There is nothing like air travel to reveal how ambivalent our human attitudes towards animals really are. Is your cat more like a baby, or a piece of baggage? Should you be allowed to bring it on board with you and the other passengers, or should it be thrown down in the hold with all the other things? If you are allowed to bring it on board, should you be able to calm and soothe it when it gets anxious, or should you have to keep it stowed under your seat at all times?
In the last few months, I’ve gotten several messages from women who are getting ready to move internationally, and trying to figure out how to get their cats safely overseas with them. They have no option but to fly with their cats. I’ve been in their shoes, and I know what it’s like. Moving is stressful. Moving overseas is extra stressful. Moving overseas with an anxious best friend who authorities will treat like a suspicious package is extra extra stressful.
I had to do a lot of research to get my cat safely around the world, and am happy to share any information that might be helpful to others in similar boats. I’ve been writing a whole book about traveling with cats, which includes a lot about flying. It hasn’t been published, but since I’ve written it, I keep forgetting that no one can actually read it. Not much help to the world, is it? I’m rewriting the whole book in a different format, but in the meantime, I’ve decided to put up chunks of the old version here, on my blog. The section on air travel was nearly 4,000 words (it’s a complicated subject), so I’m going to edit it slightly, and break it into two halves – information pertinent to all flights, and extra info for international ones.
Part 1: For all flights
Pet policies vary greatly between airlines. Some don’t allow you to carry pets onboard at all. The more budget an airline is, the less likely they are to accommodate furry traveling companions. Those that do allow pets all differ in terms of what paperwork, carrying cases, and fees they require before you can get on board. So make sure to look an airline’s pet policy over thoroughly before you book anything. You’ll find these policies listed on most airline’s websites under ‘special baggage’, not ‘special guests’, so right off the bat, it’s implied that your best friend is more of a thing than a being. If there’s anything in the pet policies that’s not quite clear, go ahead and give the airline a call. I’ve been told very different things by different representatives of the same airline, so if there’s some detail that’s making you feel particularly anxious, go ahead and call a couple of times.
Many airlines will let you check your cat onto a flight with checked baggage. They will have specific regulations about the type and size of crate you will need, water and food dishes to put in it, and so on. Statistically, the odds are that your pet will be okay – of the millions of pets who fly on planes every year, only a small number are reported injured, lost, or dead. On the other hand, why on earth would you risk the extra stress and potential trauma for your cat and yourself if you don’t have to?
Even in a best-case scenario, it is much more stressful for both you and your cat to have strangers carry them off, send them through strange and noisy tunnels, and load them into a strange and noisy flying dungeon. And in a not-best-case scenario, there are real risks for the cat. You’ll notice that many of the airlines who take animals in the hold, even though they boast that it is ‘climate controlled’, won’t take them on flights in months they anticipate brutally hot or cold weather. So it can’t be that climate controlled down there. Also, has an airline ever lost or damaged your baggage? Because if your pet is in cargo, it’s being stored with and treated like baggage, and handled by the same baggage handlers as all the other ‘baggage’.
Many airlines will only take animals in the hold if you make a booking with a special cargo company. The Irish airline Aer Lingus has this whole thing on their website, “If they’re part of the family, they can be part of the holiday!” Which makes them sound lovely and caring. However, you have to make the booking through Aer Lingus Cargo, and when I called to see about flying from Germany into Ireland, they told me I’d have to make my cat’s booking with a German cargo company instead. They forwarded my query to a German company they recommended, who sent me a quote for €761.60! Almost $800 to take a little cat onto a two hour flight! When my ticket was only going to be €50! Which is why we ended up spending two days going by rail and sea instead.
One Christmas Eve in Berlin, I was carrying Aífe down the street. I had been sorting out our move from Germany to Ireland, and wondering what the best option was. As I was walking, a couple who had just moved to Germany from London started talking to me. They told me about the horrible time they’d had getting their cat out of England. They’d paid over £1000 to have him specially freighted with a cargo company, only to find his face was all cut up when he arrived in Germany. It seems that his carrier didn’t get fastened down in the hold, and he was just getting thrown about down there the whole flight over. And because of his injuries, he got taken to a special offsite quarantine facility, where his owners had to pay even more money to retrieve him. What a horrible ordeal! Nightmare.
Of course, there are airlines that will let you bring your cat onboard with you, particularly on domestic flights. Some of these airlines will list very strict limitations for the combined weight of the cat and its carrier, while others only care about the dimensions of the carrier. I can’t recall any check-in agents actually measuring or weighing Aífe’s carrier, but I’m sure they do reserve the right to do so. Most airlines also strictly limit the number of animals that can be carried on per flight, so you’d be wise to call the airline and check availability on specific flights well in advance of your intended date of departure, and even before you buy your own ticket. Once you know there’s definitely room for your cat on the flight you want, you can book your seat, then add your cat’s travel to your booking directly afterwards.
Even in a best-case scenario, flying can be a stressful experience. Especially the first time. For your cat, there are the stresses of many strange noises and smells, crowds of people, and scary mechanical sounds. For you, there is the knowledge that airlines reserve the right to veto your pet’s travel if it doesn’t seem fit enough for the journey or if you’ve got your paperwork wrong. The best thing I can recommend to minimize the angst for your pet, yourself, and the airline staff (who you do want to have on your side), is to have your kitty already accustomed to being schlepped around in its carrier.
If you think your cat might need extra calming down, you can buy disposable pheromone-treated towelettes that some cats apparently find soothing. Some people get sedatives for their cats from the vet, but these should really only be used as an emergency, last-ditch effort, as they can completely immobilize your cat, without actually sending them to sleep. Not being able to move can, understandably, be distressing to the cat emotionally, not to mention dangerous to their physical health. A lot of airlines discourage use of pet sedatives for this reason, and may officially state on their website that they don’t want them used on their flights.
When you get to the airport, you may need to be carrying a certificate of health from your veterinarian. United Airlines amazingly didn’t want any paperwork when Aífe and I flew with them, but other airlines we’ve flown with have asked for it. A certificate of health states your cat’s microchip number, rabies vaccination status, age, and sex, and that it is your vet’s professional opinion that your cat is healthy enough to handle the stress of the journey (and isn’t going to give any airline employees the plague). For domestic US flights, most vets – at least around Portland, OR – seem willing to fill this form out for about $25. The form is only valid for a short number of days from the time your vet signs it though, so make sure to time that window between signature and travel carefully. In the European Union, veterinarians can issue ‘pet passports’ that have all your pet’s information, and airlines will usually let you use this instead of a certificate.
When you go through airport security, you will have to take your cat out of its carrier. Pro tip #1: make sure your cat’s claws have been trimmed recently. The carrier itself has to go through the x-ray scanner with the rest of your carryon luggage. In Tegel Airport, in Berlin, I was once asked to walk Aífe through the body scanners on her leash, but every other time I’ve gone through I’ve been asked to carry her. Holding onto a wriggling, scared cat while you’re waiting in a line of other grumpy travelers to be scanned, and then waiting to collect your belongings and put your shoes and various layers of clothing back on, can be a little bit of a rigmarole.
Pro tip #2: don’t set an unzipped cat carrier down during any point in the check in process until the exact minute you are ready to grab hold of your cat. Once, when we were going through security in Dublin Airport, I was struggling to get all my belongings into bins and onto the conveyor, when Aífe tried to make a run for it. I had to chase her down the hall, until a tall, sporty fellow scooped her up for me. So keep your cat’s case closed until the minute you are going to lift them out.
Once you get on board the plane, it seems to be standard policy across airlines that you are supposed to keep your cat in its carrier, under your seat, for the duration of your flight. Some flight attendants are bigger narks about this than others; all of them want your cat in its carrier, which is fair enough, since nobody wants to risk having a freaked-out cat run amok in tight quarters a mile up in the sky. Also, in the event of an accident, a cat not in its carrier would go hurtling through the plane. Though no one seems to mind that infants regularly sit on their parents’ laps during plane rides with absolutely no safety restraints. Which is odd, because the Federal Aviation Administration states clearly that they should be strapped into child restraint systems in their own seats, since, as one article in Time magazine put it,
“no matter how much you love your kid and think the safest place for that little one is in your arms, unless your name is Clark Kent, you can’t argue with g-forces. Period.”
But a booster seat is a different thing altogether from being kept in a bag, on the ground, in the dark, with strange noises coming from below, for many hours. That would be a terrible thing to subject an infant to, and it’s a terrible thing to subject a scared kitty to, too; particularly on a long-haul flight, such as the 11 hour legs Aífe and I have flown between Seattle and Frankfurt. The nice attendants will let you bring the carrier up onto your lap after takeoff to calm your cat. One attendant on a Lufthansa flight even offered to bring Aífe water when we first boarded. It just depends.
The mean attendants, however, will bark at you to put your cat back under your seat if they see the carrier anywhere near your lap. Why? It’s not for the cat’s sake. The United website warns pet owners that “In the event of an emergency, oxygen service will not be available for pets.” And there aren’t tiny lifejackets or floatation devices on board, either. One attendant on a United flight (who really didn’t seem to like his job whatsoever) scolded me that Aífe had to be kept by my feet because other passengers could be allergic to cats. I guess the idea there is that keeping them bagged on the ground helps minimize the chance of anyone having an allergic reaction. But I can’t believe that the yard distance from your shoes to your lap could really make that much difference if anyone onboard was that allergic. I’ve smuggled Aífe’s case up onto my lap several times on flights, and carried her on my lap across many, many train journeys and bus rides, and never heard any complaints or uncontrollable sneezing from fellow passengers.
I highly recommend booking a window seat if you can. This gives your cat a little sense of being safe and secluded, minimizes the amount of annoyance to other passengers, and minimizes the amount of attention you’ll get from flight attendants. If you’re on a long-haul or red-eye flight, once they lower the lights for sleeping, and you pile blankets and coats around you, and the attendants stop walking around much, your cat is unlikely to be noticed if it’s just laying quietly on your lap. Aífe and I have passed many hours in this fashion.
What about snacks, and bathroom breaks? Obviously, no one wants their cat to relieve themselves in their carrier. But it happens. The first time I flew with a cat, it was to move down from Alaska to California, when I was fifteen. My cat peed in her carrier, and somehow managed to chew a hole through the mesh side of her carrying case. I had to spend several hours with my boot pressed against the hole, willing both kitty and piss to remain inside. I recently spoke to a woman who said her cat makes a point of pooping in its carrier every time he’s put in it. Like clockwork. That would make traveling a drag. Luckily, I’m happy to say that I’ve traveled far and wide with my Aífe, and she’s never gone number one or two. Even on journeys where we were traveling for twenty-four hours. I don’t know how she managed.
There was a law passed a few years back in the US, that every major airport had to install ‘pet relief’ areas. The law was implemented for people with disabilities, who had to travel with service animals. But it benefits pets as well, and I think it’s a wonderful step towards making air travel more pet friendly. My cat won’t go anywhere near Astroturf that smells of the pee of hundreds of unknown canines, but yours might be into it. Instead, I try to find somewhere with dirt or grass outside of the airport. Most of the ground for miles around any terminal is thoroughly paved, but since I’ve started looking, I’ve noticed that every airport has some landscaped or even disused patches around their entryways. We’ve broken up some very long flights with piddles near the arrivals areas in New Jersey, Frankfurt, Dublin, Berlin…
But since your cat will, ideally, not be potty-ing for the duration of your journey, it’s a good idea not to feed them a lot before you set out. Road snacks might be a good idea though. Aífe hardly ever wants to eat when we’re in transit. But occasionally she’ll take a few kibbles. She also loves cheese, so I try to have a little bit of it in my bag. Not necessarily the best thing for the feline digestion, but it makes her so happy, I feel like it’s good for morale.
Read on for more information about international flights with cats. It takes a fair bit of planning!