When I moved from San Francisco to New York 12 years ago, my only experience with air travel and pets was related to work: As a staffer at an animal hospital, it often fell to me to type up the health certificates required by airlines to confirm that the cats and dogs our vets examined were healthy and fit to fly. I still remember cats such as Boris, a majestically wrinkled pink Sphynx who wore a thick, hand-knit sweater to his vet visits and frequently accompanied his humans to Russia. (I hope that sweater was warm.)
I also remember practically deforesting the Bay Area with all of the carbon copies I had to complete and recomplete when I fouled them up on our old manual typewriter — how is it, again, that we could send men to the moon yet couldn’t generate official documents with anything other than an antique? Technology, I salute you.
As my husband and I prepared our own cats to fly, I went with what I knew: I paid for vet exams and health certificates. I bought soft-sided, in-cabin pet carriers based on the guidelines and dimensions our airline provided in its FAQs for travelers. Based on a conversation with the vet, I requested and pre-tested a prescription sedative to calm my cats, then age 3 and 2, for travel.
(Note that many vets now caution strongly against sedatives for cats prior to air travel, even when they will be in the cabin with their human companions as ours were; they argue that sedation could mask health issues that develop during the flight and increase the risk of heart or respiratory problems. While my cats experienced no negative effects when I sedated them before their flight in 2003, I wouldn’t do it again.)
On the morning of our voyage back east, we lined each carrier with a big sweatshirt that smelled like us, gave each cat a quiet and solemn speech about how if they hung tight with us for this trip we would never, ever ask them to make such an inelegant journey again, zipped them up securely, and crossed our fingers.
The hoodies we’d tucked into the guys’ carriers were big enough that they could rummage around and cover up their heads (as Jude, our shy Manx, did) or eye us silently and reproachfully (as Chuck, our statesmanlike black cat, did).
We jostled them as little as possible as we made our way through the airport in San Francisco and the cabin of the plane, and we periodically unzipped corners of their carriers just enough to fit hands in for reassuring scratches. They were so quiet that our seatmates didn’t realize we had cats with us in the cabin (though I still wonder what they thought we were patting in our carry-on bags).
We had to make an emergency stop on a runway in North Dakota when another (human) passenger had a heart attack midflight; after he was rushed away to the nearest hospital, the rest of us waited on the airstrip for another hour before taking off.
A chorus of babies serenaded us with their dissatisfaction, but Jude and Chuck burrowed into their hoodies and held tight. They yelled at us in the taxis we took to and from the airport because they associated cars with the vet, but I guess being on a plane was too weird to be objectionable.
Because I had carried and petted Jude throughout his ordeal, he held me responsible for it; for our first few days in New York City, I was persona non grata with him, and my husband got the same blame and treatment from Chuck. We tried to explain that they would have liked driving across the country even less, but time and bribery were much more successful in bringing them around. (Cat treats, I salute you as well.)
My second adventure with feline air travel was two summers ago, when we adopted Matty, our Siamese, from a rescuer in Los Angeles. Times had changed since that San Francisco trip years ago. When I looked into how to fly Matty back to New York City with me, I learned that my chosen airline, JetBlue, didn’t require a health certificate for cats on domestic flights. (As with Chuck and Jude back in 2003, my airline’s FAQ was my starting point in figuring out how I’d fly with my guys.)
After paying for my own ticket, I paid a $100 pet fee to reserve one of my flight’s four spots for a cat or small dog, confirmed that my old soft-sided travel carrier was still within the airline’s maximum size limit, and prayed that a kitten I’d never met would be able to play it cool when I showed up out of nowhere and asked him to take a trip.
I left Matty’s carrier at his foster mom’s house overnight before coming back to take him to the airport; being able to approach it on his own terms seemed to make him more comfortable with climbing into it for his trip. He was mosquito-sized back then, so the case that had seemed tiny to me when I’d brought it out from New York City was more than large enough for him on the flight back.
Pets must be removed from their carriers and walked through the Transportation Security Administration’s metal detectors, an X factor that terrified me: Who knew whether I could hang on to a squirrelly kitten in a chaotic airport? I spent days searching for a Chihuahua harness that would assure my hold on him. Of course, once he was wearing it, the metal on said harness triggered the detector and led to a 10-minute frisking of Matty and me. Does anyone out there have use for a tiny skull-and-crossbones-patterned dog harness? I don’t.
For reasons known only to him, the kitten who’d curled contentedly in his carrier for the ride to the airport raised hell as soon as I joined the queue to check in. As folks who live with Siamese cats know, their cries can sound an awful lot like human babies’ cries, so I looked for all the world like a traveler with a child stuffed into her duffel bag.
“This is my cat!” I said to the room in general. “A small angry cat!”
He quieted down as soon as I got my boarding pass, thank goodness. I hate standing in lines too, little man.
I asked well-traveled friends about their experiences with cats and planes, and their stories were as varied as mine. Elena, who immigrated to the U.S. from France, said that her cat meowed all the way from Paris to New York: “She was given drugs to mellow her out but I think being drugged only freaked her out more,” she said.
Another friend, Sarah, just relocated her family and two cats by plane and said it was uneventful. Even so, “I never want to do it again.”
Mattie’s two cats moved from Shanghai to Milan via an international pet relocation service and then hid in a closet for a month: “I don’t think they enjoyed the journey, even though their crates had smiley stickers proclaiming ‘I enjoyed a night in the Amsterdam Pet Hotel,'” she reports.
Megan flew from Iowa to Baltimore with one of her cats and her toddler daughter while pregnant with her second daughter, bless her, and recalls that the cat-related portions of her adventures were minimal.
So where does that leave us? Travel with cats can be a wild ride or a comparatively sedate (not to say sedated) stroll down a few moving walkways. We can control how it will unfold to some extent (talk to your veterinarian and hit those airline FAQ pages early and often), but it’s hard to know what might await us at the Amsterdam Pet Hotel, or how a kitten might feel about JetBlue’s infernal Bag Drop line. Pets defy augury, as Hamlet might have said if he’d had a cat. The readiness is all.
Have you flown with your cat? How was it? Tell us in the comments.
Read more by Lauren Oster.
About the author: Lauren Oster is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She and her husband share an apartment on the Lower East Side with Steve and Matty, two Siamese-ish cats. She doesn’t leave home without a book or two, a handful of plastic animals, Icelandic licorice mints, and her camera. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.