By Kae Lani Kennedy
Airlines are prepared to provide a safe environment for your cat while flying. But even though airlines and flight attendants are tailored to assist you with your feline flyer, you as a pet owner, have to be ready to take care of your cat’s physical and emotional needs.
While the use of tranquilizers or sedatives may seem like an easy option for keeping you cat calm during a flight, they might not be necessary. “The average cat does better with flights than we expect,” says Dr. Carlo Siracusa, staff veterinarian, behavior medicine, at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
If you do think a sedative might be necessary, a “trial run” is always a good idea, suggests Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinarian at Home to Heaven in Colorado. “Cats are individuals and may react in an unexpected way to a particular sedative, and you certainly don’t want to learn this just before you fly,” she says.
Though your cat may not be happy with plane travel, there are ways to keep your cat calm during a flight.
Choose a Comfortable Cat Carrier
According to Siracusa, you should have two different cat carriers in your home—one for trips to the vet, and one for travel. If you always bring out the cat carrier used for the vet’s office, your cat will associate that carrier with a destination that is not desirable. But if you have a second cat carrier, it may help alleviate your cat’s stress when it comes time for flying.
Always call the airline ahead of time and ask what type of cat carrier or crate is allowed on the plane and the airline’s standard dimensions for pet carriers.
Train your Cat to Like the Carrier
Flying with your cat is all about preparation. Creating positive associations for your cat with his cat carrier will not happen overnight. So plan several weeks in advance to start training your cat to be comfortable with the carrier.
“Leave the carrier out,” says Siracusa, “so that your cat can come and go as he pleases.” Siracusa also recommends encouraging your cat to spend time in the cat carrier. Placing the cat carrier in a warm place and putting a soft blanket with your cat’s favorite toy will make it much more warm and appealing. “Reward your cat each time he spends time in the carrier,” says Siracusa. High-value rewards will help your cat create positive associations with the carrier.
To get your cat used to traveling in the carrier, Siracusa suggests placing your cat in the carrier for progressively longer periods of time, and even taking your cat on short trips in the car to places he will enjoy or even just for a drive around the neighborhood.
Try Using Pheromones to Calm Your Cat
“Pheromones can be used to lower stress associated with new environments and new experiences,” says Siracusa, who recommends Feliway, a synthetic pheromone. “It’s similar to the pheromone that the cat deposits when they rub against objects,” he explains. Sprayed within the crate, pheromones may help your cat feel as though he is in an environment that is “safe and under control,” according to Siracusa.
Prepare for Security Checks
One of the most critical points of the flying process is when you have to remove your cat from his carrier and hold him while going through security. This puts your cat in an open and unfamiliar environment, which can lead to anxiety. Siracusa says that the best way to handle this is to swaddle the cat in a blanket so that he doesn’t squirm free or claw at you. “Most cats shouldn’t have an issue with going back into the carrier afterwards,” says Siracusa, “because at this point, they feel as though this is their safe space.”
Outfitting your cat with a well-fitted harness and leash that he or she wears while in and out of the carrier offers an extra layer of protection against escape, adds Coates.
Consider Putting Your Cat in the Cargo Area
Most airlines offer space for pets in either a cargo area or in the cabin. Some pet owners may feel more at ease with their cats in the cabin, but according to Siracusa, that can actually be uncomfortable. “Flying with your cat under the seat in front of you is not ideal, especially for longer flights,” he says. “The space is too small and does not allow enough room for your cat to stand or sit.”
Airlines have special areas in their cargo specifically to keep pets safe, so Siracusa says you shouldn’t feel guilty about being separated from your cat during the flight. This option also allows your cat to travel in a larger crate that can fit a small bed as well as a litterbox – a “convenience” that shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly on a long flight, says Coates. Coordinate with the airline ahead of time so that the company can make the appropriate arrangements for your cat.
Image: Nadinelle via Shutterstock