Plane Travel with Your Cat

Passenger cabin
Usually your cat can travel with you in the passenger cabin if you follow certain rules. Cats in the passenger cabin must remain in a safe kennel (carrier) that's placed under the seat in front of you. If you want your cat to fly in the passenger cabin with you, make your reservations as early as possible because airlines restrict the number of pets allowed in the passenger cabin of each flight. In addition, if you're traveling with your cat, the clerk needs to assign you a seat with enough room for your cat. The space under the aisle seats can be narrower than the space under the center and window seats. Some airlines don't allow passengers with pets to sit in an exit row. Therefore, if you don't register early, the flight may be either closed to additional pets, or they may not have a seat left with enough room for your cat.

Check the airline for the maximum dimensions for a kennel in the passenger cabin. Usually these are about 21 inches long, 13 to 16 inches wide and 8 or 9 inches high. Zippered soft kennels, sometimes called bags, work well in the passenger cabin because they're flexible. Make sure soft kennels have lots of cushioning and a secure zipper.

Kennels must be ventilated on at least two side. Label your cat's kennel with your name, address, and telephone number. Make sure your cat is wearing a collar, leash, and ID tag. Most airlines insist that there be enough room in the carrier for the cat to stand up, turn around, and lie down. Very large cats usually can't travel in the passenger cabin.

Once you call and reserve your cat's space, you may pick up its ticket when you pick up yours. A ticket for your cat in the passenger cabin usually costs about $50 for a one-way trip.

Checked baggage
You can also put your cat in a large kennel and fly it as checked baggage for about the same price as a ticket in the passenger cabin. When you fly your cat as checked baggage, the cat is placed with your luggage instead of with you.

To fly your cat as checked baggage, you need to put your cat in a hard, plastic kennel that's airline approved. Buy the strongest kennel you can find, and make sure that you label the kennel with your name, address, and telephone number and that your cat is wearing its collar and ID tag. Ask the airline to confirm your checked baggage space when you make your reservations. This way you can be certain space will be available. A few airlines have a policy that prohibits them from confirming space, but this doesn't mean they won't have a space for your cat; it just means that they can't guarantee it.

A few airlines require written confirmation as to when your cat last ate and drank. This means you have to write this information down. Most require that you have food and water in the carrier. Usually, you can duct tape small cans, dishes, or foil packets inside the carrier for your cat. Some carriers have dishes built in that you can fill from the outside. Mark the kennel with a one-inch high "live animal" sign.

Standard cargo
If your cat must travel alone, the airline will accept it as cargo. Most airlines have a choice of either standard air cargo or a premium service called counter-to-counter. Counter-to-counter is a much better way to ship your cat.

If you ship your cat as standard cargo, often called freight, it must be at the cargo facility about two to four hours before the plane takes off. Most cargo facilities are located somewhere other than where you would normally check in for a flight, so allow yourself time to find the cargo facility. Once your cat reaches its destination, it will be held an additional one to two hours. This lengthens your cat's trip considerably, and causes it more stress than is necessary. Cargo doesn't have the same loading priority as baggage, which means it's possible that the weight limits for a flight could be reached before your cat is put on board. If this happens, your cat must wait for a later flight.

Whether or not your cat can fly as standard cargo also depends on the temperature. The temperature at both destinations must be within an acceptable range or the airline won't put your cat on the plane.

Counter-to-counter requires your cat be at the passenger terminal only 30 to 60 minutes prior to the flight's departure. And someone can pick up the cat as soon as the baggage is unloaded after the flight.

Health and security
Airlines won't let your cat on a plane unless it's healthy. Within 10 days of the flight, you must take your cat to the veterinarian and get a health certificate. The airlines will also visually assess your cat's health before they put it on the plane. Check the rabies requirements in both your state and the destination state to make sure your cat won't be impounded. (To do this, call the local office of the Department of Agriculture.)

Most veterinarians advise against tranquilizing cats before putting them on a plane. Although tranquilizing sounds like a good way to alleviate your cat's stress, your cat's reaction to medication is unpredictable at high altitudes, which elevates a cat's blood pressure. If you must fly a cat that's particularly high strung, discuss the matter with your veterinarian.

Most airlines will want to x-ray your cat's kennel before putting the cat on the plane. Take the cat out of the kennel. (Make sure it's wearing its collar, leash, and ID tag!) Never allow your cat to be run through an x-ray machine.

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