Cabin cats or cargo cats?
March 10, 2013 9:08 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are moving across the country in a few months with our furballs, Steve and Lola. We're going to fly with them, but I'm not sure if they would be better off with us in the cabin or in cargo. The trip is unavoidably going to involve two flights, the first one will be about 6 to 6:30 hours in length, the second will be 2 to 2:30 hours. The layover between them could be as short as an hour. So total travel time, including getting to/from the airports will probably be around 12-13 hours.

In favor of the cabin option, they'd be close at hand and we wouldn't worry about them missing the connecting flight. I was thinking we also might be able to let them out in one of those private bathrooms in the connecting airport and, if we've brought some litter and a folding box of some kind, they might be able relieve themselves. Or maybe they'd just be too freaked out. In favor of the cargo option, they'd have larger carriers and could more easily go to the bathroom in the corner of it if they needed to en route. Any thoughts on which is the better option? Have you done one or the other or both? Which do you think would be less stressful and physically uncomfortable for them? Are there other things to consider that I'm not thinking about?
posted by otolith to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I flew with our cat in a carrier under my seat. She did just fine and didn't potty or seem to need to. She was quiet, but not seemingly freaked out.
posted by michellenoel at 9:27 PM on March 10, 2013

Definitely go with the cabin. Many airlines have poor safety records on flying pets and multiple flights magnifies the problem. Animals are not always kept in temperature controlled environments and can be exposed to extreme temperatures, and with transfers, mix-ups can occur. By keeping the pets with you, you have much more control over them and their environment. Also, many airports have a pet relief area, usually for dogs, but you might be able to let your cats out for a moment if they're on leash. You can also give them cuddles. Keep them leashed if you take them out of the carrier. Trust me on this. It's scary embarrassing running after your cat in the airport.

When I had a cat, I traveled with her in the cabin, but I use cargo now for my dog since he's a large breed. I like Continental (now United) because they have one of the best animal transport records.

When I flew with my cat in the cabin, I gave her a mild sedative (this was a long time ago). Drugging animals is not allowed for those travelling in cargo as it can be dangerous and may not be allowed now for those in the cabin. It's nice to be able to chat with your kitty and scratch his/her head.
posted by shoesietart at 9:32 PM on March 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

Absolutely in the cabin. Cargo is extremely noisy, extremely cold, and no comforting humans are there.

Incidentally, my aunt's vet advised against a sedative as its disorienting and therefore more scary for them, and suggested a whopping dose if Rescue Remedy. I don't know if it worked, but it seemed to, and certainly did no harm.
posted by Specklet at 9:43 PM on March 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Check with your vet for what you might like to do with your cats pre-flight, but I've flown with cats with no sedative and have been fine (I don't think travel time was quite as long as yours, though.) I went light on the food and water beforehand.

Get carriers with soft sides, though, not the hard plastic ones. They're easier to squeeze under seats with no worries that they won't fit exactly.
posted by asperity at 9:44 PM on March 10, 2013

Oh, and stick a towel in the carrier, and bring spares, just in case.
posted by asperity at 9:47 PM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Rescue Remedy

Don't waste your money. The hypothesis that flower remedies are associated with effects beyond a placebo response is not supported by data from rigorous clinical trials.
PMID: 12635462

I have had good experiences with Feliway in stressful situations, which I bought after reading a large number of recommendations for it on here.
posted by kmennie at 10:05 PM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Definitely cabin. I fly with my cat regularly. Cargo should be a no go option or a cat. Absolutely terrifying for them.

My vet recommended Feliwy rather than sedatives because of excess risk to he cats health. I also recommend just using Feliway spray- my cat is still nervous, but it takes he edge off and she ends up falling asleep during the flight every time.
posted by superfille at 10:17 PM on March 10, 2013

All 3 of my cats flew cross-country in similar circumstances (2 flights with a layover, total travel time about 12 hours). We took them in the cabin with us, and they tolerated it well with no sedatives. My recommendation is to use something like this, which is a disposable liner for the carrier. We brought extras so when someone had an episode of Panicked Peeing we could just throw out the mess and stick a fresh pad in so they were always in a clean environment.
posted by periscope at 10:20 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

My cat has travelled in both cabin and in cargo. If you decide to go with cargo make sure you ask them to slip knot the door if the carrier closed so that it doesn't pop open if there's turbulence.

Also ask the airline whether cabin is even an option, since longer flights don't always allow for in cabin pets.
posted by spunweb at 10:34 PM on March 10, 2013

Toby, the wondercat, has flown across country several times. Cabin. Take your shoes off and let them sniff at your feet during the flight. Even if your feet aren't smelly, the cat will recognize you and be comforted.
posted by 26.2 at 11:01 PM on March 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Cabin. 12-13 hours should be doable without a bathroom break for most cats (obviously check with your vet). I would NOT let them out door-to-door if it is remotely avoidable, for safety's sake. (They made me take my cat out to go through security and it FUCKING SUCKED.) My cat was freaking out in the airport but the dark, undisturbed under-seat area on the plane calmed him right down, and once we were in the air I swear to God he thought the engine noise was the airplane purring at him and he purred right back at it.

He was fine on the plane but afterwards he got relatively pissy from all the airport-baggage claim-taxi stuff at the far end and I was pretty stressed between normal air travel stress and special cat travel stress, so the whole "howling in the car to destination" was not so great. But if that happens to you, just remind yourself, if he's got the energy to howl, he's fine, and it'll be over soon! Also, if your cats are calmish on the plane itself, I would probably sit and wait for the plane to empty somewhat before pulling them out from under the seat (rather than leaping up to stand in line to get off first), so the cats can be in their dark quiet place longer and not in the bright, noisy, bumpy, shuffling line of deplaning people. If you're going to have to wait at baggage claim anyway, let them wait on the plane. And it's worth finding sheltered corners in waiting areas so they don't have to try to keep watch on hundreds of passersby in all four directions at once, that was what really made my cat nuts.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:10 PM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Definitely take them in the cabin. I traveled about 14 hours internationally with my cat in the cabin and have never regretted it. I left a towel in the carrier in case of an accident (and used a Sherpa carrier with a removable, washable pad on the bottom), but she didn't go. She also didn't want any water or food during the trip. I had a sedative, but I didn't need it. She went into silent-cat mode.

I would definitely not let a cat out of the carrier, except to go through security. I put a nylon harness on my cat so I had something to hold on to while I walked through the metal detector, and it worked like a charm. The TSA folks were very understanding. Bring along a spare shirt if your cats tend to spray or urinate when they're scared.
posted by neushoorn at 1:46 AM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing cabin. I'd never put a cat in cargo. I flew my cat internationally in the cabin as well; the flight itself was maybe 9 hours or so but there was a train trip the day before, overnight in a hotel room, taxi ride to airport and long wait there as well. My cat didn't eat, drink, or use the litterbox at all on the trip. The person who picked me up did bring food and a litterbox for the car, and we let the cat out under supervision in the back seat as soon as we got in the car (our destination was a couple hours' drive from the airport and I didn't want to leave him in the carrier that much longer).

During the journey, I periodically unzipped the top of the carrier to sort of stick my fingers in but it was more trouble than it was worth really--he'd just try to get out even with a tiny opening. And I would definitely get leashes and definitely not take them out except for security.

My cat was a super laid back guy though. We had the Delta-style Sherpa carrier and even the flight attendants didn't realize we had a cat with us till we were getting off the plane and they saw his little face pressed up against the mesh.
posted by tiger tiger at 2:15 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

A couple years ago when I was looking at moving my cats across the country, I found that many airlines do not allow cats to fly cargo during the summer months. For AA, for instance, "Pets cannot be accepted when the current or forecasted temperature is above 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 degrees C) at any location on the itinerary. Pets cannot be accepted when the ground temperature is below 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7.2 degrees C) at any location on the itinerary."

So there is a fairly narrow window where cargo pet travel is possible, for many areas in the US at least.

In the end I ended up just driving over the course of several days. My cats are terrible whiners and howl like they're being tortured whenever they are put in their carriers, and I didn't want to subject a plane full of people to that.
posted by ZeroDivides at 2:40 AM on March 11, 2013

Cabin. I did this without sedating my cat, and she was fine. Felliway didn't seem to have any noticeable effect; she settled down on her own after takeoff. Call the airline asap, though! They often have a cap on how many pets are allowed in the cabin, and the sooner you notify them the better chance you'll have of getting your cats on the list.
posted by sundaydriver at 3:30 AM on March 11, 2013

Cabin. If you are only having an hour between flights that really increases the odds of your cats missing the connection.
posted by wwax at 6:05 AM on March 11, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks all, looks like our fellow travelers will get to enjoy the dulcet tones of Steve, aka Mr. Whinypants (he's been a complainer on short, in-town carrier trips. Hopefully he'll run out of steam early on). I meant to include this my original post, but does anyone have recent experience on Alaska Airlines with what kind of carriers have worked? I have the size guidelines from their website, but it's been difficult to find a carrier that meets all of the dimension requirements. I'm sure there are many carriers that will work with a little bit of squishing, but anyone have any specific suggestions?
posted by otolith at 6:27 AM on March 11, 2013

Cabin. To me not flying is a better option than cargo for pets. I'd take a boat to Europe with my pets before I put then in cargo on an airplane.
posted by magnetsphere at 6:33 AM on March 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'd talk to the vet about sedatives, not for them, but for you. Our cats will whine and howl for the 5 minute ride to the vet.

Also, re: soft-sided carriers. Malcolm, aka, Wolverine, managed to destroy one in a fit of pique, causing us to buy the standard clamshell carriers at Wal-Mart.

Also, GET HARNESSES! The TSA may ask you to take the kitties out of the carriers and you don't want to try and deal with pissed off, freaked out cats at the airport.

Here is information about what to expect at the TSA checkpoint. Come VERY early to allow for any hang ups or mishaps.

And, because it seems relevant.

Ode to A Buttered Cat
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:43 AM on March 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

* Get the soft-sided carrier. Most likely from Sherpa. You can absolutely hit the max on their size restrictions. I believe there actually is a Sherpa that is 9.5" x 12" x 17". (BTW: that is NOT BIG. My huge cat was a little stuffed in. And you have to pretend they're comfortable, or you can refuse them.)

* Make sure that they don't have a "max pet per plane" policy. (American Airlines has this, among others.) Inform the airline that you are flying with pets in cabin as much as possible.)

* There are actually very few horror stories about traveling with cats in-cabin. My dude ralphed on touch-down on his last flight. It was funny, he got cleaned up after gating, everyone lived.

* Ruthless Bunny's point about harnesses is good. Taking the cats out at the TSA checkpoint is ROUGH and can go really wrong. (At best, you can get your face clawed. Heh.) And guess what, the TSA doesn't care about your cats.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:32 AM on March 11, 2013

I traveled with a 14-year-old cat, New Orleans to Boston, in December 2012 on Delta, with a connecting flight, total of about 14 hours including layover. He was in the cabin under my seat the whole time. For what it's worth, they never talked to me at all about the weather/temperature at either end of the trip, and I can assure you, in Boston it was really freaking cold.

Please note that some airlines have restrictions on how many domestic animals can travel inside the cabin on any single flight, and there is a charge for it. You can't just show up with your cats and be let on board. For some airlines, I believe two animals on one flight might exceed the limit, so be sure to check.

Also check to make sure that the carrier you bring will be allowed. Every airline is different, and the carrier generally has to be soft-sided, with ventilation on three sides, with room for the animal to stand up and turn around. There will be exact dimensions for what will fit under the seat, and you have to make sure your carrier is within those limits.

You won't be able to take your cat out of the carrier at all once you're on the plane. And it's best not to do it at the airport, either. Everything that happens once your cat is in the carrier is a disruption they will have to settle down from, so if you're chill and don't keep checking in on them, they'll likely be chill themselves. Mine, an incredibly cranky elderly cat with quite a yowl on him, never made a peep after the first five minutes or so in the car on the way to the airport. The trick is to ignore them; most non-crazy cats will settle down sooner than later if you leave them be.

My vet advised me not to sedate, so I didn't, and I didn't use Feliway, either. He was fine without anything.

Hope this helps!
posted by kythuen at 11:35 AM on March 11, 2013

Please note that some airlines have restrictions on how many domestic animals can travel inside the cabin on any single flight, and there is a charge for it. You can't just show up with your cats and be let on board. For some airlines, I believe two animals on one flight might exceed the limit, so be sure to check.

Seconding this advice. Nearly all US carriers have a maximum number of pets flying in the cabin per flight. Often that number is two. If I were you I'd call today to book your tickets so you can have the best chance at getting your chosen day/flight.

Also nthing the advice about not taking them out of the carrier to relieve themselves on a layover. Just leave them in the carriers; they almost certainly will be too freaked out to want to eat, drink, or void. In fact, when I traveled with a cat just the one time, she was semi-feral, and I refused to even take her out for the security screening, lest she run away. And this was in late 2001, post 9/11, at JFK. I just told them she was feral and would attack me--or them--if handled. Which I think was true at the time. They zipped her through the x-ray machine inside the carrier, and she is still alive all these years later.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 1:01 PM on March 11, 2013

Definitely cabin. I flew with my cat on an hour long flight (entire door to door process was about 4 hours). I had a cat harness with leash on her the entire time in case I had to take her out, which I did going through security.

Check with the airline on whether or not the cats will need a health clearance from the vet before boarding. Mine did and I think there was a form to fill out. Also check with the airline on what size carrier will fit under the seat. I had to buy a new one to fit and went with a soft- boddied one in case it was a tight fit. Be sure both cats a microchipped (and the registration current and paid for!) She meowed the entire time but you couldn't hear it over the engine.
posted by fozzie_bear at 2:14 PM on March 11, 2013

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