How To Travel With A Cat On A Plane (What to Expect in Each Step)

how to travel with a cat on a plane

I know it can be pretty nerve-racking if you’re planning to fly with your cat in cabin. But if you familiarize yourself with how to travel with a cat on a plane and what to expect in each step, then you’ll be just fine. The fear is usually the anticipation of uncertainty because you don’t know what to expect.

So, if you have an upcoming trip with your cat and you’re losing sleep because of the sheer stress involved in how you’re going to manage it, don’t worry. Let’s get started with this step-by-step guide on how to travel with a cat on a plane.

How to Travel with a Cat on a Plane – The Intro

“My cat is so talkative and I’m worried that he’s going to meow the entire flight.”

“I don’t want to put my cat in cargo, because I’ve heard nightmarish stories that have gone wrong.”

“I don’t want my cat to get rejected at the airport and then have to cancel my flight.”

“What if the passenger next to me is allergic to cats and makes a big scene?”

These are some common worries people have when they have cats traveling on planes with them. Which is perfectly normal.

I will take you through how to travel with a cat on a plane and what to expect in each step. Below I address the above questions and worries and more, so that your plane ride with your cat goes as smoothly as possible.

Note that this article applies to traveling within US and Canada. Much of this applies to international travel as well, but each country and each airline has different rules that may differ from this US and Canada guideline, so make sure to check with the specific airline.

Use this as a guide to familiarize yourself with the steps but I encourage you to speak with the agent of the airline you’re traveling with.

Here’s a quick navigation guide. Click on the topic to jump straight in to that section.

WHAT TO EXPECT: STEPS
I. BEFORE THE FLIGHT Which Airlines Are Cat Friendly?
Booking Ticket / Registering Your Cat
Seating Options
How Much Does It Cost to Fly with Your Cat?
Required Documentation
Traveling with an Emotional Support Cat
Airline-Approved Cat Carriers
What to Pack for Your Cat
II. AT THE AIRPORT Checking In
Going Through Security Screening
Preparing Your Cat Before Flight
III. DURING FLIGHT Boarding
Where to Put Your Cat
Sedatives for Cats Traveling by Plane
Dealing with Rude Neighbors
Get on Flight Attendant’s Good Side
Travel Litter Box for Airplane
IV. WHEN YOU LAND Customs

I. BEFORE THE FLIGHT

Which Airlines Are Cat Friendly?

All the major airlines that fly in the US and Canada follow the standard pet policy outlined in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation. So, the standard policy is the same, which includes your cat being in the carrier at all times and certain seats you can’t sit on the plane.

In addition to the standard pet policy that airlines follow, each airline follows their own rules when it comes to the maximum size of cat carrier allowed and how many cats you can travel with per customer.

There are some airlines that highlight pet travel as something they wish to make as pleasant as possible for their customers. While other airlines have very strict rules around pet travel and almost dismiss it as though it’s something they unwillingly have to participate in.

In fact, when you read real reviews by customers who did travel with pets in various forums, you start to see a consistency emerging.

For example, many dissatisfied pet traveling customers of United Airlines reported experiences of having their pet rejected by the agent at the airport. The agents they dealt with apparently deemed that the pet was too large even though the customer followed the rules. Even worse, United didn’t seem to be remorseful. They didn’t refund tickets or do anything about the customer having to cancel their trip and losing their money.

Alaska Airlines, on the other hand, highlight their commitment to ensuring their customers feel at ease about traveling with their pets with what they call Fur-st ClassCare.

Based on the airline’s commitment, how strict their rules are, the maximum dimensions of cat carrier allowed, and real customer reviews, below is my rating of how cat friendly the airlines are. Check out each airline pet policy and their cat friendliness here.

US/Canada Airline Cat Friendly Rating
Alaska Airlines 4.5 out of 5.0
Southwest Airlines 4.0 out of 5.0
JetBlue 3.9 out of 5.0
Allegiant Air 3.5 out of 5.0
American Airlines 3.5 out of 5.0
Porter Airlines 3.5 out of 5.0
Spirit Airlines 3.5 out of 5.0
WestJet 3.0 out of 5.0
Frontier Airlines 2.9 out of 5.0
United Airlines 2.5 out of 5.0
Air Canada 2.0 out of 5.0
Hawaiian Airlines 2.0 out of 5.0
Delta Air Lines 2.0 out of 5.0

 

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Booking and Registering Your Cat for Flight

Some airlines allow you to book your flight and register your cat for the flight online at the same time. Most airlines do not have that function online. So, you have 2 options:

You can either call their reservation line and book your ticket and tell them your cat is flying in cabin with you.

Alternatively, you can book your ticket online and within 24 hours, call the airline reservation line and notify them that you will be taking your cat with you on the plane. It’s important to call them within 24 hours of you booking your own ticket online, because every airline has a restriction on the number of pets allowed on a given flight.

If they have already reached a max number of pets with other customers, then they won’t accept yours. So, you should call to make sure while you can still fully refund your ticket in case that quota has been reached. And since you can get a full refund of your ticket within 24 hours, you should call within the 24 hours of booking your ticket.

It’s also a good idea to pay extra to reserve a certain seat when you book. As explained in the next section under Seating Options, there are certain seats not allowed for you to sit with your cat.

If you’re late checking in and the only seats available are the restricted seats, then the agent may not allow you to bring your cat if the agent at the airport is having a bad day and refuses to swap your seat with someone else’s.

Another thing to consider when you’re booking is when you’re going to fly.

Even though you’ll be flying with your cat in cabin so it’s not as big of a risk as if your cat was flying in cargo, extreme hot and cold temperatures can pose a health risk to your cat.

For instance, Alaska Airlines advises that in the summer, you should choose early morning or late evening flights. And in the winter, choose mid-day flights. If the city of departure or destination has extreme temperatures, then airlines may refuse to accept your pet on the day of.

Pet travel fee applies to ever flight you take, so if you have 3 connecting flights, then you have to pay the pet fee 3 times. So, if you can, book nonstop or direct flights.

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Seating Options

Under the FAA regulation, there are certain seats that you’re restricted from sitting if you’re flying with your pet in cabin. Restricted seats include:

  • Seats in exit row
  • Seats with no under-seat stow-away in front of them
  • First row
  • Seats with bulkhead in front of them (bulkhead is the partition or wall separating seating classes)

If you have an emotional support animal, then some airlines require you to get a window seat, because emotional support animals are allowed to come out of the carrier to comfort the customer if the animal is smaller than an infant baby. And in that case, the airline wants to prevent the animal obstructing the aisle.

Alaska Airlines is the only airline that allows a customer to travel with more than one pet carrier per customer. And they allow you to have maximum 2 pet carriers per customers but in this case, the customer must purchase the adjacent seat as well so that they can stow the pet carriers under the seat in front of both seats.

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How Much Does It Cost to Fly with Your Cat?

Below is the cost of flying with your cat one-way per pet. This is for flying within US and Canada only. International pet travel fees differ.

Note that you have to pay a pet fee for every connection flight. So if you book the cheapest flight from JFK to LAX and it takes you all day and a total of 3 flights to getthere, this might end up costing you more at the end because you would have to pay $125 * 3 = $375 for your pet on United, for instance.

US/Canada Airline Pet Fee for One-Way (USD per pet)
WestJet $50
Porter Airlines $56
Air Canada $59
Frontier Airlines $75
Southwest Airlines $95
JetBlue $100
Allegiant Air $100
Alaska Airlines $100
Spirit Airlines $110
American Airlines $125
United Airlines $125
Delta Air Lines $125
Hawaiian Airlines $175

What’s an interesting finding from my research is that the Canadian airlines charge much lower fees for pet travel than the US airlines. The Canadian airlines being WestJet, Porter Airlines and Air Canada.

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Required Documentation

For US and Canada trips where your cat is flying with you in cabin, the airlines don’t require a health certificate or vaccination.

However, the destination may require documentation. So, check the state and province requirements of your destination by either asking your veterinary to research for you or going to the state’s animal importation rules.

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Traveling with an Emotional Support Cat

Most airlines adopted a stricter guideline around emotional support animals after July 1, 2018.

Air Canada and Porter Airlines are the only 2 airlines of the major US and Canadian airlines that do NOT recognize cats as emotional support animals. Booo. All other airlines do.

For the airlines that do recognize cats as emotional support animals, the pet travel fee is waved. Although each airline has slightly different rules on emotional support animals, they all require these 3 documents at a minimum:

  • A letter from a mental health professional on their letterhead with your full name and contact information that you require an emotional support animal for mental health.
  • Veterinary health verification for your emotional support cat.
  • Confirmation that your animal’s behavior is not disruptive or aggressive and suitable for flight.

Some airlines have their own forms and can be submitted online or via email, whereas other airlines outline what you need to provide in the documents. Since the airlines have different methods, you can read about each one here on cat friendly airlines.

After filling out the forms and submitting, you are required to call the airline reservation (who can transfer you to the right department) that you filled out the forms at least 48 hours before you fly.

Keep a hard copy of all the documentation with you at all times before, during, and after the flight.

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Best Airline Approved Cat Carriers

What’s really annoying is that each airline has different dimensions of cat carrier that they allow as the maximum size. Why can’t there just be the one dimension that every airline adopts as the max size allowed?

The reason why this is annoying is because when you buy a cat carrier that has a tag that says “airline-approved” and then bring it to your flight, you can get rejected at check-in for the carrier being too big. What gives?!

So, in order to ensure that your cat carrier does meet the requirement by the airline, here is a list of the cat carrier dimensions allowed by each airline. So, if you are stopped, you can show them the dimensions shown on their website as proof that your cat carrier meets the guideline.

Note that most airlines only allow soft-sided kennels and do not allow hard-sided kennels at all. Some airlines have dimensions allowed for hard-sided kennels but they must be much smaller than the soft-sided kennels. In order to have the flexibility of flying on different airlines, it’s recommended to get a soft-sided kennel, which is what the dimensions are for below.

US/Canada Airline Cat Carrier Max Size Allowed
Air Canada 17in x 15in x 8.25in
Alaska Airlines 17in x 11in x 9.5in
Allegiant Air 19in x 16in x 9in
American Airlines 19in x 13in x 9in
Delta Air Lines Not specified on their website.
Frontier Airlines 18in x 14in x 8in
Hawaiian Airlines 16in x 10in x 9.5in

(Must not exceed 25lb)

JetBlue 17in x 12.5in x 8.5in

(Must not exceed 20lb)

Porter Airlines 22in x 16in x 9in

(Must not exceed 20lb)

Southwest Airlines 17in x 10in x 10.5in

(Southwest Airlines pet carrier)

18.5in x 13.5in x 8.5in

(For all other pet carriers)

Spirit Airlines 18in x 14in x 9in

(Must not exceed 40lb)

United Airlines 18in x 11in x 11in
WestJet 16in x 10in x 8.5in

If you want to get a cat carrier that meets the requirement of all airlines, then it must be no larger than the following dimensions: 16in (L) x 10in (W) x 8in (H). This is much much smaller than what’s sold as “airline-approved”. Beware of tags on pet carriers that you buy that promise “airline-approved,” because it might be too big for the airline you’re traveling with.

Looking at the table above, you may want to think about which airline to travel with depending on the size of your cat. If your cat is tall with long legs, then airlines that allow carrier dimensions with the most height will be beneficial. This is with United Airlines.

On the other hand, if your cat isn’t that tall but is overweight and need some extra room to move around in, then go with an airline that approves cat carrier with the longest length and width. These are Allegiant Air, Porter Airlines, Air Canada, and American Airlines.

Check out the recommended cat carriers about the carriers that meet the dimension requirements above.

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What to Pack for Your Cat

Assuming your flight within US and Canada is a direct flight that is no longer than 6 hours, you don’t need to pack a whole bunch for your cat’s travel. Here is a checklist and best practice for a smooth flight with your cat in cabin.

  • Don’t forget your cat’s ID tag and collar, but remove the leash before placing your cat in its carrier. Have the leash with you separately.
  • Just in case customs at your destination requires it, don’t forget a vaccination form for your cat which your veterinarian can provide.
  • Cover the bottom of the carrier with bedding for comfort and either a pee pad or a blanket you can do without, so that it can absorb accidents.
  • Don’t lock the carrier door in case a personnel needs to get in there in case of emergency.
  • Feed your cat 4 – 6 hours before departure and no later than that, so that your cat has had time to digest, because a full stomach on flight may cause discomfort to your cat, which can lead to excessive meowing.
  • Give your cat water up to the time of travel, because you can’t open the kennel to give your cat any water during the flight. But avoid giving too much water, because your cat could hold in their pee and be extremely uncomfortable.
  • Sedatives and tranquilizers are not recommended. Feel free to ask your veterinarian, but most airlines and vets don’t recommend it.
  • Natural calming aid, on the other hand, including pheromone spray, could be helpful, but it’s not a foolproof method. You can read about the methods I used to help Charlie calm down.
  • Carry with you separately dry food treats and a bowl for water. After you land, some treats and water to make your cat feel a little more comfortable can be helpful.
  • A blanket to put over the carrier on the plane.

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II. AT THE AIRPORT

Now that you know what to expect before you get to the airport, the more daunting experience lies ahead. What happens at the airport? Again, don’t worry. It is not as complicated as you think.

Once you have your cat in a cat carrier that meets the dimension requirement of the airline you’re traveling with, it’s time to check in.

How to Check in with Your Cat

You can’t check in as you would normally. That is, normally the most popular way to check in is to go on their website or check in using the airline app within 24 hours of the flight. But every airline advises that you check in at the full service counter. That means, you have to wait in line.

You also cannot use the self-service kiosks to check in at the airport. You can only check-in in person. So, it is highly advised that you arrive at least 30 minutes before the recommended check-in time so you have enough time to stand in line and see an agent at check-in.

For example, if you’re traveling from Canada to the US, you’re recommended to arrive at the airport 2 hours before your flight. If you’re traveling with your cat, arrive at the airport 2.5 hours before your flight.

I also want to mention that a lot of reviews by customers traveling on airplanes unfortunately got rejected by the airport because their animal was deemed to be too big and uncomfortable in their pet carrier and/or the pet carrier was larger than the restricted dimensions.

It’s a bit of a gamble and if you are desperate to get on a flight, then it may be a good idea to arrive at the airport even earlier so that you can find another airline with the same route that will allow your cat to go on. That is, only if you must get on a flight one way or another to reach your destination that day.

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Going Through Security Screening

After checking in with the agent, you will then have to pass through security. Everything else is standard; i.e. if you’re not TSA Pre, then you have to take your shoes and large jacket off, your laptop separately in a bin, etc.

When it comes to your cat, you will be asked (more like told…) by the TSA security to hold your cat and walk through the screening device while your carrier is x-rayed.

This part is one of the more stressful part of the process, so I repeat.

At security check-point, remove your cat from his/her carrier, put a leash on, and carry your cat while walking through the security metal detector. You will place the carrier in a bin which will go on the conveyor belt along with the rest of your belongings.

*Useful tip* At certain airports, you CAN ask for a private screening. If the airport provides it, it is highly recommended if you’re traveling with a cat. As you know, cats get easily scared in a foreign environment, especially with a lot of people. And cats can Houdini out of pretty much any harness. The last thing you want is your cat scratching/clawing you and running away in an airport.

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Preparing Your Cat Before Flight

Once you’ve passed through security, you can finally breathe. The hard part before flight is over. The only thing left is to hope that you get a nice neighbor who doesn’t complain about their allergy to cats and/or your cat meowing excessively.

While waiting at the gate for your flight to board, you should keep your cat in his/her carrier, especially if the gate agent can see you.

If you have a bit of time, then take your cat to the animal relief area. All airports have at least one designated animal relief area and that’s where customers can take their pets to. They are usually located outside of the security checkpoint.

After security, you can take your cat to the animal relief area, let him/her out of the carrier. Don’t forget to put his/her harness and leash on. And don’t miss your flight!

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III. DURING FLIGHT

Boarding

Although we think our cat is our baby, airlines don’t recognize cats as babies. So, you cannot pre-board when they make a boarding announcement for customers with babies and kids or seniors. You must wait your turn for boarding as per the boarding zone indicated on your ticket.

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Where to Put Your Cat

As mentioned above under Seating Options, there are certain seats that you are restricted to. You can reserve your seats ahead of time after booking your ticket and calling their reservation line to let them know you are flying with your cat.

When you get to your seat, you must place the cat carrier, with your cat inside, under the seat in front of you. I would recommend putting a blanket over the cat carrier, so that your cat doesn’t get scared of different stimuli in the environment.

Unless your cat is flying with you as an emotional support animal (with proper documentation as evidence), you should never take your cat out of his/her carrier. Don’t even think about opening the zipper agape. You’ll risk the flight attendant B-lining to you to chastise you.

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Sedatives for Cats Traveling by Plane

There is a lot of controversy around sedatives for cats that are traveling by plane. Most veterinarians advise against sedating cats because cats need to regulate their breathing when they’re at a higher altitude pressure. But sedatives or tranquilizers could affect their breathing and hinder their ability to regulate their bodies. It’s unpredictable and could possibly be dangerous to sedate your cats.

Rather than sedate your cat, it is advisable to use natural remedies to calm your cat.

Another possible danger is that your cat can’t balance when sedated. And when your cat is in his/her carrier and the airplane is unstable with turbulence, your cat may ping pong back and forth in the carrier. With a soft-sided kennel, this is less of a problem, but either way, your cat can’t protect him/herself.

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Dealing with Rude or Allergic Neighbors

If you’ve made it this far with your cat, there’s not much left to endure. Going through the hoops of coaxing your cat to go in his/her carrier, getting the green light from the check-in agent, and passing through security with no cat on the loose were the hard part.

One of the biggest worries of cat owners traveling with their cat in cabin is their cat meowing the entire flight and disturbing everyone on flight. While this is very stressful, rest assured that airlines can’t kick you off the plane because there’s another passenger on the plane who is complaining about your cat.

In fact, if a passenger says they are severely allergic, then they must provide proof that they have a disability from the allergy. If they can’t produce this proof, then the airline can kick that passenger off the plane. If you do produce a disability proof, then they will find a seat at least 5 rows away from this passenger and try to make those arrangements.

But one thing the airline can’t do is to kick you off the plane for bringing your cat.

In fact, if your cat is an emotional support animal, then you’re pretty much off the hook.

It indeed sucks for the passengers with cat or dog allergies to have no say in the matter, but as one person writes as their opinion on the subject, there are allergens everywhere in the atmosphere. One should not expect an environment to be completely allergen-free outside of their home, and therefore, knowing you are severely allergic to something, you should be responsible to take care of your own well-being in those situations.

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Get on Flight Attendant’s Good Side

Your best defense if there are unruly passengers wanting to fight you and your cat is the advocacy of your flight attendants on flight.

Some flight attendants are perpetually having a bad day, but there are many flight attendants who are very nice if you’re on their good side. I feel silly even having to mention this, but I would highly advise that you are friendly and respectful to your flight attendants.

Once you sit down, you can try to grab the attention of a flight attendant walking up and down the aisle helping customers that you have a cat and you’re nervous about him/her bothering other passengers. Flight attendants are human too, so they can sympathize with your situation and help you out (unless they hate cats.. If they do, grab a different flight attendant.)

And definitely, avoid doing these things that flight attendants hate about passengers.

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Travel Litter Box for the Airplane?

There is no ambiguity about this matter – you are not allowed to take your cat out of his/her crate at any time during flight. Some flights may be lenient and not say anything if you do, but not only is it against the rules, the flight attendants who know and enforce the rules, will come rushing over and yell at you to put the cat back in the carrier.

So, you should NOT allow your cat to go potty in a travel litter box on the plane.

You can, however, use a travel litter box before flight in the airport’s designated animal relief area and after the flight. In that case, you can use a travel litter box, which is basically a collapsible tray filled with litter. I would recommend that when you whip out the tray, put a large garbage bag over it and then fill it with litter before you put your cat on it. You can check out the recommended cat travel products here.

In fact, I would recommend that after you go through security, take your cat to the designated animal relief area, set up the travel litter box there to entice your cat to take care of business. Otherwise, your cat can get a urinary tract infection from holding it in for too long.

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IV. WHEN YOU LAND

Customs

Congratulations! You survived the plane ride with your cat in cabin. The only thing left to do at this point is to get through customs. If you’re traveling within the country, it might be the state that requires documentation for your cat.

As mentioned in the beginning of the post for preparations before the flight, check with the destination of your flight if you need to bring a vaccination form and health certificate of your animal as required by the state.

Good luck!

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