Can cats truly sense anxiety in humans?
December 15, 2012 11:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to take my 4-year-old female cat with me on a cross-country flight from the west to east coast for the holidays. We're leaving on Monday, and I've been having butterflies in my stomach all weekend in anticipation of the coming journey. I have no experience flying with cats but have done all I could to prepare for this trip.

I love my cat *dearly* and don't want anything to happen to her on the flight. She'll be in the cabin with me, under the seat in front of me in her carrier. She's quite skittish and jumpy, hides at the slightest bump, and can overstimulate easily. So naturally I worry about how she'll handle the stress of the 5-hour flight there and 6-hour flight back. She'll be in her carrier at for least 12 hours when you factor in pre- and post-flight time. I'm taking her with me because I don't want to leave her behind during my 3-week visit.

To help take the edge off her anxiety, I purchased Feliway spray. Feliway is a synthetic cat pheremone that mimics the substance cats release when they rub their heads against an object. I plan to spray it on her carrier when we travel. To test out the spray, yesterday sprayed just a small bit over this recliner in my living room.

Normally when I sit on the recliner, she sits behind me on top of the chair. However starting last night a few hours after I sprayed the Feliway, she now wants to sit on my lap when I'm on the recliner. While she sits on my lap if I'm on the floor or in my office chair, she's NEVER sat in my lap when I'm on the recliner.

She also stands in one place and blinks at me more often. I know that's a feline kiss and she's done it before, but now she's doing it even more than usual.

Today it's the same story. She still wants to sit in my lap when I'm on the recliner, and she's still giving me loving stares. My question is, could this be the result of the Feliway? Or does she somehow sense my anxiety over our upcoming trip and is trying to comfort me? The only thing on my mind has been "I've got to spend as much time as possible with her now just in case anything happens on our trip". And as though she's read my mind, she sits on my lap when I'm on the recliner, something she never does.

Not sure if it's coincidence and due to the Feliway, or if she really can sense my anxiety and is trying to make me feel better. If anyone knows anything about cats and has any insights I would appreciate it. Thanks!
posted by starpoint to Pets & Animals (21 answers total)
Have you spoken with your cat's vet? She will be able to make useful suggestions. (My own cat is pretty chill who doesn't enjoy flying but sucks it up like a trooper.)

What sort of carrier are you using? Make sure it's approved for airline use. I recommend putting something inside the carrier that smells like you, say an unwashed pajama top or something.

Don't try to sedate her, though. Cats can have difficulty breathing in pressurized spaces and being groggy makes it worse.
posted by orrnyereg at 12:22 AM on December 16, 2012

Just so you know, the horror stories (with the exception of a brachycephalic dog who should never have been flown in the summer) are about animals who have flown in the cargo hold, not in the cabin. Your healthy cat is not going to die in the cabin. If you genuinely think death is a risk, why on earth would you be flying with her?

A dark carrier under the seat in front of you is an ideal hiding place for a stressed out cat. There isn't really anything you can do but optimise the conditions and operate with the expectation things will work out.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:23 AM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

A few years ago, I helped a family member move his two cats cross country by plane. His cats were older, and the trip was longer - hour drive, overnight in a hotel, two 3-4 hour flights with a 2-hour layover in between, and then another hour drive on the other end. The day was fairly hellish and exhausting, but his cats were completely fine. One did meow pretty continuously throughout one leg of the flight, but that seemed to be more out of annoyance than anything, and a flight attendant assured me that was normal.

One thing to be aware of: we did have to take the cats out of their carriers at security, which is a pain. But everything was fine.
posted by lunasol at 12:31 AM on December 16, 2012

Yes the carrier is approved for alrline use. It's a Sturdibag, and can compress to fit into smaller spaces.

I have talked to the vet and he cleared my cat for travel.

Death is always a risk no matter what you do.

Feliway is not a sedative or tranquilizer. But I'm concerned, cats can have trouble breathing in pressurized spaces like airplane cabins?
posted by starpoint at 12:31 AM on December 16, 2012

I flew my much older cat from Chicago to Texas. It went really well! I was also very nervous beforehand, but everything turned out fine, and it will for you, too. Felliway helped, and here's what else helped immensely:

-I used this soft carrier. My cat is also a lap cat, and after take-off, which was harrowing for both of us, I put the whole carrier in my lap. She could feel my warmth and closeness, and we both went to sleep! I could not recommend this more. (Check with your seat partner first, though. Mine was a child who was delighted to sit next to a cat, even though he couldn't pet her.)

-For my own peace of mind and her safety, I put her in a cat harness for when I had to take her through security out of the carrier.

-Use a carrier (again) through which you can easily pet her without fear of escape. This calmed my cat a lot when she started to get overwhelmed.

Good luck, and you guys will be fine!!
posted by sundaydriver at 12:37 AM on December 16, 2012

Just a note about putting her in my lap: she was crying all through take off, and petting her wasn't helping. When it was okay to do so, I put her in my lap and she almost immediately calmed down and dozed off. After that she just seemed less stressed, in general. If she was quiet and calm under the seat, I would have left her alone there. So, ymmv.
posted by sundaydriver at 12:41 AM on December 16, 2012

Another thing: be sure to tell your seatmates that you've got a cat with you, in case they're allergic. You may have to move seats. This happened to me once, and we ended up getting an entire row to ourselves!
posted by orrnyereg at 12:48 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I flew with my kitty from Austin to Seattle. My normally vocal and easily annoyed cat was a stoic trooper for the whole flight, multiple legs and all.

Soft-sided carriers are great.
posted by roboton666 at 12:49 AM on December 16, 2012

My cats have flown from Sydney to LA and will be fine!!
posted by jrobin276 at 1:21 AM on December 16, 2012

I flew a cat from Austin to New York, and it was absolutely horrible. But you know what? She's fine now. I think if I had focused less on her, and not freaked out the whole time, she would've been calmer, too. You just have to keep reminding yourself she's not going to die.
posted by lunalaguna at 2:03 AM on December 16, 2012

I'm pretty confident that my cat is totally incapable of sensing human emotions. Now, yours might be different, if if you've had this cat for four years and this is the first time she's shown any sign of potentially reacting to your emotional state, then I vote that it's the Feliway.

AFAIK, as DarlingBri says, cats don't really have a problem breathing in the cabin. While breathing is a reason you might not want to tranquilize the cat if they're in cargo, my vet recommended not sedating for cabin flight for unrelated reasons, mostly because it's simply not necessary for the majority of cats, and because a plane flight isn't a good time to try out a brand new medication if you don't already know how the cat reacts to sedation.

Oh, and I flew from JFK to SFO with the cat, and it was much less traumatic than I expected...she was surprisingly okay with it. She howled all the way in the car to the airport, but she was fine at the airport and in the air. The people seated near me didn't even know I had a cat with me until we landed.
posted by phoenixy at 2:08 AM on December 16, 2012

I advise you to line the bag with something removable (towel etc.) so if she urinates/defecates out of panic you can remove the item and bag it and she won't have to suffer the rest of the trip in the mess (as well as the other passengers).
posted by InkaLomax at 5:25 AM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I flew with my very skittish cat a few years ago and didn't have any trouble. She was freaked out, of course, but quiet the whole trip. The person beside me didn't know I had a cat until midway through the flight when my bag started moving.

My biggest fear was going through security when I would have to remove her from the carrier and carry her through the metal detector. At home, I put on her kitty holster (aka kitty straight jacket) and attached a leash to it. If you can't get one of those in time, the harness sundaydriver linked to is pretty good, too, and available at most major pet stores. As much as the cat may not like it, having a harness rather than a collar is important since cats can slip out of collars pretty easily. My trip to the airport was short, so I left the leash on her, gave it a little slack so she could turn around, pulled the rest through the zippered opening, and tucked the rest in an outside pocket. I felt much safer going through security knowing that I could more easily keep a hold of her if she went berserk since I kept hold of a loop on the holster along with the leash.

Pre-trip, I got her thinking that the carrier was the best thing in the world by putting some Feliway-type stuff in it, dousing it in catnip, and giving her treats every time she went in it. I also put in a dirty T-shirt of mine, which I left in throughout the trip.

Seconding the idea to line the carrier with something removable. I put a plastic garbage bag between the hard bottom and the soft lining just in case. 12 hours should be fine without a litter box, but I had a layover in a snowy place that sometimes has delayed flights and took an emergency cat box just in case--it was the lid of a shirt box that I could fold flat and stick in the carrier under the padding--and a quart sized bag of litter. I figured if she was in distress, I could use one of those family restrooms to let her out and let her go. As it turned out, the flight wasn't delayed, but I found a sunny spot for her carrier during our layover since the plane had been kind of cold. Someone traveling with a dog came by, and my cat was much happier seeing the dog than she was seeing all the people.

This was probably overkill, but I'd heard stories about zippers breaking and whatnot and also took a zippered pillowcase with me, just in case of emergency. A small zippered backpack would have worked, too. She loves being in tiny enclosed spaces, and, worse come to worst, I figured she couldn't run very far in a pillow case :)

It's good to be aware of the potential dangers, but kitties are resilient, and the chances of anything bad happening are small. Mine got quiet and tried to make herself small, but she was a lovey as ever when she got out of the cage at the end of our trip.
posted by BlooPen at 6:12 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest you board her or find someone to look after her where you live, and not put a skittish and jumpy cat through a return holiday trip.
posted by zadcat at 7:12 AM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

We do the cat sitter thing also, but we have two kitties who, while completely normal in the house, act like complete maniacs when it's time to go to the vet or anywhere that requires them to be outside the apartment door.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:12 AM on December 16, 2012

I suspect all the affection you are getting now is due to the feliway and not the cat sensing your anxiety. The pheromone is the same one mother cats release when kittens are nursing so right now your cat is really into the idea that you are it's mother and I suspect is loving on you because of that not because it can sense stress. Maybe take something breathable but hard to see through to throw over the cage if your cat gets nervous to give it more of a sense of privacy and the idea roomthreeseventeen had of taking a pillowcase just in case is a good idea.

Your cat will not like the flight and will get stressed no matter what you do, but a fit and healthy non persian cat should have no problems flying, especially if it's all been cleared with your vets and will most likely get over the flight quicker than you do.

As a side note last time I flew in the security line with me were a family with 3 house rabbits in carriers to take on the plane. If any animal was going to freak out in the middle of a bustling United terminal at San Francisco airport you'd think it would be rabbits surrounded by hundreds of people it would be rabbits. They were as calm as could be, I suspect the flight will actually be the least stressful part for your cat as it will be in a hidden place without all the people moving around and so much stimulus.
posted by wwax at 8:49 AM on December 16, 2012

I am completely mystified as to why you try to fly with a skittish and high-strung cat without putting it on something like Alprazolam.

I don't know how much the veterinary version costs, but the human version is quite cheap for 2 or 3 pills, and you can fill veterinary prescriptions at most human pharmacies, so you should be able to get the same prices.

The idea that some OTC pheromones are going to calm a cat if it decides that it desperately wants to run and hide is overly optimistic, and it seems to me that the outcome of this trip is dependent upon the behavior of the cat, which is an unknown, rather than a simple and appropriate pharmacological intervention.

It will be easier on you, your fellow travelers, and the cat if you just get an appropriate medication for the situation.
posted by 517 at 9:32 AM on December 16, 2012

517, The AVMA recommends against the use of sedatives or tranquilizers during air travel:

Q: Should I tranquilize or sedate my pet for long flights?

A: It is recommended that you DO NOT give tranquilizers to your pet when traveling by air because it can increase the risk of heart and respiratory problems. Short-nosed dogs and cats sometimes have even more difficulty with travel. Visit our FAQs about short-nosed dogs and air travel for more information.

Airlines may require a signed statement that your pet has not been tranquilized prior to flying.

According to Dr. Patricia Olsen with the American Humane Association, "An animal's natural ability to balance and maintain equilibrium is altered under sedation and when the kennel is moved, a sedated animal may not be able to brace and prevent injury."

posted by kitty teeth at 10:44 AM on December 16, 2012

I just flew from Louisiana to Boston with a 14-year-old male cat who'd never been further than 20 feet away from the house he lived in. My dad has just gotten past the age when he can care for animals, so I brought him home with me. It was about 12 hours from door to door. I flew with him under the seat in front of me, in an airline-approved sherpa bag. For the first three minutes in the car on the way to the airport (a 45 minute drive) he meowed pretty loudly. Then he went to sleep. For the rest of the trip, he was totally silent. I kept reaching into the bag to skritch him to make sure he was still breathing; he was. He'd just decided to cope quietly.

Even a skittish cat will likely settle down and accept the inevitable. I think it's a bigger deal for us than it is for them.

One thing to keep in mind, that I didn't know ahead of time: At security, you will be expected to remove the cat from the carrier. The carrier will go through the x-ray and then be examined by a security person. You'll carry the cat through the metal detector and then be able to put her back in the carrier.

Good luck!
posted by kythuen at 3:21 PM on December 16, 2012

Mr. lfr and I just flew from Austin to Denver on an EXTREMELY crowded flight with a 4 month old kitten in a soft-sided Sherpa bag. He was fine. We didn't have a harness that fit him properly but we made do with the smallest kitten harness we could find, just so we could have a handle on him going through security.

Be aware that you'll have to take your cat out to go through security. You can ask the TSA up front for an isolation room if you are concerned about the cat escaping. They are fine with this. Our kitten was so overwhelmed by the noise and bustle in security that all he did was bury his little face in mr. lfr's hoodie and clung to him like a little drowning victim (poor little guy) and did not even think of trying to escape, but in retrospect the isolation room may have been a bit less overwhelming.

He was fine on the flight. He got a tad bit meowy towards the end but it was never a real issue. We did not use feliway or tranquilizers with him because he was so little.

pro tip: try to clip your cat's claws prior to the trip - it'll help a great deal if she gets clingy or frantic at any point.
posted by lonefrontranger at 3:33 PM on December 16, 2012

I just flew with my cat (and my toddler, the cat went in the cargo area) and used Feliway on his bed which was in the carrier and gave him Rescue Remedy which my vet said was mild and fine. I can't tell you that he loved the trip but he made it okay.

Side note: when I'm feeling stressed, Rescue Remedy seems to help me, too, so yay!
posted by amanda at 9:09 PM on December 16, 2012

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