How to Fly Overseas With a Jerk Cat

In Depth

There’s an abundance of information about traveling internationally with dogs. If you’re moving abroad, obviously you’re bringing Fido. But traveling with cats? We don’t seem to talk about that a whole lot. And why is this? Are cats unworthy of traveling around the world? I think not!

Yes, cats can be irascible, so traveling long distances with a feline seems a little daunting. But I recently moved from Michigan to Poland and brought my cat Lulu with me, and we survived. The two of us were in transit for about 20 hours, with an eight-hour flight, a six-hour layover, and time spent getting to and from the airports. Not once during our journey did she try to claw my eyes out. Lulu is now a proud expat. With proper planning and preparation, you too can survive moving your cat overseas.

Before committing to moving your pet abroad, make sure you can financially manage to do so—I’d recommend budgeting at least $300 for required visits to the veterinarian, USDA approval fees, airline pet fees, and an airline-approved in-cabin carrier. Moreover, you need to be sure your kitty can handle traveling; if a journey is stressful for humans, just think how stressful it is for your pet, who has zero clue what’s going on. If your cat doesn’t mind going into a carrier, great! But if your cat yowls every time you take her to the vet and generally kicks up a fuss if you so much as move her bed, consider asking friends or family to take care of your pet when you move—it’s not easy to let go of your ride-or-die fur buddy, but think about what’s best for the animal.

So you’ve considered all of the above and decided that your cat is going to make the big move with you. If so, you need to start preparing well in advance.

Two months before the trip:

Familiarize yourself with the rules in your destination country. Your cat will likely need to be microchipped and you’ll need proof of a current rabies vaccination. There are going to be some forms to fill out, and you may need a USDA-approved vet to complete the paperwork (they can also walk you through the paperwork process in general…vets are nice like that). You’ll also have to get everything certified (for a fee). Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to schedule this stuff; when I took my cat to Poland, I discovered that the rabies vaccination had to come after the microchip was implanted, and all of this had to be done no less than 21 days before the flight. As for what happens when you arrive: It depends. Polish immigration officers never even batted an eye at Lulu, but you should always have kitty’s papers on you when you’re going through customs and immigration.

Get squared away with your airline. Most carriers’ websites will likely contain information on procedures for traveling with pets, but you should still call and talk to a real person to confirm all the details. You’ll have to buy a pet ticket, and airlines have rules regarding the size and type of carriers allowed in the jet cabin, along with a total weight limit when your animal is in the carrier. Make sure you’re crystal clear on the rules, because you’re going to want to do everything possible to take your cat in the cabin with you; newer jets on some airlines have cargo holds that contain special pet areas (with proper air pressure, ventilation, and heating/cooling for animals to travel safely), but there’s no human supervision and things can still get pretty cold and scary. But cats can fit under your seat. Put the cat under your seat.

Lulu got nice and comfortable before we even left home.

Buy the right carrier. Once you know the airline requirements, this is pretty easy—pet stores have ones that are clearly marked for airlines. Make sure your cat gets used to the cat carrier. Take her for a long ride or two, for example, and leave the carrier out and open for a week or two before you go. My vet gave me wipes that had pheromones designed to calm the cat, and I used a lot of these on the carrier. (And a word of advice: Unless you have awesome biceps, get a carrier that has rolling wheels. It was not fun to slog through long customs and immigration lines with a 13-pound kitty slung over my shoulder.)

Practical considerations:

Potty time. My vet assured me that my cat likely wouldn’t go in the carrier—the whole experience is too stressful—and she was right. Lulu held it all for about 20 hours. Still, I was prepared: I lined the carrier with Wee-Wee Pads, and in case I needed to clean things up in transit, I stashed a few grocery bags, cleansing wipes, spare pads, and ziplock baggies in my carry-on.

During our layover in Frankfurt, we found a changing room where I could let Lulu out to stretch her legs for a little bit.

Food and water. You like to eat, right? So does your cat! Definitely bring along some food and treats for the trip. Lulu didn’t eat much food during our travels, but she did nibble on some treats. And make sure to toss a container of your cat’s favorite dry food in your checked bag; there will be more than enough things for her to adjust to at your new place without adding new food to the mix. For water, pick up a small water bottle after you’re through security and bring along a pop-up travel dish that you can place in the carrier when needed.

Get her nails did. If you can’t trim your cats nails yourself, get thee to a groomer. Also give your cat a good brushing before you leave; shedding is a normal response to fear or stress, and a relatively clean coat will help to minimize the mess. When passing through airport security before my flight, I had to take my cat out of her carrier and walk through a metal detector with her in my arms. She was surprisingly calm, but having her fur and nails under control helped a lot.

Think about medication. I did give Lulu a mild sedative before the flight—just something to relax her, not to knock her out. While I think the drug helped, don’t over-drug your animal. Think about when you travel: a glass or two of wine is great, but getting the spins is not. Don’t rely on drugging the cat to get through the trip unless it’s absolutely necessary and your vet thinks its okay.

Leave kitty alone, more or less. Keep your cat on the airplane floor if possible and resist the temptation to open the carrier for much more than giving her food and water. You want to be able to keep an eye on your pet, but it’s also best if your kitty gets some sleep. If you must take the cat out, for any reason, get up and take her (in her carrier) to the bathroom—it’s a tiny, confined space and won’t inconvenience your seatmates.

Lulu’s just chilling on the plane, and far be it from me to stop her.

Make her new home as comfortable as possible. When you get to your final destination, put out your cat’s favorite toys, her bed, whatever—anything that smells familiar. Lulu hid for the first day before coming out to explore, so don’t worry if your cat needs some time to de-stress from the traveling.

Keep the faith. Unlike dogs, cats generally don’t give a shit about cooperating. They have their own ideas about what they will and will not do, and your travel plans do not fit in with their mysterious schedules. But you can do this! With preparation and planning, going abroad with your feline friend is far less traumatic than you’d think. And she might not even try to kill you when it’s all over.

Evelyn Aschenbrenner is nomadic Detroiter who’s lived in Poland for the past year and a half. You can check out her blog here.

Lead image via Shutterstock, all others via the author.

Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.

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