Reducing Air Travel Stress in Cats

Margie Scherk, DVM, DABVP (Feline Practice), catsINK

ArticleLast Updated June 20233 min read
Print/View PDF

In the Literature 

Jahn K, DePorter T. Feline stress management during air travel: a multimodal approach. J Feline Med Surg. 2023;25(1):1098612X221145521. doi:10.1177/1098612X221145521  

The Research … 

Air travel is likely stressful for cats, as being displaced from their territory removes control, autonomy, and predictability. Stressors are additive and can result in self-protective behavior and have significant long-term physiologic effects. 

This review article describes a multimodal approach to reducing stress in cats undergoing air travel.  

Cats that will travel by air should undergo a health assessment, and plans should be made to maintain comfort and safety, including dispensing medication needed to manage chronic health conditions during and after travel, along with supporting documentation. Using a checklist to assess the cat’s fitness for flying can help ensure the health of the cat. All necessary paperwork should be prepared, including relevant medical records and any documentation required by the airline or destination. Logistics, including length, timing, and type of travel, as well as pros and cons of booking options (ie, airfreight cargo, excess baggage, in-cabin) should be considered. A longer flight with fewer layovers is likely preferable. 

Clinicians and pet owners should consider working with experienced and reputable pet shipping agents (eg, International Pet and Animal Transportation Association, Animal Transportation Association) and airlines with Center of Excellence for Independent Validators for Live Animals Logistics certification when possible. 

Prior to travel, the cat should be acclimated at home to the carrier, which should provide ventilation on 3 sides and allow the cat to stand and sit upright, turn around while standing, and lie in a normal position. In the primary author’s experience, cats do not often soil their travel carriers, but an absorbent pad should be taped to the bottom of the carrier. Disadvantages to litter trays include space constraints, spillage, and potential aversion. Sensory input (eg, sight, sounds, smells) should be minimized in the airport and during travel.  

Withholding food 2 to 3 hours prior to travel has been traditionally advised but may not be necessary. Maropitant may be considered for motion sickness. Water should be provided.  

Anxiolytic medication may be considered. The optimal dose should be determined a few weeks before travel, starting with a low dose and titrating up to the desired effect (ie, quietly comfortable but alert and responsive—without ataxia—to cat carrier movements). The owner should provide videos of the cat 90 to 120 minutes after administration of the anxiolytic to allow the clinician to assess for effect. Pregabalin is the only drug licensed for this use in cats but is not available in North America. Gabapentin, trazodone, and benzodiazepines may be considered for extra-label use. The authors of this review report success with gabapentin, do not use trazodone due to its increased sedative effects, and use benzodiazepines infrequently due to risk for adverse effects. Additional options for anxiolysis include synthetic facial pheromones and supplements (eg, alpha-casozepine, L-theanine, tryptophan). 

… The Takeaways 

Key pearls to put into practice: 

  • Planning for air travel with cats is crucial. Stress management methods should be effective, compliant with airline regulations, easy to accomplish, and based on evidence and should not negatively affect physiology. 

  • A multimodal approach with a stress management protocol tailored to the cat’s specific needs is most likely to yield favorable results. 

  • Historical use of tranquilizers and sedatives (eg, acepromazine) for air travel and their adverse effects, including death, may have influenced opinion and willingness to use medications for this purpose; however, newer anxiolytic medications (eg, gabapentin) that alleviate stress behaviors should be considered. Use of anxiolytic medications currently available in North America for anxiety and fear associated with transportation is considered extra-label. Owners should be educated about extra-label use and complete informed consent forms.