Flying with a fur baby

 Susan Roberts's avatar

Susan Roberts

I'm an educator, traveler, vegan, and animal welfare enthusiast. I'm originally from America, but have been living in Japan for over 20 years.


Meet Hinata-chan, our rescued kitty from Kyoto. Hinata found our farm in the Keihoku mountains in October 2020. He had a crushed paw from a car accident, 4 fractures, an open fracture, a severe bone infection, emaciation, many open flesh injuries and was very close to death. Nine months later and here we are in Canada with Hinata as part of our family.(Photo 1)

Although we had intended to adopt him out as a rescue after his recovery, we simply could not find the right person or family to take him on with his unique needs. He will forever have a disfigured paw and a weak immune system, being FIV-positive and prone to infections. So, we decided to take him with us back to Canada. Here is how we did it...

The Airline

First of all we contacted the Japan Cat Network for support and advice on how to fly with a cat. We discovered that each airline has unique pet policies and that it was very important to do all the research well in advance, before buying our flight tickets. Many airlines do not allow pets in-cabin with you. Although cargo carriers were an option on most flights, our cat has a particularly traumatic history of injuring himself in his carrier due to stress. He even broke his own toe once! So, we opted to bring him in-cabin with us on Air Canada. Due to the pandemic though, we could not fly out of Kansai International Airport directly to Canada so we needed to get to Tokyo first. We opted to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) the day before to break up the travel a bit. We paid 300Yen to register Hinata for the Shinkansen. It went very smoothly. To our astonishment, there was only 1 hotel near Narita Airport that allowed pets in your hotel room with you; the Hilton Tokyo Narita Airport. And even then there were only 2 rooms designated for this service and are often fully booked months in advance. Trust me, I called 20 hotels to find another option, and most simply gave me pet hotel names, which are in abundance. We could have done the Shinkansen from Kyoto and flight to Vancouver all in one day, but we felt uncomfortable with Hinata being stuck in his small carrier for over 24 hours. Please also note that most airlines have weight restrictions even for carry-on luggage like a pet. Luckily, Air Canada had no weight restrictions for carry-on items, and our heavy 6.2kg kitty had no issues being brought onboard.

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The Carrier

It is very important that if you intend to travel with your pet that you look very carefully at carrier requirements for your airline. For Air Canada, we purchased a SleepPod Air carrier that fit perfectly under the seat in front of us. It has flexible sides and components that can fit most in-cabin airline requirements, but is absolutely NOT suitable for cargo. Cargo carriers need to be larger, hard, plastic containers with no holes for limbs to protrude. With the flexible SleepyPod we could pull out his carrier mid-flight from under the seat, to give him a bit more room. This company even has "how-to" YouTube videos. Hinata has always been an escape risk and this carrier stood up to the test. Hinata did try to chew and claw his way out several times but he gave up after about 10 minutes and with lots of comfort from us. It will now be his permanent carrier for vet visits and car rides because it can also be buckled into car seats. These carriers are crazy expensive, but we managed to purchase a used one on Mercari.com, an online flea market for about 5000Yen cheaper than the original price (warning, you will need a native Japanese reader to navigate this site). We also monitored Yahoo Auction for a week or so.

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Preparing Fur Baby

We only had 2 weeks to prepare Hinata with his new carrier before flying, and although that proved sufficient for us, I recommend longer if possible. Knowing that he likes to sleep near us, we decided to open up the carrier (roof off) and put it at the base of our bed. We watched YouTube videos on how to fly with pets and they suggested giving him treats while in his carrier, taking him on short car trips, or just walking around the house and garden with him in it. We also lined the bottom with a used fleece sweater that had our scent on it. He started sleeping in it every night for over 1 week prior to flying. All of these tips helped tremendously in making it a safe, familiar place for him. Because he is also an escape risk, we decided to also train him with a harness. We put it on him daily for 2 weeks prior to flying. He got so used to it that he would sleep in it, play in it, and eat while wearing it. We put it on him when going through travel checkpoints where we had to be taken out of his carrier (more on that later).

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Immunization and Quarantine

Each country has their own immunization and documentation requirements. For Canada, all Hinata needed was a valid rabies vaccination certificate and a veterinary note of good health. I asked our Japanese veterinarian to write the note in English and even prompted him with pre-written English details. He was very accommodating. Any veterinarian in Japan can do this as long as they sign and stamp the document with their official business seal. Ideally, it would also be printed on letterhead paper, but it was not necessary in our case. In fact, Japan has an amazing Animal Quarantine service counter at Narita Airport. You must book an appointment with this service in advance as it took an hour for us to process everything. The Animal Quarantine officer/vet did a physical inspection of Hinata in a small closed room and issued a government-certified English document outlining his rabies vaccination, his good health, and even additional information like his FeLV (feline leukemia) vaccine. All for free! This was really great because she was able to translate the Japanese rabies certificate into an English formal document for Canadian border agents. Super professional and meticulous with details. Once in Vancouver, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency needed to see this important documentation and have a quick look at Hinata. It went very smoothly.

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Other Airport Details

The airports were my biggest worry because I read that we would need to take Hinata out of his carrier, hence the harness training. In Tokyo, we had to take him out for the Animal Quarantine inspection but that was in a small private room. Luckily, the security checkpoint where your belongings go through an x-ray machine was much easier than I thought. We did not have to take Hinata out of his carrier (in Japan) as expected, but instead, I carried him in his carrier through the metal detector myself. After that, they simply looked inside his carrier after unzipping it a little bit. In Canada on the other hand, we took a domestic flight from Vancouver to Toronto and had to take Hinata out of his carrier at the security checkpoint. We were offered a private room (or you can ask) so the officer could run the carrier through the conveyor belt x-ray machine without Hinata inside. The officer did a quick visual of Hinata and that was it. Although I didn't really need the harness in the end, I still felt comforted knowing he had one, which would have given me an extra few seconds to grab him if he decided to bolt.

The Flights

In preparation for the long Tokyo-Vancouver flight (8.5hours), I prepared extra cat litter, a collapsible litter box, food, water, treats, and calming medicine just in case. I am VERY glad I did! After sleeping for a while on the flight, he meowed for food and ate out of our hand. I had a small paper bowl to give him water, which he drank from in his carrier. Although since then, I have discovered a greally great travel water bottle for pets! Although Hinata was quiet for most of the long flight, at about 30 minutes before landing he started complaining a lot. I could tell he needed to go to the bathroom. As soon as we got off the plane, I went into the nearest "family" bathroom to have a private space with him. I quickly set up his portable litter and he immediately pooped! Surprisingly, on the short flight from Vancouver to Toronto a few days later after our hotel quarantine, he really started complaining after only 2 hours. At first I thought he was anxious but before giving him medicine I decided to try the litter. I took him to the airplane bathroom, although you are not supposed to take pets out of their carriers on flights, set up his litter and presto, he peed! He was super quiet after that. It really paid to have the extra supplies with me because I used them ALL!

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Overall, it really paid to be prepared. We made it to Ontario all in one piece and Hinata is adjusting to his new digs. The Japan Cat Network supported us every step of the way with advice and recommendations, links and concrete answers. I made a donation to the JCN as a thank you but of course, I wish I could donate more. Please consider donating generously to this amazing organization. Every yen helps! Thank you, JCN!--Ava and Zenryu

Hello Farm Organics

Kyoto, Japan