Can you bring your cat on a plane?
Yes, you can bring your cat on a plane – with a few caveats, which we’ll dive into, in this post.
But the bigger question is should you bring your cat on a plane? We’ll discuss that, too.
But what if you have to bring your cat on a plane? What factors do you need to consider? What documents do you need? What equipment should you have?
Let’s get into it!
Should you bring your cat on a plane?
People do it all the time. Some 2 million pets and other live animals are moved from one place to another by air every single year in the United States. 22% of those pets are cats. If you’re thinking of taking your cat on a plane, you’re not the only one.
But that doesn’t mean you should take your cat on a plane, unless it’s absolutely necessary.
For some cat breeds, flying can be dangerous
For certain cat breeds, under certain circumstances, flying can actually be deadly. Cats with brachycephalic features (flattened faces and short nasal passages), such as Persians, Himalayans, and Burmese cats, should never fly in the cargo hold of an airplane. Their unique facial features make them extra-vulnerable to heat stroke, or insufficient oxygen. Most airlines actually forbid these cats from flying anywhere but in the airplane cabin with their guardians.
But even if your cat has more-typical facial features, and you plan to have them in the airplane cabin with you, you still need to ask yourself if there is an alternative to flying with your cat.
Air travel can be stressful to cats
Flying can be stressful to cats. The rapid acceleration of the aircraft, the quick stopping, the sensation of lifting off, and the pressure changes inside an airplane can be uncomfortable, and cause anxiety in cats.
Can you leave your cat behind in the care of a responsible cat sitter? Can you drive to your destination with your cat instead? Think about what’s in the cat’s best interest.
(If you can drive, read this post about taking a road trip with your cat, first.)
But, I do understand that there are times when flying with your cat is the only solution. And for cat guardians in that situation, read on.
Consider hiring a pet-shipping company
Depending upon the complexity of your travel plans, you may wish to enlist the help of a pet-shipping company. Companies that specialize in getting pets from one place to another can ensure that the process goes as smoothly and safely as possible for your cat.
Traveling by air with animals can be very complicated, and mistakes can be disastrous. The last thing you want is to arrive at the airport to find that your cat’s paperwork isn’t in order, or there isn’t room in the cabin for her, or that you purchased the wrong kind of carrier and they won’t let your cat onboard.
What makes air travel with pets so complicated
Every airline has its own rules and restrictions. States have differing regulations. Every country has its own laws, and they’re always changing. It would be virtually impossible for an average person, who does not transport pets for a living, to know the best way to proceed, especially on a complex international trip.
It’s the job of a good pet-shipping company to know all of these things and to know how to navigate the complicated air-travel system.
The International Pet and Animal Transportation Association (IPATA), a non-profit trade association of independent pet-shipping companies, is a good place to start looking for a pet-transportation company that will meet your needs:
What a good pet-transportation company will do for you
A good pet-shipping company can manage and facilitate all the details related to transporting your cat, including:
- Choosing the best airline, depending upon where your cat is traveling
- Making the most efficient travel arrangements for your cat
- Paying all air cargo charges
- Making sure that you have an airline-approved travel carrier
- Handling all the import/export documentation
- Making sure all of your cat’s health and other paperwork meet the requirements of his destination
- Making reservations for quarantine, if necessary
- Making reservations for boarding, if necessary
- Arranging transportation to and from airports, veterinarians, and boarding facilities.
Note that some airlines and some destinations actually require that you employ the services of a pet-transportation company.
Where on the airplane will my cat travel?
There are actually three different ways for cats to travel on an airplane: in the cabin, as checked baggage, and in the cargo hold of the plane.
In the cabin, with you
The cabin is the best place for your cat travel. Your cat will be with her trusted guardian, and you will be with your cat. There is little to no risk of your cat being mishandled, exposed to the elements on the tarmac, or getting inadvertently shuffled to the wrong airport, among other things. You’ll have your eye on her the entire time.
Most airlines will allow you to take a cat in the cabin with you for an additional fee. But it’s not that straightforward, unfortunately:
You must reserve in advance. You must call well in advance to reserve your cat’s spot. Most, if not all, airlines limit the number of animals allowed in the cabin, and you can’t just show up with your cat, expecting him to be allowed onboard.
Your cat is your carry-on. Your cat counts as your allowed carry-on bag. That means all of your luggage must be checked. That may result in additional fees, depending upon the airline and the kind of ticket you’ve booked.
Your cat goes under the seat. Your cat in his carrier must fit under the seat in front of you. Period. You also can’t just buy an extra seat for your cat and put him next to you.
Many airlines specify the size of the carrier that will fit under the seat, but this can differ between airlines, which is what makes it hard to recommend a single carrier (see below). Certain aircraft and certain rows on the plane do not have room to fit a cat in a carrier under the seat. Cats may not be allowed in first or business class.
Some airlines indicate this online. Others do not.
There are rules and limits. Every airline has its own rules about which and how many cats you can take into the cabin with you. Some airlines allow you to take a single cat. Some will allow you to take two. Some allow you to only take two if they fit in the same carrier.
Some airlines specify a minimum age for the cat. Some specify the number of days a kitten must be weaned before she’s allowed on board.
Most airlines require that any animal in the cabin not be a nuisance to other passengers. Does a distressed, meowing cat qualify as a nuisance? Theoretically, your cat could be denied passage, but I haven’t heard of this ever happening.
The following are links to all major U.S. airlines and their pet-policy pages:
The second-best option is as cargo. Most planes have a special compartment “below decks” that is pressurized and temperature-controlled, like the cabin. But not all airlines will allow cats, specifically, to be transported as cargo.
Some airlines have special handling crews that are trained to deal with animals that are being loaded as cargo. They will meet the plane upon arrival to make sure that pets onboard aren’t sitting on the tarmac too long, getting exposed to the weather. Some airlines have special animal facilities and trained staff will care for and feed your pet during layovers.
But the cargo hold is not exactly the Four Seasons, and it can be a dangerous place for some pets. Animals are killed, injured, or lost on commercial flights every year. There is still a risk of your cat being exposed to excessively hot or cold temperatures, rough handling, and poor ventilation.
United Airlines had to suspend its once-lauded PetSafe program after a number of disastrous pet-related incidents. In a matter of weeks, one dog was accidentally sent to Japan instead of Kansas, and another was sent to St. Louis instead of Akron. (A puppy also died in the cabin after a flight attendant insisted the dog be stowed in the overhead bin.)
U.S. airlines are required to report all companion-animal accidents that occur in the cargo hold (but not the cabin). You should review the performance records of any airline you’re considering for transport of your cat in the cargo hold.
You can find the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Reports, which include animal incidents, here:
Note that if your cat will be traveling as cargo, you will need to check him in at a separate cargo location, usually several hours (at least four to six) before his flight. Check your airline’s specific rules.
Note also that transporting your cat as cargo can be expensive given the higher level of care: around $100-200 per pet.
As excess baggage
Another way for your cat to travel by air is as excess baggage – literally, like an extra packed suitcase. I do not recommend this method of travel for cats, or any animal for that matter, and many airlines, thankfully, do not allow pets to be booked as excess baggage.
While the cost of transporting your cat this way may be less than as cargo, the benefits end there. Your cat will be treated like so much luggage. Pets will be handled by employees who may not have the training to handle animals. Pets can be left for extended periods of time on the tarmac in all kinds of weather, and they may not be transported in climate-controlled vehicles.
Unlike cargo pets, pets booked as excess baggage will not be tracked with a waybill number and thus may be harder to track should they get lost.
Should I tranquilize or sedate my cat before traveling?
Even though it might seem like the kind thing to do, tranquilizing a pet before air travel is not recommended. Tranquilizers, especially at high altitude, can cause a drop in blood pressure, and can thus be fatal.
Tranquilizers can also interfere with your cat’s ability to balance, so if her crate is shuffled around, she might not be able to brace herself to prevent injury.
In addition, some tranquilizers, in some cats, can cause excitement rather than sedation.
If you believe your cat will be very anxious on the flight, talk to your vet about anti-anxiety medication instead. You’ll need to start these drugs at least a month or two prior to the trip.
Should I feed my cat before his trip?
But this is not true for all cats and all trips. Your cat’s age, specific dietary needs, and the time and distance of the flight are all factors. Discuss this with your veterinarian.
You should allow your cat to have water, however.
If your cat is traveling in cargo, it’s probably best not to fill the water tray in the crate with water, which may immediately spill. If you can, you can put in a few ice cubes instead, which will melt slowly.
Should your cat visit the vet prior to traveling by airplane?
Regardless, it might be worth a visit to the vet to make sure your cat is up to date on his vaccines, and that he has no health problems that might make travel for him unsafe.
Special considerations if you’re traveling out of the country (or even from one state to another)
If you’re traveling out of the country (and not using the services of a pet-shipping company), you should contact the Consulate or Embassy in that country to learn everything you can about regulations regarding the importation of an animal.
Talk to your veterinarian, too, about the risk of disease endemic to that area. Your cat may require additional vaccinations.
Understand that some countries (and even the state of Hawaii) require lengthy quarantines of your pet upon arrival. You will need to make quarantine reservations well in advance.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service provides a summary of current pet-travel health requirements, which may be a good place to start. Scroll to the bottom of this page and choose your destination country from the drop-down menu:
If you’re traveling between U.S. states or territories, you should understand the health requirements specific to your destination. The USDA provides a summary of those requirements here:
What if my cat is an emotional-support animal?
A 2021 policy update from the U.S. Department of Transportation says that emotional-support animals are no longer considered service animals and airlines aren’t required to treat them as such.
You will have to pay the same fees and abide the same rules when traveling with your emotional-support cat as someone traveling with any cat.
Tips to make air travel safer with cats
Harness your cat, or ask for a private screening. If you are traveling with your cat in the cabin with you, you’ll have to bring your cat through security, and the carrier will have to be X-rayed or examined by hand. Do not put your cat through the X-ray machine!
Be sure your cat is safely harnessed and leashed, and request a special private screening to prevent an escape in the airport.
Use direct flights. This tip is especially important if your cat is going to be traveling as cargo. Direct flights minimize the chance of mistakes being made as your cat is transferred on and off airplanes, and also prevent your cat from suffering through delays.
Be aware of the season. If possible, avoid traveling with a cat during the hottest and coldest months of the year. If you must travel in summer, do so only in the early morning or late evening. If you must travel in winter, go in the afternoon.
Take the same flight as your cat. If you can, travel on the same flight as your cat. Ask if you can watch your cat being loaded and unloaded from the cargo hold.
Add more ID to your cat’s collar and crate. In addition to a tag with your permanent name, address, and telephone number, add another tag with the address and telephone number of a contact person at your intended destination. Attach a label to the cat’s carrier with all of this information as well.
Check that microchip. Before traveling, log into the database of your cat’s microchip company and make sure your contact information is up to date. If your cat isn’t already microchipped, read this post, “Should you microchip your cat?”
Check collars and toenails. Trim nails before you go, and make sure there’s nothing on your cat’s collar that could easily snag in any of the crevices in your cat’s crate.
Avoid traveling during busy times, if you can. When the airports are crowded, like during summer vacation, airport staff are stressed to the max. Your cat is more likely to be subject to rough handling during peak travel times.
Bring a photo. Keep a well-lit, clear photo of your cat on your phone to help airline staff identify her if she gets lost.
Practice, practice, practice. Your cat’s travel crate (or soft-sided carrier, if she’s traveling in the cabin with you) should be familiar and comforting to your cat. You should not introduce a new carrier on the day of travel.
Keep the carrier out and open for as many weeks or months as possible prior to your trip. Periodically toss treats or toys inside, but otherwise allow your cat to explore the carrier, pressure-free, at her leisure.
What should I buy or bring if I’m flying with my cat?
(*Note, as an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.)
Carrier/crate. Check with your airline before buying anything. Most airlines have strict rules regarding the dimensions, materials, ventilation, handle locations, door types, etc. of any carrier or crate, especially if your cat is traveling as cargo. You can visit this post on pettravel.com for more specific details on crates.
Depending upon the size of your cat, this 21-inch Sky Kennel by Petmate with bowl, should meet most airline requirements for cargo. But, again, check with your specific airline before purchasing.
If your cat is joining you in the cabin, a soft-sided carrier provides the most “give” for fitting under the seat in front of you. This Vceoa Carrier measures 17.5” x 11” x 11”, which meets most, but not all, airline requirements.
Harness and leash. This cat harness and leash by rabbitgoo is well made and comes in several sizes. But don’t just order and take it out of the package on the day you plan to fly. You must be sure that harness fits snugly, but not too tight, but not too loose either! You don’t want an airport escape. Return it and try another size if it doesn’t seem to fit.
You also need to acclimate your cat to the harness before your trip. The last thing you and your cat need on the big day is another thing to stress out about.
Pheromone spray. FELIWAY, which contains soothing kitty pheromones, can help make some cats feel less stressed under challenging situations. You can try using FELIWAY Classic Cat Calming Spray on your cat’s carrier. It won’t hurt.
Disposable pee pads. You should line your cat’s carrier or crate with a disposable pee pad (and bring extras) to absorb any vomit or accidents. These cat pee pads by MED are small, which should keep them from bunching up inside the carrier. If you have a larger crate or carrier, make sure these are going to be big enough before buying.
Ziploc bags and disposable gloves. Cat accidents are never convenient, especially when you’re traveling. It will be good to have some Ziploc bags and disposable gloves with you, to help you deal with any mess as hygienically as possible.
Food, water, and dishes. Be sure to bring your cat’s own food along with you. If your cat is traveling in the cabin, you may wish to purchase some bottled water in the airport after you’ve passed through security to be able to offer her some, especially on a long flight.
Disposable litter box and litter. Federal regulations require every airport terminal in the U.S. to have a pet-relief station. Give your harnessed and leashed cat an opportunity to do his business before your flight. Alternatively, you can set up your cat’s travel litter box in a closed family bathroom.
If it’s a long flight, ask a flight attendant if it’s OK to carry your cat in her carrier to the restroom, where you can release her. Give her some time to sniff around and explore and see if she wants to use the litter box. Be sure to have her zipped up in the carrier before opening the door again.
These travel litter boxes by CHEGRON aren’t the kind of thing you’ll want to use every day (they’re too small), but they’re perfect for travel. They start out flat and they’re waterproof. Plus, you can just throw them away after using. Bring your cat’s regular litter in a Ziploc, so it feels a little like her home toilet.
ID tags. Have a tag with your permanent name, address, and telephone number on it, on your cat’s collar. Add a second tag with contact information for your destination, too. These tags by Dr. Freemont’s are so inexpensive, there is no excuse not to do it.
Medical records and medications. If you’re traveling out of the country, be sure to bring a copy of your cat’s medical records, including proof of vaccinations, with you. For in-country travel, a summary of your cat’s medical conditions should be sufficient. Don’t forget to bring your cat’s medications with you, too.
Health certificate. If your airline or destination requires a health certificate be sure to get one from your veterinarian within the prescribed timeframe before your flight. And then, don’t forget to bring it!
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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