Cats are notorious for hating travel. When I decided to move to Chile with my cat I was very nervous because I had no idea how to do international travel with a cat. Most of the information I found online only dealt with shorter trips so the idea of a 16 hour trip with an old diabetic cat was a little overwhelming! But have no fear, with proper planning and preparation you and your kitty can start your new life abroad without a hitch.
For specifics on bringing a cat from the US to Chile, check out my blog about that process here.
1.Get the proper carrier
Each airline has their own specifications for how big the carrier can be. The carrier must be able to fit underneath the seat in front of you. I bought this one from Amazon and it worked great for Delta, although I learned that not all seats on the airplane have the same amount of space under the seat. When you call the airline to make the reservation for your cat they will give you the seat specifications for the seat you have chosen. I had to move my seat from a window seat to a middle seat because the window seat had less room.
Avoid: carriers with a lot of netting, especially if your cat has front claws. This netting can be torn which could make it possible for your cat to escape.
2. Put a harness on your cat
Many people don’t realize this, but when you travel with a cat in the US the TSA will ask you to take the cat out of its carrier so that the carrier can go through the X-ray. If you think your cat is a flight risk, you can ask for a private screening. This should be available at every airport so if they say no, nicely insist (they don’t want to have to chase a cat around the airport either). If you think your cat will be okay for a few minutes without a private room, I strongly recommend having your cat on a harness and leash during this process.
I had my cat wear the harness for the entire trip, and I had a leash available if I needed to take him out of his carrier for any reason. I did the private screening every time though since there’s a much smaller risk your cat will escape this way. Remember, your cat will be nervous and may not behave in a way it normally does, so don’t trust that your cat won’t run away. Also remember that cats are acrobats and can get out of a harness if they are very motivated. Play it safe with the private screening.
3. Get your cat some drugs
Your cat is likely going to be very anxious. During your appointment with your veterinarian to get the international travel certificate, ask for some anti-anxiety medicine for your cat. Airlines don’t allow pets to be sedated during travel. Anti-anxiety medication as fine as long as your pet is awake and semi-alert.
The most commonly prescribed medication for travel is gabapentin. This won’t knock your cat out but it can help reduce anxiety. I gave my cat some as prescribed a few days before travel to see how it would affect him/if the dosage was correct. I could definitely tell he was drugged – his body was much more relaxed and he was easier to handle. He was still able to walk, eat, drink, and go to the bathroom though. Depending on how long your trip is, you may need to give your cat another dose mid-trip. I gave my cat a dose before we left to go to the airport, and another mid flight, which was 8-10 hours after the initial dose.
Ask your veterinarian how frequently you can medicate your cat for your specific trip. Also keep in mind that you are not allowed to remove your cat from the carrier during the flight. I was able to give mine another pill by opening the carrier (top opening) enough for my hands to go in and give him a pill and then I closed it again. If you are not a VERY experienced cat handler, I do not recommend doing this as cats are acrobats and escape artists.
4. Line the carrier with puppy pads
Most stressed cats won’t go to the bathroom even if you present them with an opportunity. If you have a long layover you can travel with a disposable litter box and a small bag of litter. Take your cat to a private handicap bathroom and give it the opportunity to use the littler box. Your cat will likely be very nervous so don’t be alarmed if your cat refuses to use it.
I traveled from Dayton, OH to Santiago, Chile with a short layover in Atlanta. The total travel time was about 16 hours. Since the majority of the travel time was in-flight I didn’t bring a litter box. Instead I bought a package of puppy pads (waterproof pads used for potty training puppies – can be found at any pet store or online) and lined the carrier with them. I taped them to the side so they wouldn’t shift too much with movement. I brought extra in the event my cat had an accident, but they weren’t necessary. Also bring moist pet cleaning wipes in the event of an accident.
5. Have your destination cat-ready
If you are moving somewhere and someone you know is already there, ask them to have a space ready for your cat to move-in (even if it’s only temporary). That way when you arrive your cat will have access to a litter box, food, and water upon arrival. The first thing my cat did when he got out of his carrier was take a big long pee in his new litter box. If this isn’t possible, then travel with pet supplies so you can quickly set up a litter box for your cat when you arrive.
Other things to note
You will need paperwork for your cat, but that paperwork varies depending on your destination. For international travel with a cat, in general, your cat will need to be up-to-date on a rabies vaccine, treated for internal and external parasites, and a health/travel certificate from your veterinarian. Check the USDA’s travel website to find the specific requirements for your destination.
Also, bring some extra food for your cat in your carry-on bag, just in case your luggage gets lost.
Traveling with a special needs cat
My cat is diabetic, so I had to travel with his insulin in a small lunch box with an ice pack. The TSA didn’t give me any trouble with this. The only problem I had was with Delta. They told me that since it’s an animal, even though it’s medical supplies, it counts as your personal item (this is not the case for human medications). This presented a problem for me since I already had a large carry-on and personal item. They wouldn’t let me on the plane with all 3 things (the cat counted as either a personal item or a carry-on bag) so they made me check my carry-on bag. The guy was nice and didn’t charge me for it, which I was very grateful for because it would have cost over $100.