What to Expect When You Fly With Your Cat

We’ve flown on planes many times, but with a cat it seems like a totally different experience! It is a little more challenging, and takes a little more time, but I’m here to show you that its not all that difficult! Knowing what to do and expect is half of the anxiety that comes with travel so keep reading to find out more!

This is based on domestic flights within Canada.

  1. Before Heading to the Airport
  2. Litter Box Preparation
  3. Checking In at the Counter
  4. Going Through Security
  5. Waiting for Boarding
  6. Boarding the Plane
  7. Flying on the Plane

Before Heading to the Airport

Make sure you are prepared to fly and you have packed everything you’ll need for your cat on your trip, including food, treats, and medication. You should also have reserved your cat on the plane along with your booking. You can online check-in to your flight, but you’ll be instructed to visit a counter when you arrive to the airport for a printed boarding pass.

For a more detailed guide, check out: How to Prepare Your Cat for Air Travel

Here’s a checklist of what you need:

  • Reserved and paid for your pet on the flight
  • Carrier that fits the airline’s dimensions (optional – lined with puppy pad)
  • Medication for your cat (if needed)
  • Harness and leash on your cat
  • Collar, ID, and airtag (optional)
  • Treats and food (depending on how long your travel day is)
  • Foldable litter box and quart sized bag of litter (optional)

Litter Box Preparation

Litter box access will be limited during your day of travel, so it would be best if your cat doesn’t need it during the trip. One way to reduce their need is to restrict food and water. This would depend on how long your day of travel is, because we don’t want to starve or dehydrate our cats. This will also depend on how often your cat uses the litter box usually. For reference, my cat only goes 1-3 times a day, so for a 1 hour plane ride, I will feed my cat as usual, and for a 4 hour plane ride, I will feed him half his meal before the flight.

You can also use puppy pads to line the inside of your carrier for easy clean up if you are worried they will have an accident. The puppy pads will absorb all the liquid, and you’ll just have to throw it away and replace with a new one. I tried this once but it didn’t work for my cat as he likes to dig at the sides to try and get out of the carrier, so I typically don’t do this, but it would be useful for more mellow cats.

You can bring a foldable litter box and a ziplock bag of litter if you think your cat won’t be able to hold it for the duration of travel. For longer flights or when you have connections, I would highly recommend this. Keep in mind that whole going through security, litter sometimes counts towards a limit, and I’ve been told the limit is 1 quart sized bag per person. You’ll be able to set the litter box up in quiet areas of the airport, single occupancy washrooms, or at the pet relief areas. Personally, for shorter flights under 4h I will trust my cat to hold it and not bother with a litter box as it is more troublesome.


Checking In at the Counter

Every time I’ve flown with a cat, I’ve had to line up at the counter to receive my boarding pass. This is so the agent can check your carrier and cat meets the size and weight restrictions. In my experience, they are not extremely strict and do not measure or weigh anything. On one occasion I was requested to open up the carrier to inspect if the cat could stand up in the carrier. Most adult cats will not be able to stand up in a carrier, and my cat couldn’t either, but somehow it was fine, thank goodness.

As there may be a line at the check in counter, you should aim to arrive earlier than you usually would. I add 30 minutes to my usual time for check-in.


Going Through Security

Going through security is very similar to going through without a cat, in that you’ll line up with everyone else and try to get through as quickly as possible. You do have the option of requesting a private screening room, and I would recommend this for skittish cats, cats who aren’t used to being outside their home, or cats who don’t like being held. For me personally, I prefer to go through the process like everyone else, to save time.

The best way is to keep your cat in their carrier and send everything else through the x-ray first, then go through with your cat, and then secure your cat back in their carrier, and finally grab the rest of your belongings.

  1. Remove your laptop and liquids, and your cat litter also counts towards a limit (one quart sized bag per person). Put everything else (except the carrier) through the conveyor.
  2. Put the cat carrier on the tray, take your cat out, and hold onto your cat. Keep their harness and leash on – it’s better to set off the metal detector than to have to chase your cat through the airport.
  3. While holding your cat, walk through the metal detector.
  4. You’ll be selected for a hand swab (its not even random, it happens every time with a pet), which means you’ll have to turn your palms outwards while holding your cat. You’ll wait a few seconds for the machine to process it, and then you’ll be done.
  5. Wait for the cat carrier to come through the scanner, and put your cat back inside. Zip them up first, and then collect the rest of your luggage.

The entire process involves holding onto your cat for around 2-3 minutes and for this reason, if your cat doesn’t like to be held for this long, it may be better to request the private screening room. Keep in mind that this will add more time, especially if the airport may be short staffed. On the other hand, I’ve found that my cat is a little more timid and willing to be held as the environment is a little scary for him and he sort of clings onto me.


Waiting for Boarding

Now you’re in the airport and there’s nothing to do except wait to board your flight. I usually take this time to go to a lounge (I’ve found most airport lounges to be pet friendly as long as they stay in their carrier), or walk around and let your cat stretch their legs. This part is also similar to travel without a pet, so just do what you normally do at this point.


Boarding the Plane

When travelling with a pet, you have the option to request for priority boarding, if you prefer to board first. It’s an option similar to families travelling with young children. If your prefer to board first, take the overhead bin space, and let your cat settle down while waiting for the rest of the plane to board, you can go ahead and try for priority boarding (not guaranteed but worth a try).

However, I actually prefer to board last. This is because my cat really hates being in his carrier, and I prefer to not add the extra 30-45 minutes waiting for everyone else to board. I will be at the gate, to make sure I don’t miss the flight, but I will ignore when they call for Zone 3 boarding or whatever, and just board last. Keep in mind that this usually means you won’t have any overhead space, so I typically only do this if I am travelling with other people who can take my carry on and board first, or if I’ve checked in all my luggage and am travelling with only a purse and the carrier, so I don’t need any overhead space.


Flying on the Plane

Once you get on the plane, you’ll set your carrier down under the seat in front of you, and ideally leave it there for the entire flight. If your cat is really good they’ll just go to sleep. However, my cat is really restless and hates being in his carrier, so he’ll keep meowing and meowing. I’ll try to quieten him down while also trying not to break any of the airline’s rules. In general, Canadian flights won’t allow you to take your pet out of their carriers, and some will even say you can’t open it or take the carrier out from under the seat. It all depends on the flight crew that day and how lucky you are.

Here are somethings I’ll do to quieten my cat down:

  • Reach into the carrier and pet them
  • Place the carrier on my lap or the seat next to me, so they feel closer to you
  • Give them treats (in particular churu treats)
  • Open the carrier but keep all parts of the cat inside. This one worked the best for my cat, but its a real struggle fighting to keep the cat inside the carrier when they want to come outside. Some flight crew will allow this (as long as all parts of the cat is still inside the carrier), and some will say you can’t even open the carrier.

If despite your best efforts, your cat is still meowing, there’s nothing more you can do about it. Because the plane engine is fairly loud, only the closest few rows can actually hear your cat. Also, if there are any babies on board, they’ll hopefully drown out your cat too. There’s really nothing you can do except apologize to the people sitting around you, and hope it will be over soon.

Good luck!

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