How to Travel with Your Cat on an Airplane

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I recently went through the ordeal of moving my cat, Foo, from the east coast to the west coast of the United States. I’m so glad I prepared myself and herself months in advance otherwise I think things would not have gone so smoothly. We’re now all cuddly and happy here in California!

Just know that every cat is different, so you really have to KNOW your cat to make your cat the most comfortable. In the end, the animals we are guardians of are an extension of ourselves. If we’re not taking care of them, we probably aren’t taking care of ourselves.

I realize a lot of my prep work for traveling with Foo is mostly so I wouldn’t have to feel too much like a jerk. I knew she wouldn’t love traveling so I wanted to feel like I did what I could to help her transition.

SO. Foo isn’t so good with car travel, which we discovered when we took her from Wisconsin to Washington, DC on a 13 hour trip. (Which actually was more like 15 hours due to all the stopping to clean her up. Poor Foo.) She pooped, she peed, and the real indicator of her dislike of car travel was foaming at the mouth and throwing up. The stop and go of car travel just does not sit well with her tummy. Plus, 6 hours on a plane as opposed to a full week of car travel sounds better to even me.

Flying it is!

We flew on Virgin Airlines, which I highly recommend for pet travel. For only about $100 more, Foo flew with us at our feet. I’ve never sent a pet to fly in the baggage area. Honestly, I can’t imagine doing that, but I know many pets have to fly that way because of size restrictions in the cabin. That’s the way it is.

If you are planning on taking your kitty on an airplane, here’s 11 things that I did that can guide you.

1. HARNESS TRAIN
Know that TSA will have to take your cat out of it’s carrier and run the carrier through the scanner. A harness is therefore essential to controlling your cat and making sure she doesn’t run off. Foo donned the TSA-approved harness that came with this kit. It and the leash are metal-free to swiftly get through security.

I made sure her harness fit was snug enough so that she couldn’t Houdini herself out of it. Online there was this horror story of someone not fitting their cat’s harness snug enough and their cat got out and was never to be seen again. That makes me sad.

I also got Foo used to wearing the harness by wearing it a few hours a day at home whenever I could. When she wore the harness at home, I was attentive and encouraging to her, giving her tons of brushes and a few treats as well as getting her to play with her favorite silk ribbon.

Did she LOVE the harness and ever really enjoy actually walking around in it? No. But it got her used to it so it didn’t seem so overwhelming when the time came to wear it for a whole day. Some cats really enjoy harnesses and like walking in them. Just depends on the cat…

At the TSA checkpoint at Reagan National Airport, I asked for a private screening so we could be in a quiet room together while they took the carrier to the scanner. The TSA guy held her like a baby in the room and she didn’t seem to mind. I was surprised at how accommodating the TSA dude was and that he didn’t seem worried she would slash his face off. I asked him if he had cats and he nodded “Yes, I have 2.” Well there you go.

2. CRATE TRAIN
I wish I would have kept Foo crate trained throughout her life, but alas. Make sure you leave a crate out as much as possible and make it as enticing with soft bedding and toys and snacks – whatever motivates your cat. Spray the crate with Comfort Zone Feliway, which is a pheromone spray that soothes cats and tricks your cat into feeling like things are familiar-ish.

Since we traveled by air, I researched the best crates for air travel and decided upon the Sleepypod Air. The Sleepypod Air is pricey but oh-so-worth-it since it conforms to most airlines regulations for crate size. It’s very sturdy and has pockets and great ventilation. The floor inside is plush, absorbent and washable.

I got the dark chocolate Sleepypod Air and I think the fact that it was dark helped Foo feel hidden. No one really noticed that I was carrying around a cat. In fact, a guy on the plane tried helping me put the crate in the overhead bins until told him “Oh no! That’s my cat. She stays with me. Thanks for your help, though.” He had no idea. Haha.

3. MICRO-CHIP YOUR CAT
Foo had never been micro-chipped so I had the vet do this. In case she were to run off and somehow lose her collar, her information would be embedded into her skin, in a manner of speaking, on the back of her neck. You have to register the micro-chip with the micro-chip company for like $20 in order to track your kitty.

Heck – I might get myself micro-chipped. You never know when you may lose your mind and your identification and need someone to get you back to the people you belong with. Ha. There’s movies about this stuff!

4. GET VACCINATIONS AND HEALTH CHECK-UP
Get your cat to the vet so they can be up on their shots and stuff. (Actually Foo’s vet in DC did house calls so it was extra easy.)

Also, make sure your cat doesn’t have any weird health issues that may need to be taken care of well before they fly. Foo was found to have a small thyroid issue that was slowly making her lose weight. I had to get her on medicine right away to counteract it. I’m glad I could start the medicine before we got to our new city, where I’d have to go through the rigamarole of finding a new vet, taking her there, yadda yadda.

5. GET HEALTH CERTIFICATE AND ID FOR FLIGHT
Request a health certificate from your veterinarian that states your cat is up-to-date on shots and is healthy enough to fly. You’ll need to ask for within 1-2 weeks of flying, so you may have to do a separate visit to the vet.

Print out a photo of your kitty and include a short description of them (age, color, breed, gender, etc) and put that with the crate. Also put tags with your contact info on the crate and harness.

This kit is a great way to gather it all up.

6. DOPE YOUR CAT
My vet gave me some meds to calm her and make her not get sick. I don’t know what the meds were called but your vet would. She only got a ¼ of a tablet which got her through the 6 hour flight.

If your cat is a champ at taking treats, try out Pill Pockets for easy pill administering. Foo likes Salmon flavor. I gave her Pill Pockets without pills to make sure she liked them and didn’t have bad associations with them. (If you try giving your cat a Pill Pocket when you really need them to take the damn pill they probably will sense that and not be interested in the treat. Try giving it to them with enjoyment on the mind, not stress. It will be easier when you actually have to give them a pill inside it. Get me?)

Your vet will probably tell you to give your cat the sedative a few weeks before travel to make sure the meds actually work. For some cats, the opposite will happen and they’ll go berserk. Test it out! Drug your cat. It’s fun.

Another few things that I think helped was the aforementioned Feliway and these calming treats. I gave her a few calming treats an hour before leaving, then gave her the dopey dope medicines. Feliway was sprayed in the crate a half hour before.

Since cats are all about territory, just the act of moving possessions out of their space can be traumatic enough. The apartment we were moving out of in DC was in complete chaos before our flight so giving her calming treats seemed to help her be chill while all of HER things (as I’m sure she thinks) were moved out.

7. TRIM CLAWS
If your cat has claws, make sure they are good and trimmed. You don’t want the cat to somehow scratch the shit out of the TSA person or yourself or dig out of its crate.

If you have to have the vet trim the claws, have them trimmed within 1 week of travel.

8. PACK DRYFUR PADS
Imagine being in a small space with no way to go potty for several hours. Yuck. You would want something to wick away urine, right? Haha. Dryfur pads are awesome and designed to wick away that uriney moisture.

When I took Foo out of her crate, she was dry and didn’t need to be washed. There were no noticeable urine smells coming from the crate during travel. I love you Dryfur! Like Depends for a cat.

I got the 2-pack of Dryfur and put one in the crate right away for travel and the extra went in my carry-on. I had planned on switching out the 1st one for the 2nd one during the TSA screening (since she’d have to come out of the crate anyway) if she needed it. She was dry enough so I didn’t end up needing the 2nd one but I’m glad I had it with me.

9. PACK PET POOP BAGS AND CLEAN-UP TOWELS
I knew Foo would poop in the crate eventually. I packed a few of those small pet poop bags in the pocket of the crate so I could grab the poo out, making her much more comfortable and less vocal.

I notice that the only time Foo gets noisy is when she gets messy so I made sure to stay on top of that and get the poo out pronto. A few paper towels and individually-wrapped anti-bacterial wipes helped to clean up the caked-on poo.

10. PACK A TEMPORARY LITTER BOX
This is something I’m soooo glad I thought ahead about.

Since we were arriving to our final destination – our new (and empty) apartment – late at night, I knew no pet stores would be open and thought to pack a temporary litter box for her.

That consisted of a small (18QT)Tupperware box that I stowed in my luggage with a Ziploc bag of litter (World’s Best). Just enough litter to fill the bottom of the box.

There are also disposable litter box solutions in the market too but I had an extra Tupperware box so just used that.

Foo started using the temporary litter box right away and it was good enough to last her through a few days.

As a more permanent litter box solution, this Good Pet Stuff Hidden Litter Litter Box is my favorite. I ordered one via Amazon the minute we arrived. Honestly, I don’t know why there aren’t more attractive-looking litter boxes like this in the world. Like, how about a litter box with a dang bubbling water fountain on top? Or with a bin for potpourri?!

11. CALM ENERGY
Don’t forget to pack this!

Pets are super sensitive to your energy. If you are stressed, they will be too.

Being prepared by knowing what to expect and doing all the things you need to do will help you and your kitty have a sweet and peaceful (or at least tolerable) jet-set life together.

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CAT-IN-FLIGHT TIMELINE CHECKLIST   click to download printable pdf

2-3 MONTHS BEFORE FLIGHT
[  ] Buy crate and start crate training
[  ] Buy harness and start harness training
[  ] Get a veterinarian check-up and all necessary shots
[  ] Get cat micro-chipped (if not already)

1 MONTH BEFORE FLIGHT
[  ] Continue harness and crate training, taking your cat on small trips and working up to being in the car if you think it’s going well
[  ] Try out doping your cat, if you think she needs it.

2 WEEKS BEFORE FLIGHT
[  ] Continue harness and crate training
[  ] Buy Dryfur pads
[  ] Prep/buy temporary litter box

1 WEEK BEFORE FLIGHT
[  ] More harness and crate training
[  ] Get health certificate from veterinarian
[  ] Trim claws
[  ] Pack together health certificate, ID, harness and leash, water and food dishes, a small amount of food, Pill Pocket treats, cat dope and any meds, pet poop bags, and anti-bacterial wipes. Feliway went in checked-in luggage.

DAY BEFORE FLIGHT
[  ] Put 1 Dryfur pad in crate, 1 in carry-on luggage
[  ] Pack temporary litter box

½ HOUR BEFORE PUTTING IN CRATE
[  ] Spritz crate with Feliway
[  ] Be calm and collected
[  ] Hope kitty poops and/or pees right before you put her in the crate (Foo did! Woo!)

EN-ROUTE TO AIRPORT AND IN-FLIGHT
[  ] Pay attention to kitty and give affection and encouragement
[  ] Clean kitty up as soon as you can, switching out Dryfur at TSA checkpoint if needed

Be extra courteous and thankful to TSA and Airport staff that help you along the way. Even if you think they aren’t being helpful at all.

Stay calm, stay collected, enjoy getting your gypsy cat there in style.

Tweet me if you have any questions! @barbariancases

FYI – Some of the links in this post are referral links. I get a small percentage of each sale. This does not raise the cost of the item to you. I only recommend stuff I myself use or know will help you. That is all. :)