Question: Do you know where I can find tips/someone’s experience in flying with an old (and usually scared) cat? I’m also wondering about long transatlantic flights with layovers… how do cats deal with them? How long is too long to be in a carrier?

Answer: by Dr. Shelby Neely of Ask the Cat Doctor

When it comes to traveling, if you asked your cat, it’s about the last thing she would want to do. A cat is most content in her own environment, even if it means not having her owner around. I encourage all cat owners to consider whether traveling with their beloved feline is really necessary. Is there an option for having a house sitter stay with your kitty or even boarding her for the time you are gone?

I understand, however, that sometimes flying is the only way you and your kitty are going to be able to remain together. The fact that you are even considering travel on a transatlantic flight with your senior kitty in tow makes me assume this trip is necessary. This is a great opportunity for us to discuss a number of problem-solving steps every cat owner should take before taking any long flights with their feline friends.

First and foremost, your cat should be examined by her veterinarian before any travel, whether it’s a long flight or a long car ride. For a senior kitty, this should include blood work. Blood analysis in an older cat will help predict possible problems that could arise. It will detect such conditions as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, and kidney disease, which not only are stress-sensitive conditions, but may have an effect on your cat’s ability to hold her bladder during the trip. Young healthy cats can go very long periods of time without the litter box if necessary, but cats with any of these conditions may be producing excessive urine and need to void more frequently.

After the check-up and clean bill of health, the next step is to do a trial run. Never take a long trip without first exposing your cat to shorter excursions. Start with a drive around the block, if need be, and then graduate to longer outings. Doing so will help you know how long your cat can tolerate not being able to urinate, whether she gets motion sickness, how much she cries or vocalizes (and how you might be able to calm her), and even help her acclimate to the process.

I strongly advise that you only travel by air with your kitty if she can be in the cabin with you. The cargo area is loud, noisy, and sometimes very cold and dangerous. The atmosphere is clearly not as well regulated as the cabin. Unfortunately, there have been deaths of pets that were kept in the luggage area due to poor air, bad handling from staff, shock, fear, and tumbling around in the small enclosed area during turbulence. Some have become lost as well.

It is important to note that brachycephalic animals (breeds with short nasal passages) are especially vulnerable to oxygen deprivation as well as heat stroke. Persian cats as well as Pekingese and Bulldogs are examples of those particular breeds. This should be taken into serious consideration if you have one of these breeds and are planning on allowing her to travel in the cargo area.

You should also consider harness training your cat before your trip. A cat harness will give your cat an opportunity for time out of her carrier during layovers. Even with the harness on, this should be done in an enclosed restroom for extra safety. Practice at home first, and then even bring your kitty to a strange place with her harness on to see how she reacts before you travel.

Of course, a direct flight is best for both you and your kitty. Also, flying during hectic times of the year is not optimal for your cat. Rough handling is more prominent during holidays and the summer season when more people are on the move.

Attention to weather during different seasons is also important when planning air travel. Early morning and late evening flights are better in the summer in order to avoid extreme heat and possible storms in the afternoons, whereas afternoon flights are better in the winter months.

Before the plane leaves the ground, there are some things that should be done to ensure your cat has the safest trip possible. In addition to the tips discussed already, there are a few more that should be taken care of so that there are no unexpected hiccups during your trip.

You should attach a travel label to your cat’s carrier that includes your name, permanent address, telephone number, final destination, and your cat’s name. If your cat gets lost in the shuffle, it is important that whomever finds the carrier can locate you or someone you trust. This is especially important if your kitty is traveling in cargo. You should also make sure your pet has accurate tags on her collar. In case she bolts during the trip, staff will be able to contact you quickly. You should keep her ID on her at all times during the trip. I also strongly suggest that all pets have microchips implanted, especially those that travel.

You should also have paperwork at easy access during your trip. This should include an up-to-date photograph of your cat so that if she gets lost, you will have a reference for the airport staff. Bring up-to-date vaccination and health certificates with you in case you are asked to show proof of vaccination and good health.

It is important that your kitty gets used to her carrier before your trip. She will be experiencing a plethora of new smells, noises, and sound. It will be comforting for her to be in a space that is familiar. I personally leave my Sleepypod carriers open and accessible in my home at all times. Not only are they comfortable beds that my cats love sleeping in, but this also prevents the fear of carriers that cats are famous for.

Make sure you call your travel agent and airline well in advance to reserve space and get seat assignments for you and your cat. There is a limit to the number of pets that can travel in the cabin. It would also be a good idea to verify the airline’s pet carrier and pet travel policies. You don’t want or need the added stress of having to be unexpectedly separated from your cat because you didn’t know about a procedure.

Clip your cat’s nails right before your trip. This helps avoid the chance the claws will get caught in the carrier door, holes, or other openings. If your cat needs medications, it is important to schedule the doses according to your travel schedule. Don’t forget that you will have to show up at least an hour before the flight, and longer if it is an international flight.

It is safest for your pet to travel without the use of tranquilizers. Unless your vet says otherwise, tranquilizers are not advisable for high altitudes. Fortunately, there are many milder options that can help relax a stressed-out kitty. Try using homeopathic solutions like Rescue Remedy, which gets applied topically to your kitty’s ears and has a very calming effect. Always try any medication, homeopathic or otherwise, at home first. You don’t want to find out over the Atlantic Ocean that your cat has an adverse reaction to a drug!

Four to six hours before your trip, feed your feline travel companion one last time, then take up all food. Leave water down, however, and encourage your pet to drink right up to the time you leave for the airport. Make sure your carry on bags include the necessary paperwork discussed earlier as well as water, canned food, and absorbent carrier liners, especially for longer trips.

Buckle your cat into her collar, harness, and leash, and put her in her carrier. If you are able to take her out of her carrier during the trip, you won’t need to worry about trying to put a harness and leash on a terrified and wriggling cat in a noisy airport. Also, if your cat is flying in the cabin with you, you must carry her through gate security. You will have to remove her from her carrier and carry her through the metal detectors, allowing her carrier to go through the X-ray machine. This is a scary time and is much safer if your cat is wearing a harness and leash. NEVER allow your cat to pass through the X-ray machine. It is not permitted and is highly dangerous!

Once onboard, slide the carrier under the seat in front of you. Check on your feline flyer every now and then, but avoid exciting her because that may make her more anxious to get out of the carrier.

While we all want our cats to be as comfortable as possible and the thought of our precious feline spending many hours in a carrier sounds dreadful to us, the confinement in the carrier is hardly the worst part of a long trip. Cats actually have a pretty remarkable way of turning around in extremely small spaces and changing their positions. The bigger concern during a long flight is possible dehydration. I have read accounts by cat owners about their cats being in their carrier during travel for 24 to 29 hours, even 37 hours. That is a horrifying thought. Dehydration is a given and can lead to kidney problems and other serious conditions. Going that long without food is not as much as a problem, but in some cases can lead to a serious liver condition known as hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver syndrome. This is more likely in overweight kitties.

In general, feeding a cat is not recommended during travel, but if the trip is going to be over 24 hours, I would recommend offering small amounts of canned cat food. Canned food has a very high water content. Strong smelling flavors such as tuna or other fish varieties may be more appealing to your cat at such times. You can occasionally offer ice cubes or a sip of water. It’s certainly preferable to have to clean up a carrier and even your cat than to have a dehydrated cat. However, if your cat won’t lick ice cubes or drink small amounts of water during travel, the canned food is a way to get some water into her.

When you arrive at your destination and have located a safe, enclosed space, you should open the carrier and examine your kitty. Frightened cats can dart very quickly out of a carrier so be sure you have a strong hold on the leash before opening the carrier. If anything seems wrong, take your cat to a veterinarian immediately. Once in your new home or lodging, if your cat will not eat and drink within the first couple of hours, you should likewise seek veterinary attention. 

Ultimately, the biggest issue during a prolonged trip is the need for your kitty to stay safe while still staying comfortable. If you follow the above tips, your cat will have the best chance of having a safe trip. For comfort and additional safety, the Sleepypod Air is extremely beneficial. Due to its adjustable feature, your cat can ride in the cabin, safe under your seat during take-off and landing, and then get to stretch out a bit during the flight.


Dr. Shelby Neely has been a feline veterinarian for over 20 years and is the cat doctor/writer behind the highly successful Ask the Cat Doctor blog.



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