As someone who’s traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with a nine-year-old cat, I know that preparing to fly with a feline can be very stressful.
Getting a cat ready to fly internationally includes sorting through overwhelming border regulations and meeting tight deadlines. That’s why I want to share my experience and make the process easier for you.
In this article, you’ll learn what you need to do before, during, and after your plane trip, and you'll get answers to the following questions:
How and when should I start preparing for flying with a cat?
What do I ask the airline about bringing a cat onboard?
When should I book a pet plane ticket?
What are the travel documents my vet has to prep?
Should I sedate my cat when flying?
What items can help make my cat more comfortable during the trip?
How do I take a cat through airport security?
What to expect upon arrival?
My advice is based on my international journey with Moca (pictured here), which took 26 hours. But before we dive in...
I want to emphasize the importance of taking your cat in the cabin with you. If your pet carrier can fit under a plane seat, please don’t fly your cat or dog cargo. Placing your pet in the cargo area presents multiple dangers – poor ventilation, extreme temperatures and rough handling are just a few.
Cargo travel is even riskier for cats with “pushed-in” faces (brachycephalic breeds), such as Persian, Himalayan and Burmese cats. Their short nasal passages make these kitties more vulnerable to oxygen deprivation and heat stroke, the Humane Society of the United States points out.
My advice is to do everything possible to take your pet in the cabin with you. As someone who’s worked at an airpport, I have to remind you that animals get killed, injured and lost on flights every year.
Now, let's get started with the most time-consuming part of your preparation – all that research!
Before the trip
1. Check animal-health requirements of the destination country
In my opinion, it's best to start planning 3-4 months, especially if your cat needs a microchip. However, if you are flying to an island, you’d need to start at least 6 months ahead. That said, the first thing you have to do is check the regulations of the destination country. Do that before you plan a vet visit, so you have a clear idea of what vaccinations, tests, and documents are needed.
It’s possible that the destination country’s authorities require different paperwork than the airline, so find out what is needed by the authority officials before you speak to airline representatives.
For the EU, you can find the pet health requirements of each state here. In short, cats traveling from the US to continental Europe need:
- An ID, such as a clearly legible tattoo or an electronic microchip.
- Proof of vaccination against rabies.
Both of these requirements must be completed 21 days before traveling. I personally organized and carried on the plane all required documents, plus photos of Moca and her previous health records in a folder (pictured below).
Note that travel requirements vary based not only on your destination but also on your departure point. The United States is a country with a favorable rabies situation, but you'll need to do some research if you are beginning your trip somewhere else.
Also, keep in mind that island nations have very strict regulations, and pets may not be permitted on flights from and to such destinations. If cats are permitted at all, an additional test might be required and that test has to be done no later than 5 months before the flight.
In short, before you do anything else, familiarize yourself with the requirements based on your departure and arrival points.
2. Ask your airline about cat regulations and cabin rules
Each airline has its own rules, so your next step is to contact the airline you’ve picked. Generally, you’ll need to pay about $100 extra to bring your cat on the plane. You’ll also have to place your cat in a special carrier that can fit under the passenger seat in front of you.
Most airlines share their pet-travel policies on their websites, but it’s not a bad idea to call because sometimes pet policies change during the year. As you talk to airline representatives, my advice is to get answers to these questions:
- Will the cat be allowed in-cabin? Some airlines don’t allow cats in the cabin on international flights.
- What are the airline’s cat carrier specifications – height, length, and width? You can see examples of such in the image.
- What is the maximum allowed combined weight of the carrier and the cat? For example, my cat and her carrier were not allowed to exceed 17 lbs at the time of my trip.
- Does your cat carrier count as a piece of carry-on luggage? What are your carry-on limits? Check how many other bags – apart from the cat carrier – you can bring aboard.
- What documents regarding the cat’s health are required by the airline? Typically, airlines require health certificates to be completed no earlier than 10 days before a flight, but you should confirm if your airline follows this rule.
3. Book your cat's plane ticket early (but not before you see the vet)
Most airlines allow only a few animals on board, so get tickets early. When you book, explain the situation – for example, I shared that I’d be traveling with a cat, which could be meowing the whole time, so the assistant recommended a seat based on this information. I guess some parts of the plane are better than others.
Important: If you are travelling internationally and changing flights, call the airline that handles each flight. For example, if you are flying New York – London – Athens, you need to find out which partner airline handles the European part of this itinerary and if that airline will take a cat aboard.
I purchased my whole journey (three flights) from United Airlines; however, the United representative could speak only about the portion of the flight scheduled to reach the first European airport – Munich. She could not confirm that my pet would be allowed on the Lufthansa flight from Munich, so I had to call Lufthansa and ensure that the itinerary's second leg would also allow an animal. So, even though it seemed that United's whole itinerary was handled when a pet got involved, I had to call each partner airline separately.
My other advice is to book a window seat, so your cat is not frightened by the isle traffic and the people passing through your spot. Some travelers argue that it’s not ideal to sit near a window because your cat will be next to the cold wall, but I can tell you that I put the carrier on my lap once the plane lights were out. I also unzipped it slightly and put my hand in it so that I could comfort my pet. Most of my flight time was spent petting and talking to Moca while the carrier was in me.
While I encourage you to comfort your pet, I would not recommend opening the bag very much because your cat might run out. My cat wasn’t happy with the situation and, at times, banged her head and pushed to get outside.
4. Visit the vet to prepare important travel documentation
Needless to say, a visit to the vet is recommended and not only because you have to get the required documents. Ensure your cat is in perfect health before you book your travel because flying can be very stressful.
Next, talk to your vet (must be a USDA-accredited vet) about the health certificates. In my case, no preliminary health tests or vaccinations were needed as Moca was current on all shots and had been microchipped long ago. My vet had to fill out the necessary certificates and they were:
- United Airlines form,
- APHIS Form 7001 (a.k.a. US Interstate and International Certificate for Health),
- Bilingual Health Certificate forms for the respective EU countries – pictured here.
Important: Keep in mind that once all of your forms are completed by your vet, they have to be reviewed and signed by your state's Veterinarian in Charge, who is appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The catch here is that you can send these documents to the Veterinarian in Charge no earlier than 10 business days before your flight – so you have a super tight deadline. To deal with this, encourage your vet to fax or e-mail a draft of the completed documents to the USDA officer. This way, you can receive feedback ahead of time in case something has to be corrected. Also, when later the state's Veterinarian in Charge receives your paperwork in the mail, it won’t be new to him or her and the documents will be approved faster.
I had my vet fax the documents and get an informal approval first. I also talked to the Veterinarian in Charge a few times to explain the situation and give her a heads up. Then, 10 days before my trip, I sent all the certificates with USPS express mail for the official USDA signature. I also enclosed a pre-paid mail envelope, so the Veterinarian in Charge can send my documents back in the fastest way possible.
You can order all of your forms online – several pet travel stores exist.
5. Talk to your vet if you should sedate your cat
Discuss your trip with your vet, so you know what to expect. My vet warned me that Moca would probably be too stressed to drink, eat or potty during the trip, so I wasn’t surprised when that happened. We also trimmed Moca’s claws, so it was easier for me to handle her during security screenings.
We discussed sedation, too, but that wasn’t something my vet recommended. Apparently, sedatives can seriously interfere with a cat’s ability to regulate its breathing and body temperature. As a result, they may cause more harm than good on the plane.
At the end, we decided to give Moca a few tranquillizing drops before heading to the airport, so she was calm during the security check. The medication then wore off and she boarded the flight completely sober. We tested the drops weeks before the trip to see how they affected my pet. I suggest that you do the same – if you are using any meds to calm your cat, it’s a good idea to do a “dry run” at home ahead of time.
No matter what you do, do not get sedatives over the counter. If you know that your cat doesn’t travel well and gets stressed (as does mine), talk to your vet about calming options. Here are a few possibilities recommended by the experts that took care of my cat at VCA Fairway Animal Hospital in Kansas City:
- A pheromone travel spray. Pheromones are chemicals released by all cats from special glands in their bodies. The pheromone spray mimics the natural substances that send calming messages to cats and thus help reduce stress. You could spray your carrier or use pheromone wipes throughout your journey to calm your pet.
- A Thundershirt that reduces anxiety. This jacket applies constant and gentle pressure, which has a calming effect on most cats. If you are traveling non-stop and don’t have transfers, this could work. We, however, had to go through too many security checks to deal with a jacket.
- Medications, such as gabapentin and alprazolam, are sometimes used to reduce travel-related anxiety. Talk to your vet about them.
Overall, I strongly encourage you to create a travel plan with your veterinarians. They know best how to find an effective calming solution that fits your cat’s personality and health condition. If your cat is taking any other medications, be sure to discuss if and how you should administer them during your air travel.
6. Purchase helpful items for your trip
The products I purchased especially for the trip included:
- A new sturdy carrier (pictured). I chose a high-end carrier with a large mesh panel and could be fully unzipped to leave the cat without a roof. It also has flexible sites that contract to accommodate various airline size restrictions. At the time, I folded the sides of the carrier before boarding, so it looked smaller. (I did that because I didn't want to attract any unwanted attention).
- A metal-free harness.
- Collapsible water and food dishes.
- A Portable litter box.
- A Leash.
The only thing that we actually used was the carrier. We didn’t use the harness because we were allowed to have it on through security in the States but not in Europe. I thought that I would need the harness because Moca would try to run away, but she wanted to stay very close to me the whole time, so I didn’t need it. I didn’t get pee pads or treats for the flight, but maybe some pets would appreciate them.
Moca talked the whole time during the trip and was breathing rapidly at times. She didn’t want to drink water and just wanted to get it over with. At the end, she was just as tired and jetlagged as I was and only wanted to sleep – one more thing that our vet had predicted.
7. Get used to the cat carrier a few weeks before the flight
In my opinion, one of the most important steps is to get your pet accustomed to its carrier. Especially if your cat doesn’t get out much or you are getting a new carrier.
Because I invested in a new bag, I took the time to introduce Moca to it. First, I washed its removable padding covers to get rid of the industrial smell. Then, I gave my cat a chance to sleep on them a few times. I offered treats inside the carrier and placed a few favorite toys there. I took the time to incorporate the new cat bag in our play sessions regularly. I also took Moca on car rides inside the carrier several times, so she gets used to the commotion (which she did not).
During the trip
On the day of travel, I tried to keep the routine as normal as possible, giving Moca a chance to use the cat litter box till the last minute. I stopped feeding her 4 hours before the flight, though, because traveling on an empty stomach minimizes the risk of nausea.
8. Take your cat through security checks early
The security checks are the most hectic part of flying with a cat. In my case, the TSA check included two tests of the kitty litter mix – something I hadn’t foreseen.
During the screening, you’ll have to remove your pet from the carrier, which – along with all cat belongings – will run through the x-ray machine. You and your pet will go through the metal detector. If your cat can’t go through the detector, for some reason, it will have to undergo a physical inspection by the security officers.
Important: Check in advance if you could be screened in a private room. Apparently, this is an option and it will make it much easier on your pet as you would avoid the loud noises of the security line.
Ask if the terminal has a pet area. All U.S. airports that handle more than 10,000 passengers a year are required to offer pet-relief areas. Some airports even have rooftops with spectacular views for your furry friends, so definitely inquire about your indoor and outdoor options.
My advice is to find a quiet spot where you can bond with your cat before the flight. It’s better to go early and spend some extra time at the airport than to deal with unexpectedly long security checks.
9. Stay close to your cat during boarding and flight times
Ask if people with animals can board first – sometimes that’s an option. During the flight, extend a finger or two into the carrier for a scratch.
While I assumed that takeoff and landing would be hardest for my cat because of the changing air pressure, my vet couldn’t confirm how that affects cats and if their years “pop” as human ears do. So I did the best I could – I stayed close to Moca and talked to her calmly. I constantly reassured her that she’d be OK and often blinked at her slowly until she blinked back.
Overall, Moca hated the experience, but she did well. I have to say that every airport and airline employee was friendly and did not want to stress my cat further.
After the trip
10. Update your cat's shots
Once you arrive and settle in, make sure that your pet has the proper vaccinations for that particular region. My cat got sick a month or two after the trip, and our new vet explained that it’s best to update the cat’s shots so that she can adjust faster to the new continent.
In the end, I want to share something my vet said before our trip: Animals are super strong and smart, and Moca will figure it out. And so she did – she was an indoor cat for 9 years, but she adjusted to traveling just fine.
However, if you are going away for a short period of time (a month or two), my advice is to get a pet sitter. The cat should stay in its familiar environment than fly. If you have to bring your cat on the plane, try to travel non-stop or with fewer layovers.
And if you can't take your pet in the cabin, alert the flight attendants and ask them to remind the pilots that a pet is traveling in the cargo area and the temperature and oxygen need to be adjusted. Avoid flying your pet cargo during the hottest or coldest months of the year.
Finally, remember that sedating your pet is not recommended by any vet association, especially for flights. My research showed that tranquilizing an animal makes it more likely to die because it cannot use its senses well, so keep that in mind.
With that, I am wishing you the best of luck and safe travels. Please don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments if I can be of any help.
The infographic below summarizes the four most important steps you should take before flying with your cat.
About the author
Viva Bolova holds a degree in journalism from the University of Kansas. She writes on travel and pet-related topics and has experience as a PR expert for an international airport. Viva and Moca moved from Kansas City to Europe where they still live together.
This was an awesome, comprehensive article! I've traveled with my cat Summer probably a couple dozen times in the U.S. by air, and twice to Vancouver, BC. So far we haven't traveled farther than Canada, which is only slightly more complicated than U.S. travel. But everything you said about advance planning is SO important. Summer is very bonded to me, and loves traveling (she's harness and leash trained and people watches at the gate, if she's allowed out of the carrier), but all the steps above that apply to U.S. travel are things we are used to by now. For most people, who will be flying with their cat maybe once or twice in their lives, it's quite a learning curve but very worthwhile.
Luckily we've never had to travel with our cats, but if we do I will be sure to make a checklist from this blog post. Neither of our cats even like traveling by car!
Boy did I need to read this before our trip to Dallas
I have traveled with my cat but never had the chance to fly. I've considered it many times and am happy to have the article to give me advice. Cats are not just pets but part of the family and if I take Gypsy into the air with me I want it to be a pleasant experience for both of us. I know it's best to keep your cat at home, but if I'm going to be away for a month or more, I think it would be better to have Gypsy with me rather than have someone come and pet sit .Personal preference and opinion...
We have 6 cats and one who loves to ride in the car. He's never been on a plane before but I'm sure he'd like it!
This is an informative and important article. I have never flown with my cat, but I would definitely take her in the cabin with me.
REALLY awesome tips. A friend of mine lived in Australia for a few years and took all the pets with. Some did better than others. Thanks for telling your community NOT to sedate :) Thanks
I really enjoyed this article. I've never flown with my cat, but it's good to know what to do in case I would have to fly with them. I didn't know about the testing of the kitty litter, or that if your pet is flying in cargo that you could let the pilot know and they could adjust the temperature and the oxygen. I worry about animals of any kind being put into the cargo area. I also didn't think about having to take your cat out of the carrier to be screened. I'd be terrified my cat would panic and escape if I let them out. The tips about asking if passengers with pets can board early and if a private room is available for your cat to be screened were things I wouldn't have thought of.
I learned a lot from your article. I have never flown with my cat and had no idea about many of the things you mentioned in the article. Asking the flight attendants to remind the pilot that a pet is flying in cargo and to adjust the oxygen and temperature is something I would not have known about. I also didn't know about being able to ask for a private screening area to take your cat out to be screened or that the kitty litter has to be tested. This was a very informative and detailed article.
I have never flown with my cat. I learned a lot from your article. There were so many things that I would not have thought about like having to take your cat out of its carrier to be screened or that the kitty litter has to be tested. Other things that I didn't know were that the pilot should be reminded when your pet is flying cargo, so that the pilot can adjust the temperature and oxygen or that passengers with pets may get to board first.
Very interesting read. Sedatives were my first thought. I had no idea that sedatives can seriously interfere with a cat’s ability to regulate its breathing and body temperature. It just goes to show that you always have to do research.
I love this advice!
Flying overall doesn’t please me - I’d need to be drugged too. We bought an RV so we could travel and bring kitty along :-)
I would be afraid to fly with my cat. I would prefer ground transportation.
Some great advice. I have never flown with my cats. I am considering it in the near future however. Thank you for all the knowledge you have shared.
I know that airlines have recently changed their policies on taking "comfort" pets on board with you. They have stricter rules now and I would always advise doing your research with the airlines before booking.
I have never flown with my cat.
I have not flown with a cat myself, but I have bought airline tickets for two cats in my life! First was for my cat Bo who I had in Oregon while in college. He was best friends with our duck, Percy. Unfortunately when I had to move to Idaho for a job I could find no housing I could afford that allowed pets but I could not bear to just give up my babies to the unknown....Percy went to a friend with land and ponds and Bo flew to my parents house in Alaska where he could live comfortably and happily with his grandparents. Second was years later when my parents ended up moving closer to me Idaho - Bo was fine to travel in the camper on the drive south but their other cat, Popokei, was not up for it in any way. So, I bought him a plane ticket south to Idaho and he stayed with me until our folks arrived and got settled into their new home!
I've never flown with either of my cats but would definitely take everything in this article into consideration
Thanks for sharing! Those are great tips.
I've never traveled by public transportation with my cat. She's already anxious as it is when we drive for several hours on a road trip.
I've never flown or taken the train with my cat. She's already too agitated when we go on long road trips.
I have never flown with my cat and I dint think I would take a chance . Even when going in short trips, she gets very nervous. If I needed to travel far, I would drive.
I have never flown with my cats. Thanks for all the good advice.
Hi Viva,\r\nMy name is Morit. I am relocating with my husband back to Florida in January. I want to get your input:\r\n1. which carrier I should buy. Looking at Amazon- Many soft airline approved carriers, have reviews of cats escaping from them- for me, this is my greatest fear. We have 2 cats. A male, 14lbs, very aggressive and doesn\'t like to be held at all. A female, 12 lbs eaiser to handle... Do they have to be able to sit up straight in the carrier? \r\n2. How do I reach or know how to contact the USDA official in Florida? Does it matter which airport I land in? Does it change the USDA official I should contact?\r\nThank you so much for your help... If you wish - we can email each other...
Hi, great ideas but I can never find any information of how cats can relieve themselves on major international travel. Door-to-door from USA to Germany generally takes 24 hours despite the actual air time only being half of that time. It\'s all the driving to the airports, check-in, sit time, boarding, then all the time after landing. She could go 10 hours or so without going to the bathroom, but not double that. Our dog we take out of the crate on a leash, but our cat would escape the second we opened her carrier so we have to be in our apt in Germany before we could even open the door!
Hi Viva, \r\nReally well explained practical tips before flying with pet cat. We were really concerned about flying with our pet cat, for Europe. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Ii will be a great help and guidance for us.
Everything you said rings true. I will update after I arrive in Corfu on 6/22/22. I wish I had someone to watch my cat but I did not. Two months I will be there. I have heard that security is the worst. I have a Maine Coon Kitten who is 8 months old. First flight 10 and half hours. I did not pick window but I chose the middle seats. Because my thought process is people are still not flying so by choosing the middle seats, I have a good chance of putting him underneath one of the middle seats. I have heard pros and cons on the drugging and mostly Vets say no. Good advice on going through security. Will ask the Vet today. I did read where if you can pick a vet that can upload online to APHIS. Although truth be told, hardly any vets due international. I have packed pee pads, few of them. Couple of bags with no smell if an accident. And coton wipes (costco) if I have to take him to the restroom to clean him up. Thank you for the wonderful information.
Flying with a cat is rather tricky, and the authorities down at the airport make it so. However, it doesn\'t have to be this complicated.
I’m flying with my 13 year old cat that never leaves de house and to get his vaccines he throws up on the way to the vet and at the vet’s it’s impossible to get him out of his kennel cause he gets so angry and defensive. I’m worried about security, is there anyway that they don’t have to force him to get out of his kennel?\r\nThanks for the article, it is very helpful!
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