Flying with a cat - need advice
April 24, 2013 2:43 PM   Subscribe

I'm flying with my mother's cat on Saturday, and would like some advice. I have never flown with a pet before.

As a special favor to my mother, I am going to fly her cat to Seattle. (She has just moved there this past week). I live in Austin, and I am flying first by myself to Denver, where I will pick up the (tranquilized) cat at the airport from my brother. Then I have to go through the Frontier line and show the cat to the ticket agent. I imagine this person will give me some sort of document to carry with me that I need to show later. If everything is on time, I have 2 hours and 22 minutes to make it from my gate all the way out to meet my brother, through the line, back through security, and to the other gate. I hope this is enough time. Actually boarding will start half an hour before - damn, now I am even *more* anxious.

I saw a comment here recently (cannot locate it at the moment, sorry) that said you have to remove the cat from the carrier so that the TSA can x-ray the carrier. This is the part that scares me the most - what if the cat squirms out of my arms and runs off? I have spent a small amount of time with this cat and it doesn't hate me, but in a strange place and stressful situation I fear it would panic. The cat lets me pet it but I have never picked it up before. It is declawed so I am not worried about being scratched so much. Should I have my brother get a harness (possibly with a leash) for it and put it on the cat before he puts it into the carrier?

I'm really nervous and would like to know what flying with a cat is like, how to prepare, etc. I have read Frontier's page about flying with pets so I know that the carrier counts as a carry-on and I have to keep it under the seat in front of me. It says "While Frontier does not require a health certificate for pets carried in the cabin traveling within the U.S., upon arrival, the certificate may be required by the state." So does this mean I would have to show a health certificate on arrival in Seattle? Can you shed further light on the health certificate business?

What do I do if the person who sits next to me cat-allergic? What do I do if the cat poops / pees in the carrier? Do I just have to let it sit there because I can't open the carrier inside the plane?

Do you have any pro-tips or other advice that could help me?
posted by marble to Pets & Animals (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What do I do if the person who sits next to me cat-allergic?

They will almost certainly ask for another seat. If you're worried that the person sitting next to you hasn't noticed the cat, point it out to them when there's still time to change seats.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:56 PM on April 24, 2013

I have flown with my puppy 4 times now on Southwest and it is a breeze. For all of the horror stories about the TSA, I have found them to be EXTREMELY kind, understanding, and accommodating (sample size: three different major airports) regarding traveling with my dog. It probably only cost me an extra 20-30 minutes all in (check in plus security) and I was flying during thanksgiving and christmas.

On the plane itself, I always tell everyone on the row "I am flying with my dog, is that ok?"--only once was it a problem, but that lady was a jerk anyway. I also slipped small treats into his bag throughout the trip to keep him happy.

Honestly, except for the fact that I felt bad that my dog had to be cooped up for a few hours, flying with him was better than flying solo.

As a side note, my dog is adorable, extremely well-behaved, and loves being near me and held, so YCatMMV. Good luck!
posted by phunniemee at 3:26 PM on April 24, 2013

Oh, and you probably know this already but just in case: when you book your flight, call the airline immediately and add your pet to the ticket.
posted by phunniemee at 3:27 PM on April 24, 2013

These are the official TSA policies on traveling with pets. Of course, there's no guarantee that they'll follow their own policies, but it might be useful to print these out so that you can refer to them.

They do recommend that you have a leash for your pet so that you can take it out of the carrier and walk it through the security checkpoint. The carrier may have to go through the X-ray without the cat in it, so you'll need some way to keep him with you.
posted by decathecting at 3:29 PM on April 24, 2013

They were very clear that I needed to carry my dog through the metal detector out of the carrier in arms. Then they bomb papered my hands. (And made kissy noises at my dog.)

Prepare to have to carry your cat in your arms. A harness might be a very good idea.
posted by phunniemee at 3:33 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is my very long comment-story about the time I flew with my cat from Boston to Seattle. Hopefully you will glean something helpful from it, or at least a feeling of solidarity.

You'll be wanting to get the cat into a harness. The leash is much less relevant - the harness basically gives you secure handholds. You might also mitigate the possibility of kitty-freakouts by carrying a towel or small blanket and doing the swaddling thing.

You will also likely be needing - depending on your airline - a certificate of health for the cat from a vet, which you show when you check in.

My primary advice is to talk to the flight attendants if you are having any trouble during the flight. It's part of their job to help you out with this stuff.
posted by Mizu at 3:42 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Question #1 - what carrier? I have terrible luck flying Southwest out of Austin with my dog. I assume it is because they are new to flying animals and so are super anal retentive but I've never had a problem with American.

You will absolutely have to carry the cat through the metal detector. Learn how to pick up and hold the cat, grab the scruff on the back of the neck and scoop the cat holding close to your body. This is especially easy it if is declawed. I would practice this a few times beforehand just to get the hang of it. If you are doing a harness practice putting that on and leaving it on the cat for long periods of time, you aren't really going to be able to remove it easily once past security so you will likely need to leave it on for the duration of the trip.

I never tell anyone in my row that they are flying next to a dog and everyone is always shocked when they get off the plane and find out they were. But you certainly can, the flight attendants will move the person.
posted by magnetsphere at 3:54 PM on April 24, 2013

Soft carrier, it fits under the seat in front of you most easily as there's some give. See this recent thread for more tips.
posted by asperity at 4:01 PM on April 24, 2013

As far as the peeing and pooping, in my experience when cats are in an unfamiliar situation they tend to "lock up" their bodily functions so this should not be problem.
posted by auntie maim at 4:26 PM on April 24, 2013

I have flown with my small dog out of DEN and it was a breeze. (I also flew this way twice out of JFK.) The TSA people were very sweet and everyone in line was very kind (I had a pup and two laptops and a winter coat, but a huge smile) while I walked through the security check with her in my arms. The ticket agents were awesome -- I was never questioned about the pet, just given a slip of paper for her. I had the vet documentation but was never asked for it. Also, I lined the pup's carrier with a thick, disposable towel. She didn't need it, but I was glad to have had it just in case. My plan was to toss it in the lavatory mid-flight if needed.

2:22 should be plenty of time. Even if you end up landing at the farthest concourse/gate when you get to DEN, it's never more than 10-15 minutes back to the main terminal and surface. Pro tip: When heading toward the main terminal, get on the tail of the train and go up the closest escalator at the back of the train, and you can avoid the larger escalator line (1-2 mins).

When catching your flight, expect anywhere between 10-30+ minutes in line (you can eyeball it from the upper level -- usually there are two active security banks, but I think Concourse A still has a smaller security of its own, and that's sometimes faster), and then another 10 minutes to get to your gate.

My pup was food motivated, so i fed her part of a cheeseburger at the gate and she passed out in an utterly contented food coma for most of the cross-country flight. She wouldn't drink anything. Your cat would be sedated, so that's a different experience, but she might appreciate a treat to keep her occupied.
posted by mochapickle at 4:44 PM on April 24, 2013

I've flown with my cat, who isn't known for being well behaved at the best of times, and its always been fine.

The TSA agents have always been really nice and while he clings a bit going through (he has his claws) he's always wanted nothing more to get back in the bag once we've gone through the metal detectors so its never been a major problem.

Definitely get something disposable to put in the bottom of the bag in case your cat is like mine and pees when he's upset afraid. My vet suggested against medicating the cat because some cats apparently have bad reactions so you may want to suggest to your mom that she try out the tranquilizer before hand to make sure its ok.

Overall its never been a big problem and you should be fine - I would guess its the least traumatic way to move a cat long distances.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 5:12 PM on April 24, 2013

They now make "Thundershirts" for cats. I strongly suggest your brother get one and put it on the cat ASAP, tonight, for an hour or so, then again tomorrow, to see how the cat reacts. Most cats calm down and are easy to handle, and a lot of people seem to be using them for travel.

Harnesses are good, but most can be slipped out of. Again, this is something your brother (I'm assuming he has the cat now) can get tonight and try out.

Pro tip: use a tape measure to measure the circumference of the cat, just behind the front legs, before going to buy a harness or a Thundershirt. The best ones come in different sizes.

Go to a fancy pet supply store with someone who knows about cats. Call first to see how much they know.

Good luck - different cats travel with different stress levels, so it's important to know the cat's history.
posted by amtho at 5:32 PM on April 24, 2013

I fly with my (now not so agreeable) cat at least once a year:

Yes, you will have to get the cat out of the carrier. Yes, it is the worst part. The cat will be scared, but hope that she is scared enough to freeze rather than attempt a getaway. Of note: Most harnesses uhave metal in them, which can't go through security, so that is out.

True story. My cat got away in Atl airport once. Reason? tSA agents that insisted on cooing over her rather than doing their job and getting the carrier through the metal detctor so I could put her back in. She got scared because of all the noise and people in her face and she ran. I recommend consulting with TSA about needing to do it quick. I have done it every time since her airport getaway and it really has worked. They dont want an incident either because it REALLY causes all lanes of security to stop. Also, if you are at an airport that has a less used security station (example, at Detroit airport, we go through the TSA check in the Westin airport connected to the airport and there is rarely any traffic), do it,

Vets highly recommend that you DO NOT tranquilize a cat if the flight is under 8 hours. Feliway alone will be fine. Trust me. After security is over and the plane takes off, my cat falls asleep every time.

Get a soft sided carrier. Seat heights in planes vary regardless of what they say. A soft sided carrier allows you some extra space if you need it.

I recommend middle or window seats for travel with cats. There is more width under the seat in front of you than there is for aisle seats.

Put a hand towel at the bottom of the carrier and bring an extra to put under the carrier itself to reduce the amount of vibration the cat may feel on the plane, this will lessen their anxiety.

Bring water just in case. I also always carry the top of a shoebox and a small amount of litter in case of a flight delay that may lead to us having to duck into a family bathroom (the private kind that is one enclosed stall with a real door) so she can go. This has never happened (thank God!).

Stop feeding the cat before the flight. If we are leaving at noon, she doesnt get a morning meal (or only like a spoon of food). If flight is at 7, she gets breakfast, but no dinned before we leave. An relaively empty stomach will reduce the possibility of a sick cat or a cat desperate to go to the bathroom. I always try to ensure the cat pees once within 4 hours of departure to make sure she doesn't have a an accident on my clothes when we get to the TSA part.

The good news is, you'll be fine! It seems like a lot, but it works, I swear! My cat has now been on 12 flights in her 5 years of life!
posted by superfille at 7:16 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

For whatever it's worth, I've flown into Seattle with a cat and did not have to show a health certificate. (I'm kind of baffled what the rule actually is. I think you might be supposed to have one if you cross state lines, but there's no one who to check.)

You take the cat out of the carrier, send the carrier through the x-ray and carry the cat through the metal detector (if they're using backscatter or something, they'll turn on a metal detector to send you through it) and then swab your hands. (Depending on the airport, this might be while you're still holding the cat or after you put the cat in the carrier.)

You definitely want a harness. There seem to be two kinds, one that are like little cloth waistcoats and ones that are, well, harness-like. If you have a harness-like one, you can hold onto the part along the cat's back while you carry it through the metal detector. The first time I did this, I put the leash on too, but now I just hold the harness and hold on tight. Edmund doesn't always want to come out of the carrier at security and then he sometimes doesn't want to go back in.

A friend had the bright idea of using a crib liner in the bottom of the carrier, in case of emergency, as they're at least designed to get peed on. Sometimes Edmund has peed in his carrier and sometimes he hasn't.

For what it's worth, I don't tranquilize Edmund. There've been entire flights where people haven't figured out I have a cat. However, be prepared to feel really self-conscious when the cat meows and people around you go "WTF, that sounds like a cat" because it doesn't occur to them that there might actually be a cat.
posted by hoyland at 7:20 PM on April 24, 2013

Of note: Most harnesses uhave metal in them, which can't go through security, so that is out.

All the harnesses I've seen have a negligible amount of metal. There's more metal in my glasses.
posted by hoyland at 7:22 PM on April 24, 2013

Ok, I may be wrong, however, I once had to remove my cat's harness at TSA because it went off and I would never risk it again (its hard to do when a cat is squirming in your arms and you cant put them down). So, definitely make sure! Perhaps ask for a specific brand that has worked for others.
posted by superfille at 7:25 PM on April 24, 2013

You'll be fine. Harness advice is wise. ALso, put some yummy treats in your pocket. One should NEVER be above bribery with animals and small children.

Please ensure you've booked a ticket for marblekitty on the way back. It is usually $125-150. I think this is ghastly and offensive when keasbypug and I take up less space than most passengers (let alone their baggage). We are also quieter and smell better than most kids. But I digress... it's better to pay the price ahead of time than to play clueless and hope no one says anything. They won't at TSA check-in, but they will at your gate. Some airlines give attendant a list ahead of time with anticipated animal count on plane. It does not calm one's nerves to deal with retarded surcharges on the spot. Acknowledge that you need to do all you can to make it stress free, and suggest to mothermarble that this is her fare to cover.

Good luck!
posted by keasby at 7:34 PM on April 24, 2013

Don't worry about the connection time, it would suck if you missed your flight, but there's always another one. If you're anxious, the kitty will pick up on that, so be chill, accept what there is and just in case, know when the next flight will be.

Harness and Leash, for sure!

To make your life easier check everything except a handbag, so you can fly through security without having to fool with all that other stuff (the bag of toiletries, your laptop, etc.)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:54 AM on April 25, 2013

I have done this recently, on Frontier, and from Austin-Denver (last November).

I got this Sherpa Bag but if the cat is huge, he/she may not fit. I cannot say enough good things about soft-sided cat carriers. We got a bigger fancy one for our big Ragdoll and it is the only cat carrier I can put him in without so much as a squirm.

I used this harness, and TSA did not make a peep about the fact that it had a metal dee on the back. They get it, or at least the guys in Austin did.

You will have to take your cat out of the carrier. You can absolutely request that TSA take you to a private room to do this, for your safety and that of your pet's. This is an option not many people realize.

We flew Austin-Denver with a four month old kitten who was not tranquilized and had only just met us. He was fine, but yes, cats are all over the map with this. I strongly recommend a good, full-body "holster" or "jacket" harness of the type I linked. If nothing else it gives you a convenient grab handle.

Good luck, and memail me if you want anymore specifics on my experiences.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:59 AM on April 25, 2013

If you are really concerned about the cat jumping out of your arms while you carry him through the metal detector, you can ask a TSA agent if they will let you go into a separate screening room and hold the cat in there while the carrier goes through the metal detector. When I flew with my two cats, the TSA agent escorted me to an enclosed screening room. One at a time, I took each cat out of his carrier and held him while the TSA agent ran the bag through the metal detector. My situation was trickier because I had two cats to juggle, but I have found that TSA agents will be pretty accommodating about this kind of stuff.
posted by shannonigans at 2:56 PM on April 25, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all very much for sharing your advice and experiences. The trip today went perfectly, I couldn't have asked for better. The cat meowed a lot but she held up very well. She wasn't too squirmy when I took her out of the carrier and went through the metal detector. The TSA people were friendly and helpful. I had plenty of time to make it to the next plane. And sorry I forgot to provide a pic with my question, but here she is happy in her new home.
posted by marble at 8:25 PM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

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