Flying With An ESA

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Hey there, cuties!

I just took a flight yesterday from home to Boston, where I am in school, and I did so with my emotional support animal, Abby. She’s a ragdoll cat and the most adorable little thing buuuut she’s not great at flying! So today I thought I’d run you through what yesterday was like flying with her so I can give you my tips and tricks.

Before Your Flight

There are a few things to know when you’re booking your flight. If you’ve never flied with your ESA before, it’s important to consider these things:

  • If you have a cat, or plan to travel with your pet in a carrier, your carrier needs to be TSA approved to fit under the seat in front of you. More than that, you need to be confident that you can get it under the seat without squishing or tipping your animal too much.
  • Your animal should be really well acquainted with the carrier before you’re flying so they feel more comfortable.
  • You need to submit paperwork to the airlines. Look on their site for their requirements. I know American Airlines has a specific packet, but other airlines might just require a submission from your doctor.

Basically: choose your carrier wisely, make sure you get your animal used to the carrier before the trip, and make sure you do all the paperwork for the airlines.

Personally, I’m really lucky and, since I’m still in college, my parents pay for my flights, so we fly first class because Abby is fifteen pounds and not overweight (she’s just a big cat). This makes it easier to get her carrier under the seat because there’s so much more room.

Prepping for the Flight

The day of, make sure you take away food and water in the morning. You can find more information about what to do and why, but I’ve found that this alone for my cat (not sure about dogs) works really well.

Abby has a thing with her stomach where if she gets stressed she gets pretty sick (or if her stomach just feels like it, or if she doesn’t eat only her prescribed food), so I do give her medicine to keep her calm on the flight. Or, at least calmer than she would be without. She was prescribed these meds by a vet- do not medicate your animal unless your vet has prescribed that medication.

Before we leave the house, I put Abby in her harness and attach the leash, and put her in the car. We (against most advise) let her kind of roam the car when we go to the airport. While this isn’t necessarily safe, when my dad is driving I feel comfortable letting her roam. This means she doesn’t have to be in her carrier for as long, so she tolerates it better later.

Getting to the Gate

First thing’s first, check in at the counter. You’ll probably need to show your paperwork for your animal, so you might need to do this in person. Otherwise, checking in ahead of time means less time with your animal in a busy area.

You might have wondered why I put my cat on a leash, and this is the main reason: when going through TSA, your animal has to be taken out of the carrier and carried through the metal detector. Abby is a trouble maker, and if she wasn’t on a leash she might get away from me.

Personally, we travel with a pet stroller. Abby’s a big cat, and carriers are surprisingly heavy, and I have physical limitations (looking at you, fibromyalgia!). So, we use a stroller. Once we get through security (which is pretty quick for us because I’m TSA Pre-Check, which really speeds things up), I transfer her into the stroller because it’s easier for me and she likes it better. As long as I keep the stroller moving, she doesn’t meow!

Top Tip: If you’re traveling alone, don’t buy a drink in the airport that doesn’t have a screw top. I made this mistake my first time flying with Abby, and ended up spilling it everywhere trying to get her carrier under the seat.

We gate check our stroller so I can use it up to the gate, then I transfer her into the carrier. Even though that means I’m technically bringing three “bags” onto the plane, I’ve never had a problem. If you’re planning to travel with a pet stroller, make sure to check with your airline that it doesn’t count against your bags.

On the Flight

Legally, your animal can sit on your lap as long as they are behaved. That means that if Abby is screaming from her carrier, she can come up and sit on my lap. This particular flight, she stayed in her carrier because she seemed happier there, but most often I do take her out.

When you get to your seat, ask your seat partner(s) if they are allergic to your animal. Personally, I haven’t encountered this problem yet (thank goodness) but I know that I would offer to move. People ask me all the time what I’d do in this situation, but I can’t help but think about how the airline knows ahead of time that I have an animal and if their allergy is bad enough they’d need me to move, they could have told the airline ahead of time, too. Of course, I wouldn’t call anyone out in real life, I’d still offer to move. Just a thought.

Basically for the whole flight, my focus is split between my phone and Abby. It’s not worth it for me to pull out something else to do, because Abby usually sits on my lap. And I know that I want Abby’s presence on the plane to be as little a hassle for my fellow passengers as possible.

When she’s in her carrier and she meows, I reach in and pet her, and that placates her. When she’s in my lap, sometimes I put her back in the carrier and that calms her down. Basically, I do whatever I can to keep her quiet but also happy.

I can’t speak for long haul flights when your animal might need to relieve themself, but there are plenty of articles about it.

Post Flight

Right after we get off the plane, I pull over at the gate and take Abby out and give her a break from the carrier. She walks around a bit, stretches, and gets pets. When she’s calmed down, she goes back in her carrier and we go get our luggage.

I do this because I know she’ll have to be in the carrier for the next forty five minutes– fifteen to get my bag and into the Uber, then half an hour to get to my apartment. She can’t handle that long being in the carrier. If she sat in my lap, she doesn’t get a break.

The first thing I do when I get home is let her out of her harness, and give her a kiss. Before I address any of my needs, I fill her litter box, fill her bowl, and set up her water fountain. No matter how stressful the flight was on me (this time, completely stress free! woo!), it was three times as stressful for her. 

Abby settles back in at my apartment immediately every time we come back. This is definitely home for her. She was purring up a storm, brushing up against me, and begging me for pets within an hour.

That’s Pretty Much It!

If you have any questions, please ask in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer you!

If you want to find out more about what the process of getting an ESA looks like, and what having one is like, check out my podcast, The Chronically Cute Podcast, on Sunday!

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