When cats fly
October 14, 2014 4:28 PM   Subscribe

We're moving (maybe you remember from my previous 100 questions on this topic) to California from Chicago and taking our cat on the plane with us. This is a new experience for both my hubby and me. I've done a lot of Googling, I've read up on United's pet policy, and read through Flyer Talk, etc. so I think I get the basic concepts but I'm specifically confused about a few things.

I don't really want to call United to ask because their customer service has not given me accurate advice in the past and I also don't want my account to get flagged for extra scrutiny or something (I only 1/4 believe that's possible but I'm very nervous about this so indulge me.)

We have already bought the tickets (EconomyPlus) and requested an in-cabin pet during the purchase flow. We got her vaccines up to date and her health certificate.

United's website says this: The maximum dimensions for soft-sided kennels are 18 inches long x 11 inches wide x 11 inches high.

Accordingly after lots of Googling I went and bought this: Sherpa 55231 Original Deluxe Pet Carrier Medium Black With Black Trim which has the dimensions 18 x 11 x 10.5 inches.
So that should be fine.

But United's website also says this: With the exception of birds, there may only be one pet per kennel, and the animal must be able to stand up and turn around comfortably.

Which...um. She can't really do that. The cat weighs 9.5 pounds, she's a petite little old lady. I don't know how much smaller a cat can get. We've taken her to the vet in this new carrier and she seemed pretty relaxed in it, way more so than in her big old hard-sided carrier, but she can't stand up all the way. I'm not sure if she can turn around in it. The vet saw her in the carrier today and was fine with it and the size of it.

Question 1:
I don't understand how United can have both of these requirements. How can they require a carrier that fits completely in the space under the seat and has X dimensions, which is about 11 inches, and require that the animal be able to stand up and turn around? I can only imagine a tiny puppy or kitten being able to stand up and turn around in this tiny little thing. This isn't a rhetorical question, I'm wondering how this plays out in real life.

Question 2:
I kind of feel like to be on the safe side we should also buy the large size carrier and keep it folded up in our carry-on in case
A. United decides to give us a hard time about her being able to stand up and turn around
B. We want to let her stretch out when we land for the trip to our new place in our friends' car.
My hubby thinks this is pointless overkill but I don't know if it's pointless overkill or considerate and prudent. Or maybe we should bring her in the larger carrier and only switch her to the smaller one if they say we have to? What do you think?

Question 3:
I know that we have to take her out of the case to go through security but from what I've seen online (and in person that one time a lady asked me to grab her cat who was about to slither out of her arms), most people just take them out in the open and carry them through. I know that you have the option to take them into a private screening area instead, which seems like a no-brainer to me, but this advice seems to tacked-on at the end and not given as the preferred method, and I guess I'm just wondering why it doesn't seem to be the standard advice and if there's any reason we shouldn't do that. She is a delicate flower who has only ever been in 2 places in her life apart from the vet.

Question 4:
I've read various opinions about whether you can or should take them out from under the seat at all during the flight. We would prefer to have her on our laps, but not if she would find it disruptive or confusing or frightening, or if the flight attendants would tell us not to do that. What do you think?
posted by bleep to Pets & Animals (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I can only address Question 1. A few years ago I helped my uncle move across the country with his two cats - they were both good sized cats, and I doubt either could stand up or turn around in the holder. It was fine.
posted by lunasol at 4:38 PM on October 14, 2014

Talk to your vet about a safe dosage of a mild tranquilizer for the trip. That will make the transition times (transit to airport, security, waiting to board) easier on her. I know she's old, but it's possible a mild dose will make her more amenable/less stressed about the change.
She's with you, she'll be fine!
posted by dbmcd at 4:47 PM on October 14, 2014

Response by poster: Vet said he would not recommend a tranquilizer for her so we're going with that. She tends to chill out after a few minutes on the way to vet's.
posted by bleep at 4:50 PM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 1) I too have wondered about the 'stand up and turn around' rule. I've concluded that they must be talking about carriers for animals travelling in the hold (even though that doesn't always make sense from where they mention it) because my cat is taller than his carrier, every animal I've ever seen on a plane is taller than their carrier and I've never been asked about it (and I've flown with my cat a bunch). Having an appropriately sized carrier seems to be good enough (you cat can turn around, even if she's taller than the carrier).

3) I put a harness on Edmund when I fly with him so I have something to hang onto when I carry him through security. He definitely doesn't like it a whole lot and wants to go straight back in his carrier, but it's fine. (NB: I can pick Edmund up any time I want. He might decide he's going to escape shortly thereafter, but he'll let you pick him up. I understand this is not normal for cats.)

4) This depends on the airline. Southwest is insistent that the carrier stay under the seat. I don't recall United saying anything. Edmund did once go from Chicago to Seattle on my mom's lap because he was protesting under the seat, but I think he generally prefers his carrier being hidden under the seat. (I've never tranquilised him. He sometimes protests a bit at takeoff and landing, but is otherwise fine.)
posted by hoyland at 4:59 PM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've flown from the West Coast to the East Coast and back with my cat three or four times. It has been surprisingly problem-free.

Question 1:
I have this exact same carrier. My cat has "long legs" (for a cat) and weighed about 9 pounds at one time, now weighs about 13 pounds (IT'S ALL MUSCLE. PLUS, SHE'S BIG BONED). The carrier is great -- it's great quality, a great size, it looks like a duffel bag and is easy to carry, etc. A+, would buy again. I was worried about it being "too small" for her, too, because while she can lay down reasonably comfortably in there, it's not like she can really walk around or even stand up comfortably. The airline employees have never given her carrier a second glance, however.

They aren't going to have a test to see if she can walk around. As long as she isn't literally stuffed into the carrier, you've fulfilled the requirement (and with that size cat and that size carrier, I can tell you that I've been 100% fine every time I've flown, the size of the carrier has never been at all a problem for either the airlines or for the cat).

Question 2:
Getting an extra, large carrier is overkill. Your cat is going to hate the ride regardless, and because she's a cat, she's going to react to that by getting all steely and stiff and maybe screaming a bit. She's not going to want to lounge around in the back, she's going to want to curl up like a spring. Imo it's also likely to be more traumatic for her if you try to switch her carrier before the trip is over, because it's best to let her feel like the carrier is a protective space for her. Don't over think this.

Question 3:
I've always taken my cat out of her carrier and carried her in my arms through security. Before I flew with her for the first time, I was terrified that she would leap from my arms and try to flee through LAX with me running frantically after her. The reality has been that she pretty much clings to me as I walk her through (because I'm the one familiar person/smell/sight, and she's scared of getting separated from me, I would guess), and she's very happy to get back to the confines of the carrier. This from a cat who is HELL to get into the carrier at home. Your cat isn't going to want to get separated from you and left in the airport. If she's a bossy hellion, you might have some trouble, because she might react to the stress by getting pissed. But it sounds like your cat is a sweet old dear and won't flip out and get angry at everybody. So I honestly wouldn't worry about this and would just go carry her through security. The faster you get through, and get to your gate and able to settle down for a bit, the better. Imo it's a counterproductive waste of time to take forever getting a private screening. But I've also never done the private screening, so YMMV.

Question 4:
I've never taken my cat out from under the seat, and I don't recommend it. Most airlines won't allow it, and I'm actually surprised that it's OK on your flight? Also, the cat will probably feel more protected in her carrier than she will on your lap in the middle of a completely bizarre and unfamiliar place -- even if she hates her carrier in general. So I wouldn't be taking her out, putting her back in, etc, during the flight or during the trip in general.

Also, the biggest problems I've had when flying with a cat have actually been from other passengers either wanting to interact with the cat (which obviously she's a little too stressed for) or flipping out about not wanting to be near a cat for various reasons (allergies, etc). So I would try to minimize the amount she's going to be interacting with or even seen/noticed by the other passengers.

Also, don't worry too much about the other passengers' reactions beforehand! I don't mean to add that worry to your list. What usually has happened in my experience is that, as I'm getting ready to sit down, someone will move to help me get my "carry-on" into the overhead bin instead of below the seat, and I have to say "NO! That's a cat, not luggage!" The other person reacts with indifference or delight or to ask for a flight attendant because they have an allergy (the allergy thing has only been an issue on one leg of one flight). The flight attendants will work out any problems at that point, because by then you're already on the plane and ready to go.

*Re: tranquillizer. For my first trip with my cat, I tried giving her tranquillizer. It was really difficult to get her to actually eat any, despite her usually being a vacuum cleaner when it comes to food. And all it seemed to do was disorient her enough to freak her out even more than she would have been anyway. I haven't given her any tranquillizer since.
posted by rue72 at 5:11 PM on October 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I recently flew on United with my cat. I agree with the answers above, and wanted to add that none of the flight staff even seemed to be aware that I had a cat with me. I mean, I'm sure it said so on their screens somewhere, but they didn't ask about it. And when my cat started crying from under the seat mid-flight, I held him in my lap (*in* the carrier), which calmed him down. No one cared.

I also carried him through the metal detector, and he was pretty happy to get back into the carrier, which he normally hates.

For some (possibly sadistic) reason, a TSA agent decided to 'randomly' select me for a hand swab *while* I was holding my cat. Balancing a 12-pound furry cat-beast during a hand swab was probably the greatest challenge I faced on that journey.
posted by cat potato at 5:45 PM on October 14, 2014

Best answer: nth-ing the comments on the Sherpa carrier. My experiences have been close to those reported here already. We flew across country with our 14-year-old, 10-pound cat, and it worked great. He couldn't stand up fully, but had enough room to change positions. His carrier mostly stayed under the seat, where he enjoyed a little extra warmth from a nearby heater. I had the carrier out on my lap for part of the flight, but never took him out of it. (I'd heard a few horror stories along those lines.) He also had a harness on in the airport, which allowed us to go easily through security and to let him sit on our laps during a layover.

Want to add that you should consider putting a "puppy pad" at be bottom of the Sherpa just in case. Don't let your cat know what they're called, though. ;-) You know how they can be...
posted by Cecilia Rose at 5:56 PM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

On a recent episode of the podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go!, one of the guests talked about letting his nervous cat "walk around in the aisle" during a flight. I can't imagine doing that, but letting her out of the carrier seems to be a possibility. Probably depends greatly on your specific flight crew.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:02 PM on October 14, 2014

Response by poster: Just want to clarify, we would never ever take her out of the carrier except for security.
posted by bleep at 6:06 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I flew with my 12 pound cat in basically the same carrier. We got paperwork from the vet and everything and nobody at the airline asked to see it, nor did they make us prove he could stand up inside it (he couldn't). I took him out of the carrier to go through security, and like rue72's cat, he clung to me as I carried him through the metal detector and didn't protest going back in the carrier. We did put the carrier up on our laps a couple of times during the flight so we could put our hand inside the carrier and pet him. He did yell a bunch on takeoff, but chilled out right afterward and stayed quiet the rest of the flight. Other than that, it was pretty uneventful.
posted by bedhead at 6:14 PM on October 14, 2014

Best answer: I flew with a 20-lb. cat in a Sherpa carrier. It's fine.

If you tell the X-ray guy you're taking a cat through security, you can wait until the last second to take the cat out and walk through the scanner right as they scan the carrier -- I suggest this. But my cat DID try to escape into the terminal at ORD.

"I've read various opinions about whether you can or should take them out from under the seat at all during the flight."

Do. Not. Do. Leave your cat comfortably in her carrier from the time you leave the house until the time you arrive at your destination. This is much safer than any alternative.

The first time we took him on a plane my cat HOWLED until take-off but once the engines were going and we were in the air and the plane was vibrating, he just purred at the airplane the whole flight. I think he thought it was snuggling him.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:20 PM on October 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Hello! I'm you, but on the other side. I was terrified that the flight was going to be a nightmare. It wasn't the most fun I've ever had in my life, but it was FINE. Lots of great advice here in my question about this.

I used the same carrier you will use. My cat is a big, fat fluffball. At least 5 lbs more than your kitty. So no worries there.

Don't bother with a larger one as a backup. You won't need it!

DEFINITELY ask for a private screening when you take your kitty through security. My fella didn't try to run, but it was nice to have the comfort in knowing that if he had, he'd not have gotten anywhere.

Consider bringing pee pads - that was the only bummer that I experienced, Agent Cooper got scared on the way there and peed in the car on the way to the airport. I was able to clean it up before the plane, but yech.

Once we were on the flight, he was fine. He curled up and went to sleep.

DEFINITELY leave your cat under the seat and don't pet it if you can avoid it. I made the VERY BIG mistake of slightly opening up the top of the carrier to pet him at some point, thinking this would reassure him. This disturbed him and made him whine at me for a while to let him out. ALSO I got yelled at by the flight attendant (who was an over the line total jerk to me but that's neither here nor there) but I was out of line, as I learned swiftly. YMMV, but I would just let your cat curl up and sleep once you're on the plane. No poking, no petting, no nothing. This was the part that I was the most concerned about, but it was fine.

Good luck! In my opinion, the stress of not knowing how it was going to go was absolutely a zillion times worse than the actual trip. So if you can skip out on some of that advance stress by knowing that many people have done it with much fatter and finicky cats, please let that help you feel better!
posted by pazazygeek at 6:42 PM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I travel/fly with my dog several times a year (and use the same carrier you have!). Anyway just wanted to mention that EVERY single time I carry her through security I am then required to step aside with her and get my hands swabbed. It is a quick easy process (takes a minute at most) but wanted to make you aware of that. The agents have always been friendly while doing this and we tend to chit chat while they run the test.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:37 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My cat goes with me to France every year. She is a Maine Coon and weighs 15 lb. She goes in this carrier. When she gets in the carrier she fusses for fifteen minutes, then she scroonches down and goes to sleep. She can comfortably turn around in there if she ducks a bit and she is a smart cat so she does.

When I get on the plane the carrier fits under the seat in front of me. I put the blanket over the carrier and she goes to sleep. 3/4 of the way through the flight she starts to meow. I give her a little dish of water and some kibbles and some attention. She goes back to sleep. That's it.
posted by jet_silver at 8:14 PM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: We flew with two cats (kittens, really) across the country earlier this year. This was on JetBlue, though, not United, but I mostly want to talk about your question 3 regarding going through security.

We were told that the cats could not be leashed/harnessed/etc, but it might be worth confirming with the relevant airports. We had two people and two cats, and were really, really lucky to randomly run into a friend in the airport who was able to grab our stuff and help wrangle the cats.

Do as much as you can to separate out duties so that the person carrying the cat can worry about carrying the cat, not about gathering their belt and shoes. Have the other person go through security first and gather everything for the both of you and get the cat carrier ready to receive the cat.

One of our cats was thrilled to be able to get back in the carrier; the other wanted to explore.

And, regarding question 1, being not quite full grown both cats were able to fit into (and turn around, etc.) a carrier slightly smaller than the one you purchased, though I can't imagine the regulations are in place to limit travel to kittens.
posted by mountmccabe at 8:33 PM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Update, now that we're all here safe and sound for future travelers:

- I asked for a private screening room but the TSA lady assured me that just walking her through would be faster and easier (I think she just didn't want to have to do any extra work). I believed her, just wanting to get it over with as fast as possible and not wanting to cause a ruckus. Walking her through was easy enough but then it took forever for the carrier to come out of the x-ray and that was slightly nerve-wracking. I didn't have to worry about her bolting though because she only wanted to be inside the carrier at all times. As soon as she saw it coming down the conveyor belt that was when she started trying to wriggle out of my arms to get back in it.

- Two things I bought that made our lives easier that I would recommend:
These were the smallest size pee pads in the smallest quantity that I could find that I could get delivered quickly. I changed them out twice, once waiting at the gate and once when we landed. It was good we had them because she had thrown up during the flight. The private baby-changing rooms were great for this.
- This little squeezy bottle to be able to fill up the little plastic cup inside her carrier without spilling and it was nice to know she had her own dedicated water supply. She wasn't interested in eating or drinking but we wanted to make sure she had the option because for my hubby and I water becomes a precious commodity on a long flight.

- I wound up leaving her alone on the flight most of the time to give her some peace but I did open the carrier once to give her a little drink of water and another time for a little reassuring patting. I wasn't worried about her jumping out because when I took her out in the baby room to change the pad and offered her some water she only cared about getting back in ASAP.

She's slowly but surely getting used to her new home. She didn't have a great time on the trip but I was glad we knew enough in advance to not make it any worse than necessary.
posted by bleep at 2:15 PM on October 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

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