s room for your pet on your chosen flight.
Both American and Delta Airlines charge a $125 fee to fly with a cat, while Alaska Airlines charges $100, and Southwest Airlines, $95. Federal regulations require cats be a minimum of eight weeks of age to fly, but airlines can have different rules: American specifies eight weeks and older while Delta’s minimum age is 10 weeks.
If you’re flying with kittens or very small cats, most airlines will allow one person to travel with two cats sharing a carrier. If you’re flying with more than one adult cat, you’ll need to purchase another seat for a companion who can accompany kitty number two as well as pay an additional pet fee.
If you’re traveling outside of the continental U.S., be sure to check the policies for the territory or country you’re flying to as each destination will likely have very different regulations than interstate travel.
Of course, you want to roomiest carrier possible for flying with your cat. While many carriers are advertised as being sized for air travel, it’s extremely important to ensure the dimensions of a carrier do not exceed those of your specific flight.
Be sure to get the exact carrier dimensions allowed on your flight when making your reservation. For example, Southwest Airlines’ published maximum kitty carrier size of 18.5” long x 8.5” high x 13.5” wide may not be the same as another airline’s restrictions.
All airlines require that carriers have adequate ventilation and provide enough room for your kitty to stand up and turn around with ease. “Your pet must be small enough to fit comfortably in a kennel without touching or protruding from the sides of the kennel and with the ability to move around,” specifies Delta Airlines.
Once you have confirmation on dimensions, it’s time to choose a kitty carrier. Robin Downing, DVM, with VCA hospitals recommends choosing a soft-sided carrier as they’re “more forgiving for fitting under the airline seat space.” These allow kitties a bit more “wiggle room” and can be easier to carry as they normally come with convenient carrying handles and adjustable shoulder straps. If you have a bigger kitty who might “protrude” from the sides of a soft-sided carrier, choose a hard-sided carrier.
Get kitty familiar with and comfortable in the carrier in advance of your trip. “Leave the carrier out and let them get used to it,” suggests Gregory Kuhlman, DVM, DACVIM, a veterinary specialist in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Most cats will start to go into the carrier on their own. Take them on a short road trip and then give them a treat when you get home. With this plan, most cats will get excited when they see you get their carrier out.”
A soft blanket infused with Feliway as well as catnip, treats, and a toy or two could help, too.
Though many airlines don’t require health certificates for your kitty to fly domestically, a vet visit is always a good idea to make sure your kitty is safe to travel. This is especially important for brachycephalic (or, flat-faced) kitties such as Persian and Himalayans that may have breathing problems.
A veterinary visit is also a great time to discuss options for calming your cat. According to doctors with VCA Hospitals, most cats travel fairly well without sedation. Calming remedies such as a stress-relieving collar can be helpful in taking the edge off.
If you’re pretty sure your kitty won’t travel well, your vet can explore options for prescription sedatives. When a cat “gets very angry or stressed at the veterinarian” it’s a prime indicator that she may not travel well, Dr. Kuhlman points out. “The best sedation is gabapentin given one hour before the trip starts,” he adds. Your vet can prescribe the appropriate dose, and you can ask for extra doses to practice a dry run before your trip—this can help you understand how your cat reacts to the medication before you’re en route.
When you fly with a kitty in the airplane cabin he or she is considered your “carry-on”, so plan ahead for what to pack in the one personal item you’re allowed. Consider upgrading from the usual purse or briefcase to a small backpack or duffel.
In addition to your necessities, you’ll want to include any kitty calming agents you’ve chosen as well as a pee pad or two, wet wipes and latex gloves in case of emergency. While it’s unlikely your kitty will have an accident, if he or she does, you’ll want to be prepared.
- To avoid accidents, don’t feed your cat before you travel. If you have an early flight you’ll want to remove food and water between 9 pm and midnight. If your flight is later in the day, you can feed your kitty a small, early breakfast but will want to remove food and water after that.
- Plan to arrive early enough at the airport to check-in at your airline’s ticket counter. This is where you’ll pay pet fees as well as have your carrier inspected to ensure it’s within the airline’s required dimensions.
- At the TSA checkpoint, you’ll be required to remove your cat from their carrier and carry them through TSA screening. If your kitty is having a rough go of it and you’re concerned for your kitty’s safety, as well as your own, you can request a special TSA screening in a private room. Most kitties will be overwhelmed enough by the experience to go into what many call “freeze kitty” mode, which makes carrying them through screening much easier. If possible, wrap your kitty in a light blanket, safely covering their face to get through this hurdle. If your kitty is harness-trained, be sure to have its harness on for this step. You can always remove it later in an airport pet relief area.
- On that note, check ahead for the location of airport pet relief areas. It’s great to know where these are in case of an accident or if for some reason you end up with a long layover or missed connection. If you know you’ll definitely have a layover, bring a personal item big enough to fit a portable litter box and a small baggie of litter.
- Don’t expect special treatment because you’re traveling with a kitty. You will board, as usual, with the group you’re assigned.
- Your pet will spend the entirety of the flight under the seat in front of you unless you’ve discussed alternate arrangements when making your reservation. In very rare cases, such as flying in business class of an American Airlines A321T airplane, pets will be taken from you and stored in a specific “pet-friendly” pet holding area during takeoff, landing, or in turbulence. If this hasn’t been specified in advance and someone asks you to put your cat elsewhere, such as in an overhead bin, you’ll want to speak immediately with a flight supervisor.
- While you may want to open a carrier in the airport or in-flight to check on your buddy, resist the urge. Not only is this against federal regulations, but it’s also extremely unsafe for your kitty. In the unfortunate event your kitty has an accident on the plane you’ll want to take her in the carrier, along with your stash of wet wipes, latex gloves, etc., to the airplane restroom. Once the door is locked and you’ve ensured the toilet seat is closed, you can remove kitty from the carrier for clean-up. She’ll thank you and so will your fellow passengers.
If possible, have a friend set up a safe place for your cat in your new home. This should include a litter box, food, water, toys, and a comfy bed. “The best way to introduce your cat to a new space is to place them in a small space like a bathroom or a bedroom,” advises Kuhlman. “Let them acclimate to this space first and then gradually over the next few days give them more and more access to the entire environment.”
If you don’t have anyone who can set up beforehand, consider ordering the above items online and sending them ahead to arrive before you do.
Need someone to watch your kitty once you’ve landed? Get in touch with a Rover cat sitter.