The 5 things you must to do before flying with a cat (good luck lol)

Flying with a cat

If you’ve never done it before, flying with a cat can seem daunting. I mean, even if your cat is chill and relaxed at home (like mine is), there’s no guarantee that it won’t be a total ***hole on an airplane. But that’s no reason not to do it.

Whether you’re moving states or traveling on vacation, it’s perfectly possible to travel with your cat. All you need to do is make sure you have the necessary paperwork, a cat carrier that meets airline standards, and a lot of patience.

Flying with a cat? Here’s 5 things you’ll need to do before heading to the airport:

Basically, there are two kinds of cats in this world: those who don’t like to fly (like my cat), and those who couldn’t care less. No matter which kind you have, it’s not all that difficult if you plan ahead. There’s a bit more to it than bundling her into a crate and setting off to the airport. It’s definitely not as easy as flying with a guitar.

flying with our cat
Date: October 19, 2013. Time: 12:30pm. Location: Sacramento International Airport. We had just picked up our new kitten, and were about to fly home to San Diego. We had no idea that our little fur ball would hate flying so much (it was basically the worst flight ever lol).
Please note: I (Scott / SANspotter.com) am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Some of the links on this page are affiliate links.

1. Choose the right cat crate

The first thing you need to do is find the right cat carrier. Different airlines have different specifications, so I recommend talking to your airline before setting off on your crate-hunting expedition.

One thing most airlines agree on, though, is that the crate needs to be big enough for your cat to stand up and turn around comfortably. The other thing to consider is whether you want a hard or soft shell crate.

  • Soft shell crates have more flexibility and are easier to fit under your seat.
  • However, some people prefer the extra security of a hard-shell crate. The reinforced plastic makes it harder for your little buddy to MacGyver her way out of the crate than the admittedly sturdy mesh of most soft shell crates. Hard-shell crates give a bit of extra protection when you’re transporting your cat between taxi and lounge or lounge and airplane.

Personally, I prefer the soft shell crate (and so does my cat – at least I think she does). It’s just easier to manage when flying, as not all underseat storage space is the same. If I had to get a new one today, it would probably be the Henkelion Cat Carrier (in gray):

2. Consider getting a harness

When you get to the airport, you can’t put your cat through the security scanner alongside your carry-on. This might seem obvious, but it’s a detail many travelers overlook when flying with cats. 

But they still have to scan the crate. That means you’re going to hold your cat in your arms as you walk through the body scanner as the crate goes though the x-ray machine. If your cat is stubborn and doesn’t like to be held (or is simply frightened easily), walking your cat through the body scanner with a harness is an alternative solution.

The best airline-approved crates will have a harness tether built-in. This means you can clip the harness to the crate and give your cat extra stability in-flight (or unlatch it for extra in-crate freedom).

Note that you can also purchase harnesses separately. If my cat would wear a harness (she won’t), I would probably get this one from rabitgoo:

3. Don’t forget food and water

Harness and crate picked out, you need to decide if you want your cat to have access to short meals during the journey.

When I fly with my cat (which isn’t often considering how much she doesn’t like it), I tend to limit her to water only since what goes in also comes out. I’m not a cat, but I can imagine that there would be nothing worse than sitting in a messy crate for hours on end.

Whether you come down for or against meals, water is a must. There are all kinds of travel dishes you can clip to the inside of a cat’s crate to give them easy access to their drink of choice. I also recommend having a water bottle handy so that you can top the dish up if you need to.

cat bag under seat on airplane
This isn’t a great photo, but it’s all we have of that first flight with our then-new cat (who we eventually named Francis). We basically spent the entire flight trying to calm her down because she wouldn’t stop meowing. I felt so bad for her!

4. Make sure your paperwork is in order

In addition to all the impediments needed to fly with your cat, there’s also a considerable amount of paperwork involved. And you thought bringing a suit on an airplane was difficult! Basically, you need to approach the idea of flying with your cat just as you would flying with medication. There’s rules in place that must be adhered to.

First, you need to obtain a valid health certificate. Your local vet can issue this for you. It effectively tells airlines your cat is up-to-date on shots and vaccinations. The only catch? You need to obtain the document days before you leave, so trying to organize the certificate weeks in advance won’t work.

If you’re traveling out of the country, you will also need a pet passport. This gives all the details about your cat, including:

  • Microchip number
  • Coat color
  • Cat breed
  • Age and birthday

Finally, depending on the time of year you fly, you may require veterinary endorsement that the weather is conducive to flying with your cat. This form is important if your cat is flying in cargo.

Effectively it says that the weather is neither too cold nor too hot to endanger the cat you’re flying with. As you’ve probably guessed, the weather-related form is another piece of paperwork you can’t do until closer to your travel date because forecasts could change at any time.

travel cat
Francis might seem curious about travel (she gets really excited when I pack my bag), but I can assure you that she’d rather stay home and sleep. She doesn’t like flying!

5. Declare the number of animals flying with you

Finally, out of consideration for allergic passengers, most airlines will only accept a certain number of pets in-cabin per flight. If you want to fly with your cat in the cabin, you need to arrange this with the airline as soon as possible. Otherwise, you risk spaces filling up.

Is it safe for cats to fly on airplanes?

Flying with cats is perfectly safe, provided you take the right precautions. For most owners, the biggest concern is temperature, since, at high altitudes, your cat can easily overheat or freeze.

Airlines understand how important cats are to their humans, and if the weather looks like it would jeopardize your cat, they’ll defer her travel until it’s safer.

This usually means owners have to kennel their cat overnight or until the airline can arrange for someone to travel with your cat. 

Is flying with cats stressful?

Anyone who has ever tried to ram a pill down a reluctant cat’s throat or corralled an aggrieved feline into his crate can answer this one.

Flying with cats is about as stressful as anything else you do with your cat. There are many moving parts to coordinate to fly with your cat, and keeping on top of those can be stressful.

It can also be stressful for the cat, who is now in an alien environment full of strange smells with no understanding of why he’s there.

But there are ways of managing feline stress. Vets recommend using:

Note: if you want to manage your cat’s stress through medication, you must obtain a prescription first. And you absolutely must test the dosage. There’s nothing like flying or driving with a medicated cat, hitting the halfway mark, and realizing that your very relaxed cat is having the feline equivalent of a drug trip.

Ensuring the dosage is right prevents this and allows you to enjoy the flight without fretting about your little buddy.

cat playing in cat carrier
What confuses me the most about Francis is that she loves to sleep (and play) in her cat carrier at home. On an airplane, it’s a completely different story.

Does flying hurt cats?

Flying can be stressful for your cat, especially if she’s never traveled before. But it won’t physically hurt her.

At least, no more than it hurts the average human. There may be some mild discomfort as your cat’s ears adjust to the high altitude, so a bit of meowing is normal.

The only animals in real danger of flying are dogs or cats with flattened faces because the snout-like noses can’t inhale oxygen as effectively as other animals.

How do cats go to the bathroom on a plane?

Your cat’s in-air toileting is no different from when they’re at home using a litter box. The only difference is that instead of burying their offering and walking away, your cat has to sit in a soiled crate.

  • One way to make the experience more pleasant for your cat is to line the crate with absorbent liners, like a pee pad. That way, your cat will still have somewhere dry to sit.
  • You can also take these liners out and replace them on long flights to keep your cat comfortable. Just make sure you keep hold of that harness while you’re making the switch.

Unlike humans, a nervous cat can hold its bladder for anywhere between 24-48 hours, so it’s entirely possible that when flying with your cat, she won’t want to go to the bathroom at all.

cat in cat carrier
That feeling of absolute terror when you’re stuck in a bag and you really gotta poo.

How do I get my cat to stop meowing on a plane?

This is the biggest problem I have when flying with my cat. She simply won’t stop meowing, and it breaks my heart because I know that she’s stressed out to the max. I don’t fly with her very often because of this, but I have discovered a few things:

  • Since a comfortable cat will always meow less than an anxious one, one of the best things you can do before flying with your cat is to familiarize your cat with her airline-approved carrier. I leave her soft shell bag out at home all the time, and she even sleeps in it sometimes.
  • Consider treating it with Feliway (or an equivalent pheromone simulator) to give it a familiar smell to your cat.
  • Using prescribed travel medication may also help your cat sleep throughout the flight. I’ve never tried this with my cat, but I’ve heard from other owners that it helps.
  • Finally, once you’re in the air, you can always put the crate on your lap to reassure your cat. Just make sure she’s stowed back under the seat for takeoff and landing.

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