I’m an occasional catastrophizer. Facing a cross-Canada first flight with our plus-size feline, Lance, gave the word a literal interpretation.
Planning for the trip involved slightly less than a Sahara trek. My mind pinballed around all the things I couldn’t control, like the possibility that 10.5-kilogram, 10-year-old tabby Lance (down from nearly 12 kg; don’t judge) would produce a great, noxious poop at 30,000 feet.
Perhaps it would be somewhere over Winnipeg. A planeload of passengers would hate me.
What if Lance launched into his signature pre-meal wailing, or those convulsive, strangled sounds that serve as the opening act for a dramatic hairball delivery?
People fly with pets all the time. As a freelance travel writer, I spend a lot of time on planes and rarely board a domestic or U.S. flight without someone bumping down the narrow aisle, pet carrier awkwardly slung over one shoulder.
But that’s other people. There’s always room for my kitty catastrophe.
This flight was the final step in our happy decision to move from Toronto to Victoria. All the stressful unknowns around this life change, including selling the house, hiring cross-country movers, shipping the car west on the train, saying goodbye to friends and the city that had been our home for more than 35 years — all that was a cakewalk compared to the anxiety I felt about getting an overweight, skittish cat onto a plane and keeping him calm during the process. Keeping me calm would be a bonus.
Neither of us would be sedated. The same vet who explained that Lance’s girth stems from being “food motivated,” warned a zonked-out cat can suffer even more when he’s terrified, yet immobile.
So, we bought a bottle of pheromone spray designed to calm cat nerves. I dosed Lance’s carrier repeatedly and considered spraying it on myself.
I was so twitchy with scurrying thoughts of all that could go wrong with Lance’s flight, the move almost took a backseat.
Air Canada charges $50 to fly your cat or small dog in the cabin, which is a sweet deal. The rules state the pet carrier must measure 21x38x43 cm, weigh 10 kg in total and fit under the seat in front of you.
We were fudging Lance’s dimensions from the get-go. I measured him repeatedly and ordered airline-approved carriers online that arrived looking laughably small next to Lance’s sprawl. He’d been on a strict regime of diet cat food for a year, so he wasn’t going to get any smaller in a hurry.
I mentally measured the under-seat area on every flight I took leading up to our move. I worried about how Lance would handle the experience and quizzed flight crews and pet-parent passengers.
I realized there was no way Lance would fit under a WestJet seat. Air Canada seats on some flights were roomier. Premium economy class looked bigger still because of the two-seat configuration with a roomy open area between them.
Typically, the front of the plane is not for us. We sit in economy seats, or whatever euphemistic term the airlines use for “back there.”
But the worry that Christmas turkey-sized Lance wouldn’t fit meant we stumped up for Premium Economy.
Lance has what we call his “little blue house” carrier. Using treats (of course) and schooled by YouTube videos, I trained him to hang out in the carrier in the hope he’d be happy to travel in it. That was a fleeting dream. But he liked it well enough for naps. If I took two of the three flexible ribs out of little blue house, it could be (mostly) squished under the Premium Economy seat.
My partner, Hans, was responsible for carrying Lance onto the aircraft, while trying not to look like the carrier weighed enough to dislocate his shoulder.
While I boarded with a small purse, the cat had a wheeled carry-on suitcase lined with an aluminum roasting pan for a makeshift litter tray in case the flight was cancelled or delayed. The interior was jammed with litter, kibble, puppy pads, plastic bags, latex gloves, towel and change of clothes for me in case there was an unfortunate feline incident.
We closed the door on our Toronto house for the last time on a rainy, late afternoon, sliding the remaining key in the mail slot as I cried sloppy tears fuelled by emotions and stress. Lance quietly meowed a few times as the SUV started our airport run. Then, he curled up and went to sleep. Let’s hear it for the pheromone spray.
Security at Pearson was the first test. Did I mention Lance tends to let fly with a horizontal stream of urine when he’s nervous?
I had to take him out of his carrier to go through the security scanner. I brought a harness and leash, in case he bolted. But if getting Lance into his carrier was often a trial, getting him out in a busy airport would be worse.
“My cat is a projectile pee-er when he’s nervous,” I told the security officer.
He and his colleagues found this hilarious. They led me to a private screening room where the newly laid-back Lance was easily parted from his carrier.
Lance did not pee. He was quiet. He went back into his little blue house willingly.
He slept in a corner of the Maple Leaf Lounge – a perq a premium ticket. Occasionally, he looked out the mesh panels to watch the world. He accepted pettings. He was the same cool cat in the departure area.
Quiet and content, he even purred occasionally during the flight. He didn’t entirely fit under the seat and thanks to the flight attendant for failing to mention it. He didn’t care about turbulence, takeoff, or whether there were decent in-flight movies. Lance turned out to be an absolute champ at air travel. Being with us was all he needed.
Eleven hours after locking our Toronto front door for the last time, we walked into our Victoria apartment. There was a litter box, water and dinner for Lance and a large glass of excellent B.C. pinot noir for each of us.
It felt like home.
This column originally appeared in The Globe and Mail. Illustration by Drew Shannon for The Globe and Mail