Flying with cats is not as hard as it sounds. If your cat can nap, your cat can fly. Learning how to travel with your cat on an airplane helps you to create a safe, predictable, and calm passage for your kitty when the fur flies. Prepare well in advance:
For cats that will travel in the cabin, buy an airline-approved airplane pet carrier. The best cat carriers for airplane travel are durably sewn with lots of air vents; a zippered top and side exit door; a soft, removable bottom pad; and several flat internal and external pockets. Resist the temptation to buy a “designer” carrier. The flash draws undesirable attention.
For cats that will travel in cargo, buy a sturdy, airline-approved cargo crate with a good door latch. It should have detachable food and water receptacles. Since cats are small, it is advised that they ride in cabin. Only for multiple cats who will share a container, or irrepressibly vociferous cats, is cargo travel an advisable method.
All carriers should have attachments for paperwork and name tags. Use the airplane pet carrier to transport your cat to various destinations prior to flight. It is best if these destinations terminate simply in a return home, or a visit to a friend the cat likes. If you use the airline carrier to take your cat to the vet, such journeys may engender fear and loathing.
Gradually increase the duration of the time your cat spends in the carrier, taking longer journeys to desirable destinations. Include a toy, but avoid food, because cats generally should not eat on airplane trips. (If your cat must travel in cargo on longer flights, including water may be advisable.)
Keep the carrier open in the house and put enticing cat toys (not treats) in it to make your cat happy to enter it, but never use this carrier as a day crate.
When Booking Flights:
Choose an airline that permits cats and clarify whether your cat will travel in cabin or in cargo. Some airlines restrict cargo flights during some times of the year. Most importantly, when booking, get a locator number for your cat that is associated with your seat number.
If an itinerant lifestyle with your cat is part of your plan, take a short flight to a nearby destination as a starter flight. Your cat will learn that the long wait ends in eventual release from the carrier, and will be better prepared for an upcoming long flight.
Food and Meds in Flight:
Feed your cat at least five hours in advance of travel, and avoid giving water within one hour of flight. (Water may be advisable for cats traveling in cargo on long flights.) For cats traveling in cabin, offer ice cubes or a sip of water toward the end of the flight as needed.
If your cat takes meds, schedule the doses according to your travel schedule. Remember that you will have to show up at least an hour before the flight, and once you enter the airport, your cat will be in the carrier.
Unless your vet says otherwise, tranquilizers are not advisable for high altitudes. Train, don’t drug, your pet into being a good traveler.
Bladder and Bowels:
Try to keep things calm at home before the flight so your cat uses the litter box normally. Unless your cat is leash-trained, he will not be able to evacuate again until you arrive at the new home or hotel. Most cats do not evacuate while on a leash, and most prefer to use a box.
ALWAYS make sure your cat is secure in the carrier or crate and does not bolt. Keep the door closed until you are in an enclosed space. Cats are very slippery when scared. Your cat should wear an ID collar at all times (minus extra easily-snagged charms and ornaments). If you must take him out, hold extra tight. Traffic around airports is intense and extremely dangerous.
In The Airport Building:
For cats traveling in cargo in a crate, the check-in counter staff will advise you where to deliver your cat for transport. If your cat is flying in cabin, you will carry him through gate security. You must remove him from his carrier and carry him through the metal detectors, allowing his bag to go through the X-ray machine.
NEVER allow your cat to pass through the X-ray machine — it is not permitted and is highly dangerous.
Make sure your cat’s rabies inoculations are up to date and keep a vet’s health record in your travel paperwork.
On the Plane:
Slide your carrier under the seat in front. Check on your cat now and then, but avoid exciting him to make him feel he may be let out to play. If your cat is traveling in cargo, check-in staff will advise you where to pick him up after the flight.
About the Author: Helen Fazio and her dog Raja blog on pet travel and related topics at www.traveldogbooks.com. In their first book, “The Journey of the Shih Tzu,” Raja tells the wolf-to-woof story of the development of this amazing breed. They are working on forthcoming titles.