If my cat Venus could talk, she’d probably tell you how much she hates traveling. Hate is a strong word, but that’s the idea. She truly, madly, deeply hates it; she despises the idea of travel.
Venus is certainly not alone.
Although the mythical creatures called “adventure cats” exist, traveling is often stressful for most felines. Cats love routines and their territories. In fact, our beloved cats are believed to have descended from Felis silvestris lybica, a Middle Eastern wildcat that is territorial and solitary. Travel interrupts their daily routine, takes them to an unfamiliar place, and throws them off balance: what’s not to love? (!)
Venus and I had a long trip ahead. First, we would have to take a two-hour domestic flight to O’Hare and then an eleven hour-long flight to Turkey. So, I’d begun my research on how to fly with a cat almost a year before our transatlantic flight.
Although most articles/videos I found online were helpful, the cats mentioned in these sources were often intrinsically calm and quiet. Nothing like my little ball of anxiety.
My cat is anxious by nature; she is extremely attached to me and me only. It takes her a while to trust strangers, and she is easily startled. I adopted her when she was six-months-old; I’m not sure if she had a traumatic experience when she was born. She also gets car sick on curvy roads. She howls and throws up as my heart breaks into a million pieces.
Due to her adverse reaction to traveling, she goes on a car ride only when she has to.
But when it was time for me to move back to Turkey, I simply couldn’t leave without her.
Frankly, there were times when I questioned if I was being selfish by taking her with me. But I only had to imagine returning her to a shelter; that was enough to convince me that we could, indeed, successfully move across the globe.
Traveling with a cat under normal circumstances is stressful enough. The prospect of flying with my cat from the U.S. to Turkey during the coronavirus crisis amplified my anxiety. In an effort to do my best to make her comfortable on our trip, I did extensive research, practiced, and prepared well. I’m happy to say that all my efforts did work! We are now in Turkey settling into our new home, and I know that I would’ve regretted it forever if I had left the country without her.
If you’re currently planning to travel with your pet under these extraordinary circumstances, or you’d like to fly with your cat once the coronavirus crisis settles, this article is for you.
Below I present to you ten tips on how to ensure your cat is comfortable on a plane and that your trip goes smoothly.
1- Ask Yourself: “Do I Really Need to Take My Cat with Me?”
We love our pets, and it’s only normal that we don’t want to leave them behind when we travel. However, if you have an extremely anxious cat, it’s a good idea to take the time to reconsider your options.
Can you find a cat sitter? Can you leave your cat with a friend? Is taking your cat with you absolutely necessarily?
I remember getting frustrated at such questions when I was reading articles on traveling with a pet. I thought, “well, I am moving out of the country, and my visa is expiring. There’s no other option.”
If your reaction is similar, then yes, you do need to take your cat with you.
2- Buy Your Plane Ticket & Make a Reservation for Your Cat
It’s crucial to buy your ticket in advance and call the airline to make a reservation for your pet.
Airlines have different policies regarding the number/types of pets allowed in cabin; make sure to reserve your cat’s spot as early as you can.
When you make the reservation, they will make sure your cat isn’t too big to travel in cabin and that you have the right size carrier (again, each airline has different requirements in regards to the size of the carrier).
3- Get Your Cat Microchipped
…if they are not already. The microchip needs to be 15 digit ISO 11784/11785 compliant. My cat was already microchipped when I adopted her, but you can find a reliable, ISO compliant microchip from Pet Travel Store.
4- Do Research on Required Documents
You should start researching the documents that the country of destination requires at least 3-4 months before your departure date.
Some countries require a titter test, which is a process that can take up to 1-3 months. Almost all countries require a current rabies vaccination, as well as flea and parasite treatments. BUT once your cat receives her current shot, you need to wait for 30 days until she can get the other required treatments.
Required documents for some countries can be time-sensitive; always plan ahead. The USDA vet told me that the health certificate needs to be approved/signed by my cat’s vet 10 days before departure. Then, you need USDA’s approval within 2 days of travel–you can either mail the documents or make an appointment to get the signature in person.
Remember that you’ll need to work with the main USDA office in your state. For more information:
- You can go to APHIS USDA’s website to see the requirements for your country of destination
- You can also visit Pettravel.com to find out more about airline policies and requirements. Pet Travel is a great source if you want a binder of instructions and each country’s pet policies.
Unfortunately, pet policies keep getting updated, which means it’s possible to find contradictory instructions online. You’ll see that some websites state that a pet needs a titter test to enter Turkey whereas my vet confirmed with USDA that Turkey only requires a current rabies vaccination. I still don’t know if a titter test is actually required, but I followed USDA’s lead, since the health certificate needed their approval.
You can always email/call the USDA office in your state, as well as your vet. Your vet charges you for the health certificate; make sure they work with you as you prepare for the big move.
5- Make Travel Plans with COVID-19 in mind
If you’re planning to fly during the COVID-19 pandemic, check your airline’s website often for updates and announcements.
I had bought my Turkish Airlines ticket and made a reservation for Venus a few months before the global lockdown in March. Then in March, Turkish Airlines suspended the option to travel with pets. Even after they allowed pets to travel in cabin once again in May, I made a plan B, C and D to prepare for unexpected cancellations and restrictions.
I had to leave by my visa expiration date, July 14th. In case I’d have to fly without Venus, I made plans to leave her in the U.S. and to come back to get her around Christmas. I arranged for her to stay with:
- My boyfriend
- The vet (expensive option)
- A long term pet-sitter I found on the app Rover
- This could be quite expensive too. But two kind sitters offered to watch Venus for free after I told them about my situation.
Since flights keep getting canceled at this time, I suggest that you contact the Department of Agriculture in your destination country for more information on customs clearance for pets. After my flight got canceled, I contacted the two airports in Istanbul to express my concern about time-sensitive documents and cancelled flights. They responded quickly and told me that they were being flexible because of the pandemic. What a relief!
6- Buy the Right Travel Products
Turkish Airlines requires that the carrier not exceed 23 cm height x 30 cm width x 40 cm length. This is pretty small. For that reason, I decided to buy an expandable carrier that also follows the airline requirements.
Most recommend that you slowly introduce the carrier to your cat and then start taking her on short rides. Unfortunately, getting into the car every day for a week made my cat even more anxious. So, I ordered the carrier one month before departure, and I put her toys and food bowl in it. In the last week, I placed her into the carrier and let her stay there for 10-20 mins. Rewarding with a treat afterwards was always a plus. I do believe that this approach allowed her to feel secure in her airline carrier as opposed to her howling and constant meowing in the other carrier that I use to take her to the vet.
In order to make our trip more convenient, I got a portable litter box for bathroom breaks and some litter box liners. I bought a collapsible food bowl and a travel water bottle, as well as some DryFur pads to place within the carrier.
You can also get a Pet Passport Holder that will allow you to keep all the documents in one place. Lastly, it’s a good idea to invest in a TSA-approved leash if you’re planning to take your cat out of the carrier for a screening at the airport.
7- Invest in Calming Products and/or Pills
Since I was worried about Venus’s level of anxiety, I tried various products that I think made her comfortable during our trip. She doesn’t do well on prescriptions; after I consulted with her vet, we decided to try natural products.
Here’s a list of those products that we tried:
I tried two different calming collars before we left. The first one had an overwhelming essential oil smell so I had to take it off. The second one I tried had a nice, subtle smell. It seemed to calm her down a bit, but it didn’t make a huge difference.
Hemp Oil, Chamomile & Valerian Anti-Anxiety Aid for Pets: Venus got this oil with treats; it certainly calmed her. The trouble with treats and oils is, when she’s terrified, she refuses to eat anything.
VetriScience Composure Pro Bite Size Chews Pet Relaxants & Anti-Anxiety Treatment: These treats work great, and my cat loves the taste. But again, it was a problem that she didn’t eat it on the plane because she was too anxious.
Cerenia Tablets: My vet also prescribed her a box of Cerenia tablets for nausea. I knew we wouldn’t be on curvy roads, but I got these just in case. I didn’t end up using these, though– she didn’t get sick at all.
It is important to try any products/treats/tablets at least a few days before departure to see how your pet reacts to it.
8- Prepare to Fly During the Pandemic
To make sure both you and the kitty are safe and healthy, pack some anti-bacterial wipes and spray bottles with you. I kept these in one of the carrier pockets for easy access. Like most passengers, I was wearing a mask at all times. I also packed some gloves with me for when we had to go to the restroom. Once there for a break, I disinfected the baby changing station and then unzipped her carrier to see if she wanted to stretch. She preferred to relax in her carrier, though.
9- Ask for a Private TSA Screening
Your cat’s carrier can be screened along with your belongings. In that case, you need to take your cat out of the carrier. I knew this would be anxiety-inducing for Venus, so asking for a private screening for the carrier was a life-saver.
When you ask for a private screening, an officer holds the carrier (with your cat secured in it) cat for you as they screen you and your bags as usual. Two officers then take you to a private screening room where you hold on to your cat and they take the carrier and screen it.
Venus was terrified when we were waiting in the room and was glad to return to her carrier once the screening was complete. The TSA officers were quite helpful and friendly, too, which made the process convenient.
10- Don’t Worry about Other Passengers’ Reactions on the Plane
Yes, your cat may meow during the flight, and yes you may not be able to stop it.
It’s crucial (and difficult, I know) to let go of worries and anxieties about what other people may think at that moment. I remember rehearsing before my flight possible responses to passengers who would make a negative statement about my cat’s constant meowing. But once I was on the flight, I knew there was nothing I could do.
In the following section, I talk more about how Venus did during the flight.
After all the preparations, I was elated that Venus did so well on both flights, domestic and international.
First, we flew on United for two hours. I could see that she was scared on the plane, but she didn’t meow or howl at all.
When we settled into our room in Chicago, where we were going to stay for two nights until our transatlantic flight, she hid underneath the bed and didn’t eat anything for the rest of the night.
The next day, however, she was back to her usual self. She explored the room, ate, drank lots of water, used the litter box, and played. This was the only time when I used the travel food and water bowls, as well as the portable litter box.
The flight to Turkey was definitely harder on her, but she was a trooper the whole time. She meowed a little in the car on our way to O’Hare. Then she was quiet, and terrified I assume, as we waited at the gate for departure.
Whenever we had time, I unzipped the expandable sections of her carrier and offered her water and treats–and she rejected them kindly…
Once we were on the plane, she hung out in her carrier—until they dimmed the lights.
We’d been flying for five hours, and other passengers were sleeping when she started getting restless. Since I used my Miles & Smiles points to get a seat in Business, we had lots of room and I was able to allow her to sit on my lap with her leash and harness on. (Using my points to upgrade to Business was the best decision; there weren’t many people around her and her carrier never got smushed under the seat. Since I can’t afford business, if I ever have to fly with her again, I’d at least upgrade for more leg room)
After the lights were dimmed and other passengers dozed off, Venus thought it was time (and safe) to explore this strange place. The curious kitty in her had been unleashed.
She wanted to explore the plane and take a walk in the hallway, which can be quite risky. Since she kept meowing, I took her to the restroom (which the flight attendants were disinfecting every hour), prepared her litter box and took her out. She walked around in the restroom, but of course, that wasn’t enough for the curious kitty. She wanted to go out there and explore.
I have to admit, I regretted not having an anti- anxiety prescription for her at that moment; she would’ve been more comfortable if I gave her a calming pill when she got restless. But I used the pheromone spray and the herbal oil, which seemed to help. Once everyone woke up and lights got turned on, she stopped meowing and did quite well until we got home.
Although being in an unfamiliar space terrified her, Venus wanted pets and lots of water after we arrived in our new house. I had already ordered all the essentials for her–she had a littler box, litter, food/water bowls and toys all ready to use in our destination.
She’s still alert and anxious when others are around, but her attitude towards me hasn’t changed at all.
Cats are a lot more resilient than we think they are. If you have an anxious cat with whom you’re planning to travel, it is stressful, but it does seem worse than it actually is. You can have a successful trip by planning ahead, staying calm, and thinking of the reasons why you want your best-friend with you.
One more thing…
After worrying about my cat’s passport and documents for months, the customs officer looked at us as we were leaving the Istanbul airport and said:
“You know, I don’t need to see the documents. I trust you.
I won’t lie; it was a welcome that I needed after four stressful months of planning, worrying, overthinking, and being stuck in the U.S.
“Welcome home!” indeed.