On the Move with Cats, Part 2

This is the second in a two-part post about travelling, especially during a permanent relocation, with cats. Part 1 covered 2 natural therapies we have used to keep the cats calm, and offered tips about non-traditional places to stay during your move. This part touches on kennel-training and insights about using U.S. carriers when your pets travel as cargo. Everything in this series is based on our personal experience with the three cats we have travelled with, and is not intended to substitute for the advice of your own veterinarian.

We have a sign that says, “Dogs have masters; Cats have staff.” It’s usually the case that cats are better at training their humans than we are at training them, but one instance when training can be really important is preparing your cat to be in a kennel or travel crate for long periods of time if she has to fly. If your cat has never been in a kennel or has only spent a short time travelling to or from the vet or groomer, then it will help your pet to practice being in a kennel for the same amount of time it will have to travel. For instance, if you’re putting your cat on a 3-hour flight and have to check her in 2 hours before departure, that’s at least a 5-hour time frame (more like 6 or 7) she will be in the kennel.

Kennel training does several things for your friend. One, it allows her to slowly get used to being in a kennel while she’s still in a familiar environment, her own home. Two, the timed training period will give her a sense that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel, and that she will see you again and maybe get a treat and a cuddle. Three, it gives her a chance to make the kennel her own — it will have her smell in it, and will become familiar and safe.

Begin kennel-training as far in advance of your travel as time will allow.
1. Use the actual kennel in which the cat will be travelling — put water and food dishes in place, too. Also use an absorbent lining for the floor of the kennel, and maybe a shirt or small towel that has your scent on it (this will also help to keep your cat calm). Most airlines will not allow any toys in the kennel, so don’t put any toys that she won’t be able to take on the trip. The point is the kennel will look and smell the same as it will on the day of travel.

2. Prepare the kennel with Feliway or Comfort Zone, if using: spray around the corners of the kennel 30 minutes before the cat goes in. (See
Part 1 for information about these natural alternatives to keep your cat calm)

3. Start with short time periods similar to a trip to the vet (10-20 minutes), and increase the time by 20-30 minute increments each day. As the time periods increase to hours, put food and water in the dishes so the cat is used to eating and drinking from them. The airlines won’t allow food in the kennels during the flight, but they will put food and water in the dishes during layovers if you provide the food. Check with your airline’s policy for pets travelling as cargo.

4. If at all possible, try to make the experience a pleasant one. Don’t chase the cat and throw her in the kennel every day because obviously she’ll be suspicious and traumatized by then. Once she’s in the crate, spend a few minutes assuring her she’s OK, but don’t stay too close the whole time — the point of the exercise is to get her used to being alone and to learn that you will come back for her. Then at the end, offer her a favorite treat — for our cats, it’s usually a cuddle and a good scratch around the ears — but catnip, treats, or whatever she considers special will work. One cat we knew loved broccoli!

Three weeks before their flight, we started kennel-training Kio. This would be his first plane trip. We figured Haiku had been through so many moves and long car trips that she didn’t need the practice, but Kio hated kennels and he would soil his kennel even in the short 7-minute trip from home to the vet!

After a couple of days, Kio had stopped soiling the kennel but was still mewing and letting everyone know he was not a happy camper. Then it occurred to T that maybe the process seemed like a punishment since Kio was singled out for this treatment, while Haiku was left roaming around. He was right — as soon as Haiku joined the routine, Kio settled down. Haiku lay down and went to sleep once she realized she wasn’t going to the vet; and by the second time they trained together, Kio actually walked into his kennel, lay down and fell asleep, too! By the end of the training period, he would remain asleep in his kennel even after the door was opened. When we dropped them off at the cargo office for their flight, Kio was noticeably anxious but he didn’t claw or cry. When Mike picked them up in D.C. 18 hours later, he called to say that Kio walked out of his clean kennel, plopped on a rug and made himself quite at home. (Mike had the
Comfort Zone diffuser plugged in at his home, too.)

(This only applies to pets that are NOT travelling in the passenger cabin with you)
Travelling with pets on a U.S. carrier presents some challenges. Going from Hawaii to D.C. was the first time we tried to do this. What we learned is that
only one U.S. airline will guarantee travel with pets as cargo (our cats are too big to travel under the seat in the passenger cabin). What this means is that the other airlines will allow you to make reservations, BUT they can still refuse to accept your pet on the travel day if any stop in their itinerary is too hot or too cold. Translation: if you’re planning to have your pets travel in cargo on the same flight with you, you might find out that the airline will NOT let your pet be checked-in on the day you have reserved for them. The airlines can even call passengers AFTER the pets have been checked in (in some cases the passengers might already be passed security and waiting at the boarding gate) and tell them it has been determined that it will be too hot or too cold for the pet to travel in cargo. What does the passenger do then? The agents we talked to on the phone at Delta and United basically said: Not our problem.

We would have liked to travel on the same flight with the cats on this trip, but unfortunately our flight was arranged and paid by T’s employer who did not have travel contracts with the only airline that will guarantee pet travel reservations. We were travelling in August and were being routed through the Southeast, so it was a good bet that the airline we were flying with would cancel the cats’ reservations at the last minute and this was a stress we did not want or need. So we opted to have them fly out earlier on a different airline — the only one that would guarantee a travel day. We were also fortunate to have a kind person on the other end who offered to pick them up and take care of them until we got to D.C.

The only U.S. carrier that guarantees reserved travel for your pet (as cargo) is Continental Airlines — they are the only airline that has temperature-controlled holding areas for animals at all their major hubs. This might mean that you will not have the same itinerary as your pet, or that you will have to pay more for your flight if you want to match your pet’s itinerary, but at least you can count on your pet leaving when promised. The folks at the Continental cargo center in Honolulu told us that they often see frantic travellers at their counter who are trying to get their pet on a cargo flight an hour before their own flight is scheduled to leave because their airline refused to accept the pets at the last minute. Of course, trying to re-book at the last minute doesn’t always work out (and if someone can’t pick up your pet at the airport, the animal shelter will be called in) or people have to pay a premium price because they don’t have a reservation.

If you are not travelling on the same flight with or same itinerary as your pet, Continental allows you to track your pet’s flight and offers updates on their arrival at each stop. It also offers an extra service for pets whose itinerary goes through their Houston hub and whose layover is more than 3 hours long. For an additional fee per pet, you can have your pet’s kennel cleaned and your pet exercised, groomed, fed and given water. The amount of the fee will depend on the type and size of the animal; for cats it was an additional $75 for the first cat, and $50 for the second. Haiku and Kio had a 5-hour flight from Honolulu, a 5-hour layover in Houston, and another 3-hour flight to D.C., so it seemed like a worthwhile investment this time. If you don’t want the extra service, Continental will still give your pet water and any food you provide (dry food in a ziploc pouch taped to the kennel) during their layover, but the pet will not be allowed out of the kennel, and food and water will only be given through the locked door.

From the moment you know you have to re-locate until a few months after everything is unpacked and in its new place, there will be some stress and tension in the pets in your life. Think about how stressed you feel — and you know what’s going on and are (mostly) in control! Your pet has no idea why or to where you are moving, or even if they will be going with you. They may become clingy, talkative (mewing a lot), combative or depressed; or they may overeat or stop eating. Take a little time to reassure and comfort, and take to heart the Girl Scout motto and help them “Be Prepared” for the journey ahead. And when your pet invites you to play, accept the invitation — it will have a calming effect on you, too!