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Flying with your cat is no easy task, as most cats dislike travel and hate being confined. The fear of what’s on the other side of the door can be debilitating for many felines. However, you can train your cat to feel comfortable with air travel, and sometimes, to even enjoy it. A cat who can explore the world outside their home calmly and safely is able to build confidence, experience new places, people and things, and make traveling easier on both of you.
Before your cat can enjoy an airplane ride, they will need to be comfortable with a few specific experiences. Since most of their time will be spent inside a pet carrier, your cat will need to be able to easily go in and out of their carrier, and be able to relax while inside.
When traveling by air, there will be many times when the carrier will be moving. There’s the transportation to the airport, then through the airport, and onto the plane. Once situated under a seat or on your lap, the carrier will then move with the plane as it takes off, flies to your destination, and lands. Then, you’ll need to move the carrier off the plane, through the airport and to your final destination.
Along the way, your cat will be exposed to many loud noises, unfamiliar places and new people. An airport can be a confusing place, with a lot of action happening at once, and this can cause anxiety in many cats. Learning how to adapt to new situations, people and places is essential for a pleasant airplane ride.
And lastly, there will be a moment when your cat will need to leave the safety of their carrier as you pass through TSA, and will need to be hand-carried through the metal detector. The safest way to remove your cat amidst the noise, people and other distractions is with a secure harness and leash, so your cat should be comfortable wearing both well before the journey begins.
If you know you want or need to travel by plane when your furry pal is still a kitten, start training them right away. While it is easier to train a young cat, older cats can still learn the same skills, but may need more time and patience.
All cats should be trained to enter and exit their pet carrier or crate, regardless of whether or not they will be traveling. And many cats can benefit from harness and leash training, both for trips to the vet office and for walks.
For airplane travel, you’re going to use the basics of crate and carrier training, and harness and leash training, along with socialization and desensitization techniques to prepare your cat for the various environments they will encounter throughout the flying experience. Ideally, you’ll want to start at least a month prior to the airplane ride, but you can accomplish the same goals in less time if you are consistent. Be sure you purchase a carrier that fits the regulations of the airline you will be using, and a harness that fits snugly.
The Carrier Method
Introduce the carrier
Once you have the perfect carrier for your needs, display it with the door open in a room frequented by your cat. You can sprinkle some treats around it and in it, but just let your cat explore it on their own for a few days.
Entice your cat to explore
Use treats and toys to entice your cat to go inside the carrier several times a day, and give lots of praise whenever they go in. Add a cushion or a favorite blanket to encourage them to lay down and nap. Continue placing treats or toys inside, feeding them meals inside, and giving praise until your cat is going in and out on their own, and even lying down in the carrier. If your cat is still hesitating, try spraying a pheromone product inside to reduce anxiety.
Close the carrier door
After your cat is familiar with the carrier, try to quietly close the door when they are inside for 30 seconds to a minute. Then, open it up and give lots of praise and treats, or a special play session.
Increase carrier time
Continue closing the door when your cat is inside the carrier, increasing the time slowly over a period of weeks from several minutes to an hour or longer. Eventually, you’ll want your cat to stay relaxed while the carrier door is closed, so be patient, go slowly, and give lots of treats and praise.
Create a carrier routine
Create a routine you’ll use to get your cat in and out of the carrier, such as using a high value treat to get them inside so you can close the door. Practice several times until your cat goes in and out at your command.
Change the carrier’s location
When your cat has mastered being in the carrier, move the carrier to another room your cat goes into. Place treats and toys inside and let your cat explore it in a new location. Repeat Steps 2 - 4, then move to another room once your cat is comfortable and start again.
Moving the carrier
Pick up the carrier when your cat is inside with the door closed, and move it to a different room. Immediately open the door and let your cat out, giving treats and praise. When you do it again, leave your cat in the carrier for a few minutes before letting them out again. Carry your cat in the carrier into several rooms, and increase the time they stay inside once in its new location each time.
The Harness Method
Introduce the harness
Let your cat sniff the harness inside your home, then gently put it on your cat. Your cat will likely try to get out of it, so give your cat some treats or play with a favorite toy to distract them. After a few minutes, take the harness off and reward your cat with treats or cuddles.
Increase the harness time
Over the course of several days to weeks, put the harness on your cat again, increasing the amount of time it stays on each time. Aim for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, giving your cat more positive reinforcement. Eventually, you’ll want to be able to leave it on for an hour without your cat trying to get out of it.
Make the harness part of your cat’s routine
Once your cat is comfortable being in the harness, try leaving it on for several hours and go about your daily routine to emulate what it may feel like to your cat to have it on throughout an airplane trip. Have your cat go in and out of their carrier with the harness on, nap with the harness, eat with the harness, and even go potty with the harness.
Add a leash
Attach a lightweight leash to the harness and let your cat go about their daily routine freely. Be sure to only attach the leash to the harness, and never to the collar. Once they are used to the leash, then try “walking” your cat through the house by taking up the leash and holding it like you would outside. Try exploring a few places together, letting your cat lead and noting any pulling or hesitancy. Give treats and positive reinforcement when your cat doesn’t pull and walks on the leash.
Explore outside with the harness and leash
Slowly introduce your cat to the outside world by picking them when harnessed and leashed, and taking them outside. Gently place your cat on the grass, driveway or sidewalk, and let them sniff and explore at their own pace. Start with a few minutes, then increase the amount of time during each outdoor visit until your cat is comfortable and explores on their own, while keeping the leash securely in hand.
The Desensitization Method
Combine the carrier and the harness
Once your cat has mastered remaining calm in a harness and in their carrier, try putting them in their harness first, and then in the carrier. Be patient as your cat adjusts, and praise and treat often.
Move carrier to car
Move your harnessed cat in their carrier to the car, and spend a few minutes inside. Increase the length of time they spend inside the car each time over several days to a week, while continuing to use praise and treats. Gradually, secure the carrier to the car.
Take short car trips
Now, take your kitty for a car ride. Keep it short at first by driving around the block, and gradually increase travel time.
Explore new places and people
Armed with plenty of tasty treats, begin taking your cat to new places such as friends’ homes, parks, city sidewalks, and inside pet-friendly buildings to get your cat used to new places, faces and noises. Start by spending only a few minutes at each location, then gradually increase the time each visit. Eventually, you can attach a leash to the harness and let your cat out of the carrier to explore. Allow your cat to meet new people so they are comfortable around unfamiliar faces. The more smells, sounds and sights your cat can handle, the better they will be able to adjust to an airport and airplane. Once they can be comfortable, your cat can begin to enjoy air travel and the new things that come with it.
By Kim Rain
Published: 07/07/2021, edited: 07/09/2021