The Traveling Cat: A Tale of Two Kitties

In this day and age of instant messaging, travel and convenience of mobility, traveling with pets is becoming much more commonplace. Cats actually make very good travelers if they’re conditioned beforehand.

Phoebe and Sid were two bottle-fed foster kittens who were destined for a new home in Portland, Oregon, when they came of age. Getting them ready for a plane trip grew naturally out of good socializing and exposure to cars, commotion, new people and travel for short periods. They were very comfortable in their carrier, the same one which would be used for their big trip at the age of three months.

The cat carrier functioned as their den, providing a place of food and safety from the time before they opened their eyes. Once they started on solid food, they were fed inside the carrier, taking turns since Sid had a tendency to eat everything. The zippered doorway was left open during the day so they could go in and out, playing and napping as normal kittens.

I would be taking Phoebe and Sid with me in the cabin on the flight to Portland, which means they’d have to be taken out of the carrier while going through security. It was important that they be as calm as possible, to get them through this adventure with a minimum of stress. If the two kittens had only been kept indoors in one environment until the time of travel, the stress would have been extreme. Not only would it have made the whole process more arduous but it would also have increased the risk of illness, as their young immune systems might be overloaded by stress.

In preparing for the trip, I kept several important issues in mind, the same advice I give my clients:

1. Be calm.

Pets are sensitive to our moods and behavior, and the very best thing you can do for your pet in any potentially stressful situation is to be calm and quiet yourself. Pets pick up on what’s happening in their environment from you, and if you’re tense and anxious about whether your pet is going to be miserable on the flight, chances are he or she will be. As an emergency veterinarian, I see pets and people in stressful situations all the time. One of the first things we do is remove the pet from its owner, and they usually calm down considerably. The pet owners are often anxious and tense about whatever problem we’re trying to address, and this is communicated to the pet. (Of course, there are times when the pets do well to remain with their owners, but it just illustrates how important the attitude and behavior of the people involved can be). A good way to reduce your own stress when traveling with a pet is to make sure you’re both well prepared and to plan ahead.

2. Plan ahead.

          Pets are required to have a health certificate issued within 10 days of the travel date when they’ll be boarding an aircraft. This certifies that the animal has been examined by a veterinarian and is in good condition, up to date on the rabies vaccination, and free from communicable diseases. Make an appointment with your regular veterinarian in advance for this, as you can’t rely on emergency clinics to provide this. Not all emergency vets are state certified for signing health certificates.

          Make sure your pet has adequate identification in case he or she gets lost. Phoebe and Sid had temporary collars with my name and cell phone number, and they were both microchipped. Most animal shelters and veterinary clinics have readers for scanning microchips, which are implanted in the skin over the shoulders in a quick procedure. You must make sure you send in the paperwork when your pet is microchipped so that your name and contact info are on file (the scanner gives only an ID number when scanned). The biggest problem I ran into when sending in my own cat’s paperwork was what name to use: Sneaky Tiki the Ninja Kitty or Tiki Tooterbean the Prince of Fuzz. (There’s such a small space for the name.) Sid and Phoebe’s paperwork was much less of a challenge.

          Check ahead to make sure you will be able to have your pet with you wherever you’re staying. Some hotels do not take pets, and some require a deposit. If you’re sharing accommodation with someone, do make sure they’re not allergic to animals! Be sure to bring the food your pet is used to as well as paper towels and plastic bags for cleanup for dogs or a shallow Tupperware-style plastic container with kitty litter and a lid for cats. A small closeable Tupperware-style container also works well for water, or you can use a water bottle hung on the inside of the carrier as you would use for a hamster or a guinea pig.

3. Use a kennel or a carrier before traveling.

          Of course, your pet will need to be in a kennel or a carrier for the actual travel involved, but some people don’t realize how very important this is to the safety and comfort of your pet before, during and after the trip. A carrier can be a frightening prison to the inexperienced pet, surrounding him or her with strange noises and movements, or it can be a safe haven—your pet’s own personal familiar den. The secret to this is habituation: allow the pet to have access to the carrier on a regular basis at home, and once he or she is traveling, it will be like bringing along a part of home. Once you know that you want to bring your pet with you, get an appropriate-size crate as soon as possible so he or she can get used to it, weeks in advance, if possible. You can feed your pet in the crate so that it becomes associated with something good, and he or she can “practice” being enclosed in it for short periods while you’re out of the house. Toys and blankets in the crates are helpful, and so is taking the pet in the crate for car rides so he or she can get used to the sensations of movement, vibration and engines.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Meredith Kennedy, DVM, Long Beach Animal Hospital 

Once the pet discovers that nothing bad happens in the crate and everyone ends up back home, he or she usually gets used to this very quickly. The crate does not end up being a jail or  a punishment but a safe, happy place the pet willingly enters. My dogs and cats have gone into their crates on plenty of occasions when the doors are left open just to have a nap and hang out. Once you’ve brought your pet to a strange environment, he or she can relax and feel safe in the crate—it’s now a little home away from home. If you get to your destination and your pet can’t seem to settle down—vocalizing, panting, pacing, and so on—you can try putting him or her and the whole crate into a dark closet with a blanket over it. This often helps the pet calm down and feel safe. Small dogs especially can become all worked up with too much stimulation, and the dark and quiet can be helpful. (In my experience, most pets become anxious because their owners are anxious—see item number one!)

How about some music? The original quote was that music calms the savage breast, but somehow it morphed into calming the savage beast. Why not try playing a certain kind of music whenever your pet is in the crate? While he or she is becoming habituated to the crate at home, try putting on some relaxing music when you leave your pet confined. The choice of music could make a difference—Beethoven may be more effective than Bon Jovi. (My voice teacher’s dachshund will only listen to German arias. God forbid that anyone should sing in French or Italian—he leaves the room in a huff.) When your pet is in the crate in a hotel, you can play the same music and see if this helps him or her stay calm.

4. Do they need tranquilizers?

          In all of my own experience transporting pets nationally and internationally, I have only had to use tranquilizers with one cat. With habituation and repetition, most animals do just fine with travel. Most of the time, with proper planning and habituation, tranquilizers simply are not necessary.

          Phoebe and Sid did amazingly well on their big adventure! They loved their carrier, and because they were still small, they were quite comfortable in it together. I carried both in my arms through the security check and returned them to the carrier on the other side. Within five minutes, they were purring again. In the cabin of the aircraft, they snoozed quietly in the carrier under the seat in front of me, and once delivered to their new family in Portland, they were alert, friendly and purring. No tranquilizers were necessary thanks to conditioning, practice and a calm outlook!



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