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Everything You Need to Fly With a Cat, According to Feline Experts

Photo: Thorsten Nilson/Getty Images/EyeEm

Cats can be tricky travel companions — already finicky on land, the air might make them even more particular (or panicky). But if you’re heading to the airport anytime soon, there are some steps to take to make the trip go smoother. Levi Myers, a cat caregiver at Best Friends Animal Society, recommends first booking an appointment with your vet as many airlines require a current health certificate and up-to-date vaccine record. The paperwork you need to provide may be airline-specific — so double-check before boarding. While you’re at the vet, Myers suggests you request a mild prescription sedative if you just know your cat won’t react well to being in the air. Then there are the essentials to make sure your cat stays safe and secure before and during the flight. Consider what’s below a checklist — including airline-approved cat carriers and cleaning products for accidents — recommended by cat-behavior experts.

Best cat carriers for flying

In our guide to airplane-friendly pet carriers, Sherpas were the most mentioned. One of the reasons was the brand’s Guaranteed on Board program, which allows you to see which carriers are approved by its airline partners like United and Delta. The small and medium sizes of this bag are part of the program, according to Samantha Schwab, Chewy’s resident pet expert from 2018 to 2021. Veterinarian John Iovino, who contributes to the Wildest, has used a Sherpa carrier when traveling internationally and emphasizes how easy it was to check on his pet. Alison Waszmer, the Dogtown director at Best Friends Animal Society, seconded that point, highlighting the carrier’s mesh paneling and sturdy construction.

Along with Sherpa, Sleepypod has been a popular pick among the pet experts we’ve talked to, earning spots on our lists of the best car seats for dogs and cat-lover-approved gifts. Myers recommends looking for a soft carrier like this one that’ll fit under the seat and let you check on your cat mid-flight without opening it up. “Other than security checks, avoid opening the carrier during transit,” he says. Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior expert with Rover, likes the Sleepypod Air because it’s specifically designed to fit under airline seats. Jamie Richardson, medical chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary, told us it’s a favorite of hers as well because there’s still enough space for pets to stretch out their claws.

A word of advice from Delgado: If you usually only take the carrier out for unpleasant trips to the vet, use the time leading up to your flight to encourage your cat to develop more positive associations with it. “Help your cat see the carrier as a safe space,” she says. “Leave it out all the time, and place a favorite blanket and treats in it, or even feed your cat meals in the carrier. During the flight, that familiar-smelling blanket will provide them with some comfort.”

For an option that’s comfortable for cats and won’t look out of place with the rest of your luggage, Richardson also previously put us on to Away’s carrier. The soft sherpa bedding is convenient for both cats and cat owners as it’s removable and washable. There’s a water-resistant lining for any accidents and mesh panels on the sides so your pet doesn’t feel claustrophobic. Richardson points out that this carrier is certified by the Center for Pet Safety as well.

Best cat leash and harness sets for flying

Although your cat will stay in the carrier for the duration of the trip, you may have to take him or her out when you go through security. To do so safely, our experts recommend a leash and harness to keep kitty from making a run for it. A harness can also act as a “calming agent,” says Dr. Keston Smith, medical director of Bond Vet, especially if you opted out of a sedative at the vet. Myers likes figure-eight-style harnesses that fasten around the neck and chest for extra security. You’ll want to try out the harness and leash a few times before you leave, as this will likely be a new experience for your cat. Delgado says you can also try requesting a private room for TSA screening, which may feel less hectic.

Dr. Darcia Kostiuk, a senior veterinarian with Champion Petfoods, is another big believer in getting a cat accustomed to a harness. “Try having your cat wear the harness and leash several times at home before using it at the airport,” she advises. There’s no one holy grail harness, but she does give a thumbs up to this Good2Go set, which features generous padding that she says makes for “maximum comfort.” Mesh on the bodice helps with breathability, too.

Best cleaning products for flying with your cat

Even cats who are meticulous about using their litter boxes and keeping them clean aren’t immune to accidents when traveling. Therefore, both Myers and Delgado recommend lining your carrier with a pee pad and bringing a few extras in case you need to replace it. Delgado says you may want to consider skipping your cat’s morning meal the day of the flight to avoid any stomach issues.

Schwab also recommends packing these all-natural, biodegradable wipes in case your cat needs a little cleaning up after an accident or spill. “These wipes will keep your cat clean and smelling good no matter where in the world you are,” she says.

Best feeding accessories for flying with your cat

You don’t want your cat to eat too much during travel, but Delgado says that for longer flights you “can bring a small amount of food and offer water during layovers.” These collapsible silicone bowls are both easy to clean and carry — they fold down flat when not in use and come with carabiners to clip onto your cat carrier.

“One of the best ways to keep cats calm during travel is to distract them,” says Schwab, and cat owners know there are few better distractions than your cat’s favorite treats. Our beauty contributor Rio Viera-Newton brought along some treats that her cat Martini “nibbled throughout the journey.” To make treat time a little more active (and therefore take up more flight time) Schwab suggests a treat-dispensing toy like a Kong ball that you can toss into your carrier. (Her exact favorite is sold out, but this is similar.) “Just stick your cat’s favorite treats in the ball and watch them swat away to their heart’s content,” she says.

Best calming products for flying with your cat

For cats who are especially anxious in new situations, Schwab says “you may want to invest in a calming toy.” She’s a fan of this one from Petstages that has a touch-activated purring mechanism that should be soothing for your cat to cuddle up with.

With a scent that mimics cats’ natural pheromones, these wipes — that you can use on your carrier or even surfaces on the plane — have a calming effect on some cats, according to Delgado. Probably worth trying them at home first to see how your cat responds.

A mild sedative, like Myers suggested above, can be useful, but you’ll want to be careful about anything that seems too heavy. This “will affect your cat’s ability to properly regulate body temperature,” Kostiuk says. Instead, in the week before a flight, she opens up the capsules and sprinkles the powder on top of their food for a similarly calming effect. On the day of a flight, Kostiuk recommends giving your cat a slightly smaller portion of food mixed with Zylkene — “just enough to settle their stomach without filling them up” — to lessen the chance of an accident.

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Everything You Need to Fly With a Cat, According to Experts