Air travel can be stressful and unpleasant enough for humans, but for cats with no control of their situation, it can be downright terrifying. If you have to fly with your cat, and it is not accustomed to air travel, it will be an excruciating experience for you both. If you prepare your cat for the trip and make it as comfortable as possible, however, it will be more likely to remain calm during your journey.
Getting your cat used to its carrier is the best way to keep it calm during flight. Ideally, your cat should travel in a soft carrier with a soft bottom and both top and side openings. Several weeks before your trip, let your cat explore the carrier. Feed it inside the carrier, and let it play with its favorite toys in it. Take it on a few drives in the carrier, but avoid taking it to the vet, a groomer or any other destination your cat does not like while in the carrier, lest it begins to associate the carrier with unpleasant experiences.
Day of the Flight
Keep your cat on its normal routine with food, water and exercise on the day of the flight until it's time to leave. In particular, make sure it uses its litter box before you leave, as it will not be able to do so during the trip, which could add to its anxiety. Put it in a harness, and bring along a leash, as you will have to take it out of its carrier as you go through the security checkpoint. Put a toy, but not food, in the carrier, but bring extra food and a portable litter box in case you face lengthy flight delays. You might be able to feed your cat, let it walk and use the litter box in the airport bathroom. Unless a veterinarian instructs you otherwise, do not give your cat tranquilizers, as their effects can vary when your cat experiences high altitudes.
During the Flight
Your cat will be most comfortable stored underneath the seat in front of you, not in the dark overhead luggage bin. Look at the seat plan on your airline's website, as some seats -- especially those in the front of the cabin and certain emergency exit seats -- do not have seats in front of them and therefore have no storage options. Although the middle seat generally is the least comfortable for passengers, it's the most comfortable for cats, as it is away from the heavy foot traffic by aisle seats and chilly temperatures of window seats. Takeoff and landing will be the most uncomfortable times for your cat, with the noise and changing air pressure in the cabin. While you cannot take your cat out during the flight, you can pet it and soothe via the opening in the top of its carrier. Don't play with your cat too much during flight, however, as that might make it antsy and wanting to come out and play. When it's near landing time, ask a flight attendant for a cup of water with ice, and give it to your cat so it can refresh itself.
Checking Your Cat
If you must check your cat instead of bringing it on-board with you, you will need to use a sturdy carrier or crate made of wood, plastic or metal rather than a soft carrier. You should accustom your cat to the carrier in the same way you would with the soft carrier. On the day of the flight, bring cat food, bowls and feeding instructions for the airport staff. Try to schedule morning or evening flights if traveling in warm weather so your cat remains comfortable. The airline probably will not accept cats as checked luggage during times of extreme heat or cold. If your flight is delayed significantly, ask for your cat to be taken out of the cargo hold, but make sure it is not left on the tarmac.