TRAVEL TIP | HOW TO FLY WITH A CAT
Updated: Jan 23
Disclaimer: This post has nothing to do with typography. We recently moved overseas and brought along our cat, Lindsay [Lohan]. I was very nervous about flying with her, and did not find a lot of information online about doing this. I want to be a resource for anyone preparing for this experience. I did find one good blog post about this, and we used it as a starting point.
BEFORE YOU FLY: A CHECKLIST
- Confirm your cat can fly: Just like dogs, there are some cat breeds that aren't suitable for flight. Check that your cat's breed is safe to fly.
- Decide on your airline: Different airlines have different rules and prices for pets. We flew American and looked up the rules for flying with an animal on their website. We wanted her to be in the cabin with us, so the cost was a little cheaper than having her under the plane. There are weight restrictions for in-cabin pets, so make sure your cat is light enough.
- Buy your ticket: I'm not sure what the process is for non-military, but we got our ticket through a service on-base. They were able to book our commercial flights and the one overseas, but we needed to call American and confirm the pet would be with us and in the cabin. Especially on rotator flights, there are limited spaces for animals and it's best to book your ticket soon after you receive orders and are able to do so. We didn't have to pay for Lindsay's ticket until we checked.
- Buy a crate: We chose the EliteField soft sided pet carrier from Amazon. It was cheaper than the Sherpa, and seemed to do the same thing. It squished under the seat just fine and no one had a problem with it (except our cat).
The ONE thing I would recommend you do if you choose this crate, is to bring a paperclip or something to secure the zippers. There are 3 zipper accesses to the crate, and once she discovered she could head butt and scratch enough to pull the zippers apart - we almost had an escapee loose on the plane. For me, this is the biggest downside to the soft crates.
(We did have friends who flew with their cat to S. Korea and tried to use this same crate. At check-in, they were told they had to buy a hard crate and ended up spending a bunch of money buying one in the airport. We were afraid this would happen to us, so we did have a smaller, hard crate broken down in one of our suitcases just in case.)
- Precautionary: Get Wee Wee Pads: We didn't know how Lindsay would react to being in the crate that long, so we did put a wee wee pad in the crate. Luckily, she never used it, but I know some angry cats would use the bathroom all in their crate.
- Desensitize: So our cat is strange because she normally loves her crate. We bought the soft shell crate a few months before flying and she HATED it. We kept it in the living room and encouraged her to get in it a couple times a day - it took some coercing and catnip, and she eventually would sit it in for a minute here and there. It would also be helpful to put the cat in the crate and drive around a couple times a week so they become used to traveling, but we didn't do this (who has time for that?). We also put one of my husband's shirts in there so she would be surrounded by a familiar scent (and though I will deny it to his face, he is her favorite).
- Buy a leash: If you don't already have a leash for your cat, you should get one. I know they seem so dumb, but it helped us a ton. Several months before the move, we got her a cat harness -- she hated it and found a way to escape from it almost immediately. We eventually switched to a leash and bought her this Bungee Leash from Amazon. We would make her wear it several times a week for a couple hours at a time, and after a while she really didn't mind it at all. It's less restricting than the harness and she was able to jump, play and sleep with it on almost immediately.
- (For Military Families) Do the vet paperwork: Wow, paperwork? Shocking, I know. When moving an animal overseas, there's a lot of hoops to jump through. Each country will be different, but this is my experience moving to Germany:
- The animal needs to be microchipped and registered online (once you get an address, you'll have to register the chip with the new country's online database as well)
- Make an appointment with the base vet 2-3 months in advance for their PCS appointment. Our on-base vet didn't take appointments until a month out, but if you explain to them what you need they'll be able to set you up within the proper timeframe.
- If your animal is not up-to-date on their shots, they NEED to be done about 25 days before flight or they will not be medically cleared.
- 1-5 days before flight: They will need to be cleared to fly. This was just a physical exam and we were given several things: A memo stating the animal is clear to fly, a few pages with detailed info on the animal, and another memo stating the vet is a real vet. We also needed to confirm we had her rabies vaccination paperwork and microchip registered with documentation.
- You will need this paperwork when you check in for your flight, and when you arrive at your next duty station (you'll have to register the animal with the vet there within 5-10 days of arrival). I had 4 copies of each paper.
- Luckily, she didn't need to be quarantined after arrival, but this may happen if you're moving to certain countries or if your paperwork gets messed up for some reason.
- Optional: Buy pheromone spray: While I've used the pheromone collars before, the vet said the only ~real~ stuff is this Feliway spray. I bought some at the local pet store and sprayed it around her crate. It wears off in 5-6 hours, so I brought it with me in my carryon. We also have these 'drops' to calm her, but we read not to use them on animals when traveling. While it will drop their heart rate, supposedly they don't actually calm the animal at all - it just gives them the appearance of being calm? I'm not sure if this is true or not, but I didn't want to risk harming her in any way while in-flight.
- Pack your bags: You need to make sure all of the pet supplies will fit in your carryon items! We had it planned out: Her items would be in my overhead carryon, and she would be my husband's 'personal item' that would go under the seat with him. What we packed:
- Pheromone spray
- Food / water bowls
- Vet paperwork
- 5 sandwich baggies filled with litter
- Extra wee wee pads
- Roll of litterbox liners (and some plastic bags incase those didn't work out)
- Foldable storage box things from Target (as makeshift litterbox)
- 2 big bags of cat food
- 1 bag of treats
- A few cat toys
TRAVEL DAY : WHAT TO EXPECT
Note: All experiences will differ. We're lucky our cat is pretty chill / terrified of the world and made it pretty easy on us. Here's what you might encounter and some things I would have done differently.
We waited until the last moment to put her in the crate before leaving the house. We kept her leash on her the entire time we were traveling. She's normally a flight risk, and we wanted to be sure she couldn't get far if she did escape.
- At check-in: She had to be weighed in her crate and we paid the pet travel fee. For whatever reason, the fee was higher than what we expected, so there was some confusion and Googling of American's pet guidelines.
- Security: They were very nice about Lindsay at security. You will need to take them out of their crate and carry them through the metal detector. They will then need to swipe each one of your hands. They worked with us to get her crate through the x-ray machine quickly, so I could put her back inside. She was completely terrified and clung to me throughout the process, pretty much opposite of how I thought she'd be.
Every time you go through security, they are going to search the bag where the litter is. I don't think it x-rays well, so make sure you have some time for your bag to be searched.
- Boarding / Flight: We boarded easily and have to smoosh her crate under the seat in front of us. As you can imagine, she was very confused and meowed a lot, loudly. Once we were in the air, she just kind of looked at us and didn't start acting up again until landing. Hopefully you know this, but no matter HOW MUCH you want to, you have to keep the animal in the crate the entire time.
- Layovers: We had 3 flights and a road trip to get to get to our destination, with one VERY long layover. During layovers, we found a quiet spot to set up her litterbox and give her food and water. Most of the time, she actually preferred to stay in her crate where she felt safe and watch people, although we had her on the leash and tried to get her to hang out with us. She was pretty nervous and ate a little bit, but didn't drink anything the entire time. I become nervous from her nervousness, but I couldn't force her to drink anything.
Note: Pets are not allowed in the USO, but we did take her into a lounge. We kept her in the crate the whole time (she wanted to nap), and I didn't ask if I could take her out. It didn't seem very ~lounge appropriate~ to set up her litterbox and everything.
What we should have done: We let her sleep for about 3 hours before our final, 8 hour flight. This was a massive mistake because I don't know about you, but our cat gets the zoomies right around 10:30-11:00 PM, right before our longest flight. While she was really good her first 2 flights, this final one was awful. We should have kept her awake so she would be exhausted during the long flight. Instead, she was meowing loudly, headbutting and trying to escape the entire time. Therefore I didn't sleep because I was too afraid of her escaping and felt so bad for keeping her in the crate that long.
- The litterbox situation: We used those popup storage boxes from Target with a litterbox liner inside. We only had like 2 cups of litter per baggie, and she understood what was happening. It sounds gross, but I did mix in some of her existing litterbox litter from home in with the new litter. I was hoping she would recognize her scent and understand what to do. I don't know if it worked, but she did get the gist of it very quickly. When she was done, we would just throw away the entire bag and fold the box back up.
This was the easy part. She was finally hungry, so we gave her some food when we were waiting for our baggage. After customs, there was an area where we needed to turn in her vet information and rabies certificate, and we were good to go.
If you are military, you probably have to register your animal with the vet on base. I didn't have to bring her with me to do this, thankfully. Once we did this step, we needed to bring this paperwork over to the housing office so they can have it in their files.
We didn't fly with her litterbox, so our first priority was to buy one once we got to the hotel. We also got her some new toys and a cardboard scratcher so she wouldn't totally destroy the hotel furniture. She is happy to be out of her crate, and we're happy we don't have to do THAT again for a while.
I really hope this post helps if you need to travel with a cat in the plane cabin. Lindsay did a lot better with the travel and crowds than I thought she would (minus the last flight). She's acting normal now and we look forward to moving into a house soon.