First Flight: Flying with a Cat

Seppy Griesbach
Seppy

I am not kidding when I say that the majority of my anxiety regarding our cross-country move stemmed from relocating our seven-year old male cat, Seppy.

My husband and I went back and forth about whether we should take him via car or plane. I was in favor of car at first– he would be with us and we would all arrive at our final destination together.

My husband reminded me how much Sep loves riding in the car on the way to the vet (a 20-minute drive) and how much he would probably love driving across the country (a 40-hour drive). He also made a convincing argument regarding our ability to see anything on our drive out if we had Sep in the car.

I finally conceded that the plane ride was probably the best for everyone involved.

It’s just that I’ve never flown with a pet!

Luckily some of my friends and former work colleagues have flown with their cats and small dogs, and they were VERY gracious in sharing the process with me as well as words of wisdom and a few dos and don’ts from their experiences. My luck continued when we discovered that Frontier Airlines, which bills themselves as being pet friendly, recently opened a seasonal direct flight from Cleveland to Seattle. The direct flight seemed like the best option for getting things over and done as quickly and painlessly as possible for both me and Seppy.

I ended up doing a somewhat crazy round-trip to get Seppy from our house a couple of days before it closed (this involved a red-eye home and a return flight 12 hours after I landed–at this time I would like to give a shout out to my friend Katie who not only picked me up from the airport at an obnoxious hour on a Saturday, but let me crash on her couch all morning, as well as my parents who put up with both me and the cat crying on the ride back to the airport. Seppy because he hates the car, and me because I hate when Seppy is upset. It was a fun ride for everyone.)

Ultimately everything went perfectly, so I wanted to share some of the advice I took in case it’s helpful to anyone else who might be flying with a pet– particularly a cat.

Flying with a Cat: Things to Do Before Your Flight

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  1. Familiarize the Carrier. A few weeks before our move, while we were packing everything else in the house, I pulled out Seppy’s carrier and set it in the living room near the back door where he liked to hang out in the sun beams. We only ever use the carrier for his vet visits, which he hates, so I was concerned he wouldn’t want to be in the carrier during the flight due to poor association. I think that was probably true because he didn’t want anything to do with it at first, but after a while he started rubbing on it, and one day we came down to find him sleeping in it. After that, he started using it as an occasional bed, and when I needed him in it for the vet as well as the final trip, he wasn’t adverse to going inside. This was a huge relief because I wasn’t sure how I was going to get him in and out if he was fighting me– he’s lost some weight, but he’s still a 17 lb. male and believe it or not, is pretty strong.
  2. Ensure the Proper Carrier. In addition to making sure Seppy was comfortable in his carrier, I also double-checked the airline’s website regarding the size of his carrier to make sure it met the carry-on restrictions and would fit under the seat in front of me. I wasn’t open to having him ride in cargo– I wanted him at my feet during the flight–so I was able to use his standard softshell carrier which gave him the maximum room to spread out while we were in the terminal but which could be molded appropriately to get him fully under the airline seat.
  3. Update Health Records. The week before our move I called the airline to see if it required any health records for his flight. Frontier did not, but other airlines might–it’s definitely worth checking. I also looked up the Washington State Department of Agriculture regulations regarding moving pets. It turns out the state of Washington requires a health certificate issued within 30 days of travel and a current rabies vaccine. I made an appointment with our vet and scheduled a last-minute check-up in order to get the health records he needed for travel. (It turned out I didn’t end up needing these on the flight or when I landed, but I did need them to register him in the city of Everett so I was glad I had them.)
  4. Acquire a Thundershirt. It never occurred to me that I would have to take Seppy out of his carrier at the airport. I thought the struggle would be at the house and then I would just be dealing with the physical reality of trying to lug a 17 lb. plus carrier through the airport to my gate. Thankfully a friend who also relocated to Seattle with his wife and their two cats gave me a heads up that pets have to come out of their carriers to pass through security. They were able to go the harness route, but I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get one in time. My vet recommended a Thundershirt, which they originally made for dogs but now make for cats. They had them at the office so they showed me how to put it on. Before we actually put it on him (it’s a soft gray cotton materials with velcro– super easy) they warned me that he would fall over immediately–apparently cats don’t think they can walk in them. Despite the warning, I wasn’t prepared for him falling sideways on the ground immediately after I finished the wrap and let go! (When we later demonstrated this for my husband and parents, they all thought it was hilarious. Poor Seppy– no dignity after all that.) I wasn’t sure I could wrap him in the shirt for the duration of the trip. What if he got hot? What if he got a leg stuck up in the shirt? What if he just laid on his side in the carrier the entire time? The vet assured me he was completely comfortable in the shirt– that the shirt is designed to create calm– and that it would be much easier for me to lift him out of the carrier, walk through security, and put him back in his carrier afterward if he was just hanging out/thinking he couldn’t move versus squirming all over the place. I gave in and bought the shirt. Best. Decision. Ever. I don’t think Seppy loved it, but he didn’t fight me when I put it on him at the house, and he didn’t struggle or try to escape at all when I took him out of the carrier to get through security.
  5. Buy Feliway Wipes. At the recommendation of my friend as well as the vet, I bought a small pack of Feliway Wipes. These wipes have a pheromone that helps cats relax. I used the wipes on Seppy’s carrier ahead of time as well as just before we left for the airport, and although he didn’t like the ride to the airport, he seemed to actually get better as we traveled. I don’t know if this was due to the Thundershirt or the wipes or being scared or all of the above, but he certainly became less vocal as we went along.
WP_20150516_001Flying with a Cat: Things to Do During Your Flight
  1. Cover the Carrier. Several people suggested bringing a blanket to help cover the carrier during the flight. I didn’t have any luggage–not even a carry-on, beyond my small purse and Seppy’s carrier, so in lieu of an actual blanket, I kept my sweater over the carrier as we walked through the airport and at the terminal. His carrier is mesh on three sides so I sat in quiet corner, directed the mesh sides toward me and then covered all but the side facing me with the sweater. By the time we were ready to board, he was acting border-line playful– rolling around and looking up at me semi-upside down and playing with my fingers when I poked at him through the mesh. Unexpected noises still bothered him, but he was actually close to normal while we sat in the terminal.WP_20150516_004
  2. Make Friends in Your Row. I paid for extra leg room on the flight (a $37 up charge that ended up being worth it, given how big he is). Unfortunately my aisle seat had a large gray bin under the seat ahead of me, which you can see in the picture to the right. It was all I could do to squeeze his carrier underneath, and I was having a mild panic attack thinking about him packed in there and uncomfortable for the next 4.5 hours. Thankfully the seat next to me was empty and an incredibly kind woman sitting in the window seat took an interest in Seppy and suggested we put him under the middle seat. It was SO much better. There was more room, and although I had to push down the top a bit, he had plenty of room to move around and was fine. He cried a little bit during take-off and landing, but he was completely quiet the rest of the flight.
Flying with a Cat: Things to Do After Your Flight
  1. Take a Break. Despite making me serve as the transporter, my husband was concerned about our progress along the way and was ready and waiting at the airport when we arrived. We hopped in the car and drove to the cell phone lot so we could all take a short break. He had treats and water ready and waiting and had even created a portable litter box with a sealed lid to see if we could tempt Seppy before the hour-long drive to our temporary housing. I had stopped Seppy’s food and water a few hours before we left for the airport in order to minimize the likelihood he would have an accident, and it seemed to work. He wasn’t interested in water or the box, but he devoured the treats. I took off the Thundershirt so he could move around more freely during the drive, but he walked right back in his carrier, curled up and didn’t move the entire ride. He also didn’t make a peep. Either the car ride was a breeze after the plane, or the Feliway wipes had kicked in. Believe it or not, having a break was nice for the humans, and I devoured my dinner before we set out as well.
Adjusting in the apartment
Recovering in the apartment

Flying with the cat was a success. Huge kudos goes to the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE) TSA staff who were INCREDIBLE throughout the security process. The security line was light, and everyone I encountered was very helpful in letting me know what I needed to do, helping me get Seppy in and out of his carrier, and making sympathetic noises to comfort me Seppy.

Well adjusted
Pretty well adjusted

The helpfulness continued when I boarded my flight. The Frontier hostesses all asked who was with me, how old he was, what they could do to help, etc. They were also completely supportive when I moved him under the empty seat next to me and checked on us several times during the flight and when we disembarked.

I don’t particularly want to fly with him again– I don’t think he exactly enjoyed the flight– but I am relieved everything went well and it was such a positive experience. He made so little noise on the flight that I wonder how many other pets were on the plane, unbeknownst to me, quietly traveling with their humans as well.

If I haven’t said it enough, I just want to say once again that I am indebted to everyone who offered me advice. Thank you, thank you, thank you. It was so helpful, and I hope these shared tips are useful to others!

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