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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.