This is a tricky question to answer because it depends on a lot of different things including the attitude of the cat guardian. How do you define safe? There is risk in everything we do and therefore if you want 100% guaranteed safety with no risk then it is not safe for domestic cats to fly on aircraft. This is because there are many stories of cats dying during transportation by aircraft in the hold. I am not implying that it is dangerous. The numbers are very low compared to the number of pets being transported an aircraft but like I said if you want zero risk you won’t get it. I am presenting a risk averse attitude because when it comes to my cat that is my attitude. I confess that I am not in favour of aircraft travel for a cat. You’ll get that message from the article. Too much stress for cat and human.
And this is the problem for me (this is a personal choice of course). I could never allow my cat to be put into the hold of an aircraft while I went to the cabin. I just couldn’t do it. He would be terrified and I don’t know what is going on down there in baggage handling. Think about it. You have your cat in a cat carrier and you arrive at the check-in desk. Of course you adore your cat and you regard her as a family member and a close friend.
With the baggage
You get your boarding card and you check-in your baggage which is whisked away down the conveyor belt into God knows where, a black hole where luggage handlers deal with it. You don’t send your cat down the same route but for me you have no idea how good the baggage handlers are. You don’t know whether they are sensitive to the welfare of animals. Will they handle your cat’s carrier carefully? Do they hate cats? Do they manhandle the carrier and terrify your cat even more? There are too many known unknowns and unknown unknowns for me to even consider checking in my cat as baggage. It doesn’t matter which airline I’d use. As you can see, I am prepared to take risks in respect of my welfare but I am not prepared to put my cat through any unnecessary risk of any sort because he depends upon me for his safety. This colours my thoughts about the process of air travel for cats.
Secure cat carrrier
The cat carrier looks secure but actually isn’t although you can’t tell the difference. Perhaps a luggage handler drops it inadvertently and the door flies open. Your terrified cat runs out and hides in a recess in a large facility. Perhaps they find a way into the ceiling space where they feel secure. They are lost completely. They may find themselves wandering around the tarmac on a freezing cold night. You may never see your cat again. You are out of your mind with worry.
Perhaps I am overemphasising the dangers? There have been cases of cats escaping from their carriers and becoming lost in airports. There have been too many examples (for me) of cats dying in the hold because of high or low temperatures. Cats who are particularly vulnerable are those bred to extremes such as the flat-faced Persianf and dogs with similar anatomies. Certain airlines ban cats and dogs from being placed in the hold of aircraft because consider it too risky. Their decision depends upon the season and the ambient temperatures during that season. The temperature in the hold needs to be assessed throughout the journey. I just think there’s too many potential dangers. However, I am sure that the staff are, in general, concerned individuals.
Cat and dog breeds
In America there are four cat breeds that the airlines apparently classify as “snub-nosed” (flat-faced and brachycephalic). These are the Burmese, Persian, Himalayan and Exotic Shorthair. All except the Burmese are in the Persian family of cats and selectively bred to have very flat faces if they are the modern or contemporary version. I wouldn’t take these cats on an aircraft in any shape or form.
I wouldn’t take my Persian cat into the cabin of an aircraft on a longish journey even if it is permissible by the airline. There is a case, in 2012, of a pug dog dying in his carrier under the passenger seat because the pug has a similar head anatomy to the flat faced Persian which can restrict breathing.
Hold or cabin?
Clearly boarding the aircraft with your cat which you place under the passenger seat is far better than checking in your cat as baggage to go into the hold. I could almost accept that because at least you are there with your cat which allows you to check on her condition and managed what is a strange situation for your cat. There are still risks, however. At least the owner is in control to a large extent which cannot be said about the alternative described above.
In America, nearly all incidents regarding the injury, death, or loss of pets reported to the Department of Transportation involve animals being put in the hold of aircraft.
If you take your cat into the cabin with you you have to pass through security. I’m not au fait with the procedures but I presume that the cat carrier has to be scanned for possible explosives which means you have to remove your cat from the carrier. This must be a weak points in the process in terms of your cat’s safety. In any event it is a stress situation. Click for procedures in America.
What if, after your cat has been taken to the baggage section, there is a massive delay in the departure of your flight? You’ve lost control of your cat and of the timetable. That would make me anxious. Knowing that that might happen prevents me considering taking my cat onto a flight. One issue here is that your cat might be in the hold at that time and the temperature might rise. Or your cat might be on trolley on the tarmac with other baggage in freezing conditions. The trouble is you don’t know. And think about the purpose of your travel. Perhaps you are going on holiday. You want to have some fun and yet you are stressing over your cat at all times. It doesn’t make sense.
By default, we can assume that the whole experience will be stressful for a cat. That means transporting your cat so the airport, walking around the airport with a carrier, waiting in the queue, handing over your cat to a baggage handler, perhaps a long wait for your cat somewhere in the airport and then being alone in a hold on the aircraft perhaps terrified and panting out of fear. Stress is all I can think of for a domestic cat under these circumstances. You don’t want to put your cat through stress like that. What if your cat has an illness that you have not detected? The stress may make things worse.
For completeness, in America, Delta Airlines has the worst record for transporting pets apparently. In 2010, 2011 and 2012 Delta airlines was responsible for 41 of the 97 reported animal deaths. They changed their procedures to make it safer. They prohibit pets being checked in as baggage between May 15 and September 15 according to my research because of high temperatures in the northern hemisphere. If the weather is extreme they won’t carry pets either.
About risk assessment
It’s about risk as usual. So if you see air transport as unacceptably risky for domestic cats then you have to balance that against the risk of leaving your cat in a residential cattery if you travel without him or her. Or you might decide to have a friend look after your cat while you are away. A friend might be less responsible than you had thought. Your cat might escape and be lost. There is a risk in that process.
Or you might let your neighbour feed your cat if you are away for a few days. There is risk in that option as well. A professional cat sitter may be the best option provided you know they are reliable and have a history. They should be able to convince you through recommendations that they are well organised. The risk of your cat being harmed when being cared for by professional cat sit at your home is probably less than the risk of being harmed while travelling in an aircraft. This encourages me to take that option. In addition, we know that cats are wedded to their home range (the territory). It is wise, if possible, to leave him in his territory where he can accept your absence for a manageable time as he can obtain the reassurances he requires from being in his home range.
Is it safe for domestic cats to fly on aircraft? Yes and No. You make up your own mind but be aware of the risks. Oh, and there is a minute risk of the aircraft crashing but that is hardly worth mentioning.