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How to Fly With Your Cat

Travel by air and land has become increasingly restrictive, making trip planning all the more stressful. What happens when you need to take your cat with you? Certainly, there are many things to consider well before you leave.

This article will cover those considerations so that you can feel confident before you embark with your feline family member.

Options for Flying With Your Cat

Every airline, especially government-owned airlines, will have detailed rules and regulations for traveling with pets. For many of them, the rules will be the same. What are your options?

Most commonly, your cat will be treated as a carry-on pet if they can fit in a carrier that fits under the seat in front of you. Otherwise, if your cat is an emotional support animal, you are entitled to bring them in the cabin with you when you travel. 

1) In the Cabin as a Carry-On Pet

Many cat parents are relieved to know that they can indeed bring their cat into the cabin with them. But this takes planning and you might have to purchase a new cat carrier that will conform to the airline’s requirements.

For the most part, your cat will be required to remain inside the cat carrier for the duration of the flight. The carrier must fit under the seat in front of you. At the same time, your cat will need to be able to sit, stand and turn around comfortably within this carrier.

Unlike your regular carry-on luggage, you will be charged between $50 - 200 for one-way travel.

2) In the Cabin as an Emotional Support Animal

If you suffer from PTSD, emotional or anxiety disorders, then flying with your cat could be a matter of necessity. If this applies to you, then applying for an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Letter for your cat could make travel less stressful.

The Canadian Transportation Agency mandates that anyone traveling with an ESA won’t be charged, can be seated anywhere and is given priority boarding. This law compels most Canadian airlines to comply.

There is no registry for ESA’s and people claiming to offer this service are most likely scammers. Go through official, well-documented channels to acquire an ESA Letter.

If you already see a therapist, they are an ideal point of contact to request one. Your veterinarian will also be an essential contact regarding this process.

Just to be safe, it is still recommended that “if you want to travel with an emotional support animal, ask your carrier about its policy and any conditions of carriage that may apply” (Canadian Transportation Agency, 2020).

3) In the Baggage Compartment

Since the carry-on pet carrier size restrictions are quite limiting, you might have to allow your cat to be housed in the baggage compartment. This can be quite distressing for many cat parents. That is why you must communicate with actual humans from the airline before finalizing travel plans with your cat.

You don’t want to show up at the airport on the day you travel to discover that you cannot bring your cat on board with you. Flying your cat in the baggage compartment will cost between $100-$350 for one-way travel.

Steps To Planning Your Trip with Your Cat

On the human-only side of things, you’re going to have to be aware of some details before you even finalize your travel dates and book your tickets.

1) Start a Pre-Flight Checklist Today

Make a checklist in advance for your travel necessities, as well as your cat’s. Start this checklist early (today!) and keep it around in the months or weeks leading up to your trip.

We have numbered this article to serve as a guideline for your checklist. But this isn’t exhaustive and your trip will have its unique requirements. So as you remember things you’ll need, no matter how trivial a detail it seems, add it to the list.

If you’re not sure whether you can bring certain essentials, like cat toys or feeders, having them on the list will remind you to inquire with the airline in advance. Make a note next to these items and plan accordingly.

2) Book Early To Get Your Cat in the Cabin

Since airlines may restrict how many pets can travel on particular flights, other cat parents may get in ahead of you if you don’t book early enough. At the time of this writing, air travel is under incredible strain, with limited availability and ever-shifting restrictions and delays.

If possible, booking tickets 6 months or more in advance, is advisable. This will give you plenty of time to plan and prepare.

3) Know the Cabin Restrictions For Your Cat

When you are booking your ticket, be aware that your cat will not be allowed to travel in the cabin with you if you book an exit or bulkhead row seat. The same often goes for certain travel classes, like Premium Economy seats, as the layout may not permit safe pet carrier stowage. 

Speaking With the Airline

So be very careful when selecting your ticket and pay attention to the seating chart. If one isn’t available when booking online, then do your entire booking on the phone. Note the booking agent's name, the confirmation number, and the time of booking.

You may need to follow up at a later date, especially if you are required to provide paperwork in advance of your trip date. Rules might change and agents may be unaware, so tracking these details will protect you from inconsistencies on their end.

Unaccompanied Minors and Medical Devices

Further restrictions apply if you travel with a medical device that needs to be stowed in the seat in front of you, your cat will need to travel in the baggage compartment. Finally, unaccompanied minors are rarely permitted to travel with a pet in the cabin.

4) Book Your Ticket First, Then Your Cat’s

You will first be required to make your reservation with the airline before booking for your cat. So once you have paid for your ticket and guaranteed your reservation, contact the airline right away. Most airlines will have a Travelling With Your Pet section detailing their procedures.

5) Collect Valid Health Certificates & Vaccination Paperwork

Your cat will likely need to be vaccinated against cat rabies and you’ll need to have a recent, valid proof of this. But your local veterinarian's paperwork is likely insufficient to clear government inspections.

Air Canada cautions pet owners: “To obtain these additional documents, such as government approved health certificates, please contact the consulate or embassy of the country/region to which you are travelling.” (Air Canada, 2021)

6) Get Your Cat Comfortable With the Carrier

If possible, months before you travel, get your cat acquainted with the carrier they’ll be flying in. This will give your cat a positive feeling towards the space where they will be confined for the trip.

While you and your veterinarian might determine that sedatives will be best for your cat, it is ideal for them to forgo them. Simply feeling safe and at home in their carrier will decrease the likelihood that they will need sedatives.

Use the Cat Carrier at Home Regularly

Practicing basic procedures, like getting in and out of the carrier, is a good idea. During security checks, your cat’s ability to perform these actions by routine habit will make things less stressful.

Consider a soft-sided carrier, like the Cat Carrier Backpack, which can be more forgiving in tight spaces where fractions of an inch count!

Keep the carrier around and open in your home. Leave treats and their favorite toys inside and even encourage them to use it as a regular bed.

7) Leash and Harness Train Your Cat Pre-Trip

On the day of travel, your cat will be required to exit the carrier to go through a security screening. At this point, you will want your cat to be wearing a harness to which a leash can be attached, like the Reflective Cat Leash & Harness Set.

You won’t be taking your cat on a long walk, so the skillset needn’t be mastered. But your cat should have a properly fitting harness and leash and be familiar with wearing it.

How to Leash Train Your Cat’ breaks down this fun new skill that will also expand the number of activities you and your cat can do together once you get to your new destination!

Tips For Travel Day With Your Cat

You’ve got your paperwork. You’ve spoken to humans at the airport, with your airline. You’ve got the right-sized carrier and measured it twice just to make sure. Now you need to make sure your travel days go smoothly.

Here are 7 tips to make that happen.

1) No Running Late!

Traveling by air with a cat requires time, preparation, and calm execution. Airlines will require you to show up at the gate 30 minutes before check-in to communicate with an agent before boarding. Keeping your cat comfortable during this entire process is going to be important. 

Long-Haul vs Short-Haul Flights

Even if it's the worst thing ever, planning to get to the airport no less than 4 hours before a long-haul flight will guarantee you can move slowly and calmly through the entire check-in process. You will be grateful for the extra time once you are there.

Short-haul flights will likely require far less time, especially within Canada or the US, and with an ESA letter.

2) Making Your Cat Comfortable

Try booking non-stop flights, eliminating as many layovers and transfers as possible. Of course, this can make for a more expensive trip, especially long-haul trips. You should make every attempt to have your cat travel in the cabin with you for longer periods of travel. This is especially true for cats prone to anxiety.

Sometimes this isn’t possible and you still need to fly with your cat in the baggage compartment. Speak with your veterinarian in advance to come up with a travel plan tailored to your cat’s personality and needs.

Bring your cat’s favorite toys, or even better, reward them with new ones especially for the trip. Feeding toys can be a welcome source of distraction and entertainment, although toys with bells and noisemakers may be prohibited by the airline.

3) Sedatives and Alternative Options

Your veterinarian might determine it’s best to sedate your cat for the duration of the trip. Alternative options to sedatives are a swaddling device or even pheromone wipes. It is a good idea to determine which of these methods will be effective and give them a try well in advance.

Seeing how certain treatments and medications affect your cat in the comfort of your own home can give you a good idea of how effective they will be on travel day. 

4) Prescribed Cat Medication

Don’t forget to pack any medication your cat requires. Always anticipate a worst-case scenario situation where your luggage might go missing. In this case, you would need to pack at least 2 weeks of medication for your cat into your carry-on luggage. 

5) Food and Water for Your Cat

Bring whatever food your cat will need, as well as a refillable water bottle and food bowls that can fit inside the carrier. Depending on how you have decided to travel with your cat, sedated or otherwise, you may be avoiding feeding them altogether. Make a plan with your veterinarian in advance (add it to your checklist!) to ensure optimal outcomes for your cat’s well-being.

6) Sanitation

Since your cat will have to stay confined to their carrier during the flight, they will also have to go to the bathroom there. You can line the carrier with pee pads made to lock in moisture and odor for dogs. Pick ones that are environmentally friendly, leak-proof and water-proof, for your cat’s comfort and safety.

7) Prepare to Clean Up

If and when your cat poops, be prepared to remove it. Add these supplies to your day-of checklist: Disposable latex gloves, plastic bags, and paper towels.

At the Airport with your Cat

You, your cat, their carrier, and your carry-on luggage will all have to go through security screenings at the airport. When your carry-on luggage goes through the X-ray screening device, the carrier will have to follow.

At this point, first carry out your human screening duties, putting your shoes, belt, and carry-on luggage through the X-ray. Once you are ready, you will take your cat out of the carrier.

Harness and Leash Going Through Security

To make this step stress-free, have your cat wear a harness before entering the carrier before arriving at the airport. This way you will be ready to attach a leash immediately when they exit the carrier going through security. The last thing you want is for your cat to get scared and run away in the airport!

At this point, your cat will have to exit the carrier and you will carry them through the full-body scanner together. Attach the leash, hold your cat close and take this opportunity to soothe them and give them cuddles. They are likely to be quite unimpressed with the situation but will benefit from your calm demeanor.

Cat cuddles are a good place to end!

Remember that even though air travel is stressful for your cat (and you!), preparing in advance will greatly reduce that stress. Safe and happy travels!


Banner image from Photo by Raoul Droog on Unsplash  

Air Canada (2021) “Air Canada - travelling with your pet,” Air Canada - Travelling with your Pet, [online] Available from: https://www.aircanada.com/ca/en/aco/home/plan/special-assistance/pets.html (Accessed 30 August 2021).

Canadian Transportation Agency (2021) “Denied boarding: A guide,” Canadian Transportation Agency, [online] Available from: https://otc-cta.gc.ca/eng/publication/denied-boarding-a-guide (Accessed 30 August 2021).

Canadian Transportation Agency (2020) “Reservation checklist for persons with disabilities: A step-by-step guide for planning your travel,” Canadian Transportation Agency, [online] Available from: https://otc-cta.gc.ca/eng/reservation-checklist-persons-disabilities-a-step-step-guide-planning-your-travel (Accessed 30 August 2021).

CertaPet (2020) “Emotional support cat: Registering your cat as an emotional support animal,” CertaPet, [online] Available from: https://secure.certapet.com/register-your-cat-as-an-emotional-support-animal/ (Accessed 30 August 2021).

Delta Air Lines (2021) “Flying with Service Animals & Emotional Support Animals,” Delta Air Lines Travel Planning Center, [online] Available from: https://www.delta.com/us/en/accessible-travel-services/service-animals (Accessed 26 August 2021).

Delta Air Lines (2021) “International & Connection Pet Travel,” Delta Air Lines Travel Planning Center, [online] Available from: https://www.delta.com/us/en/pet-travel/international-connection-pet-travel (Accessed 26 August 2021).

Hunter, T. (2021) “Flying with your cat,” VCA Canada Hospitals, [online] Available from: https://vcacanada.com/know-your-pet/flying-with-your-cat (Accessed 30 August 2021).

Therapetic (2020) “Fastest emotional support animal letter,” Therapetic, [online] Available from: https://therapetic.org/emotional-support-cat/ (Accessed 30 August 2021).

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