This is my very first Midwest winter since moving from Southern California last year. This has been eye-opening - I’ve never experienced negative temperatures before! In an effort to break up the season, I decided to take two weeks and bathe in the sunshine of Los Angeles. There was only one problem: I didn’t want to be without my best bud, Leo, for two whole weeks! He had done very well on our cross-country move to Wisconsin, so I decided to take him with me. My goal was to make this journey as stress-free as possible for both me and my cat.
First, I looked for pet friendly airlines that allowed cats in the cabin. I usually fly Southwest and their pet fee was less than any other airline ($95) so I booked my flight with them. Tip: You need to call ahead and make a separate reservation for your pet. You pay the fee at the ticket counter the day of your flight. I checked all the rules and regulations for flying with a pet. Every airline is different, but they seem to all have the same basic rules as far as carrier size (it must be able to fit under the seat) and what kind of pets you can fly with. Next, I set about finding a soft-sided carrier that would be both comfortable for my cat and meet the sizing requirements of the airline. After a lot of research, I decided on this travel carrier from Mr. Peanuts. There is an expandable side, self-locking zippers for safety, and mesh windows on all sides. I also added some travel food/water bowls and some absorbable potty pads, which were also available from Mr. Peanuts.
Now the hard part: training my cat to like the carrier. As soon as the carrier arrived, I placed it near his food bowls. I let him sniff and explore, and gave him treats. I left the carrier out so that he could get used to the sight and smell of it. Once he seemed comfortable with its presence, I started playing games. Leo absolutely loves to play fetch, so I started throwing his toys into the open carrier for him to go get, in an attempt to make the carrier seem like a fun and familiar object that he associated with good things (i.e. treats and playtime). Eventually, I would find him playing with his toys in the carrier on his own - success! We did this for about a month before our trip to really get him used to the carrier.
Packing for Our Trip
Most airlines only allow two carry-on items per flight and your pet is included in those two items. So, I packed a second rolling suitcase with essentials for the flight:
-Extra Potty Pads
-Food and Treats (my cat especially loves our Chef David Simply Minnows)
-Travel bowl for food and water - I used a collapsible silicone bowl that clipped to his
-Travel litter box. I used this one from the Travel Cat Backpack.
-Pet wipes for any accidents
-Rescue Remedy - most airlines and vets discourage drugging your pet for the flight so I
found these all-natural stress relief drops. They were very helpful when we drove from
California last year.
Leo loved helping me pack! You can watch the video on our Instagram here.
The carrier needs to go through the x-ray machine so, unfortunately, this meant I would have to take Leo out of the bag at TSA, in front of a bunch of strange people. I made sure Leo was wearing his harness with a leash attached, so if he wiggled his way out of my arms he wouldn’t get very far. Leo did pretty good during this part, especially since he’s a cat that does not enjoy being held. I walked through the metal detector holding my cat and expected to be able to pop him back into his carrier straight away. Wrong! As soon as I made it through the metal detector, the TSA agent asked me to hold out my hands (while holding a nervous cat) so they could swab them to check for explosives residue. Why they couldn’t wait for me to put Leo safely in his carrier first, I don’t know, but they did this at both the Milwaukee and LAX airports so it must be procedure. Then after all that, my suitcase was flagged to be searched! I had to stand there and watch them open my bag and go through all my stuff - they were especially confused by the travel litter box. That must have been a first for them.
After I found my gate, I took Leo to the family bathrooms to pull out his litter box and see if he needed to use it before we got onto our flight. We had a stop over in Denver so I did the same thing there. Leo was far too nervous to use his box either time. The poor guy just paced the bathroom meowing at the top of his lungs. I felt so bad that he was clearly stressed out. I gave him a few more drops of Rescue Remedy to calm him a bit before the flight.
On the Airplane
Technically all pet carriers have to be placed safely under the seat in front of you for the entire flight. However, I took advantage of the fact that I was on a 5am, nearly empty flight and put the carrier on the seat next to me. I think the flight attendants were either too tired or didn’t care enough to say anything, which I am grateful for. He meowed a bit during take-off but eventually settled down. With him next to me I was able to slip my hand into the carrier and comfort him during the more turbulent parts of the flight. I think the most stressful part for Leo was the landing. That was when he urinated in his carrier (thank goodness for those potty pads and pet wipes!). I usually fall fast asleep on airplanes but I was so stressed about Leo’s welfare I didn’t get a single wink! All in all, we arrived at our destination tired and stinky, but alive.
What I Learned
Flying with an adult cat for the first time was stressful - for both of us! While most airports have a Pet Relief area, it caters more to dogs than cats, so we spent most of our time at the airports in the “Family Restrooms'' where Leo could stretch his legs and relieve himself. Leo did not take to the whole process. Even though he wasn’t yowling the whole flight, I could tell that my cat was highly stressed. I felt terrible that he had to urinate and defecate in his carrier. In hindsight, I feel it was selfish of me to put him through this ordeal just because I didn’t want to be without him for two weeks. Next time, I will invest in a trusted pet sitter. Being apart from each other will be rough, but not as rough as what we both went through. Leo being comfortable, content, and relaxed is the most important thing to me. You never know unless you try, and we gave air travel our best shot. You have to decide what is best for you and your companions. For Leo and I, air travel together is not it.