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Flying With Your Pet? Here’s How to Do It Safely

Everything you need to know about air travel with your cat or dog.

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Planning to take your furry friend on a flight? It’s natural that you don’t want to leave Fido behind while on vacation — it wouldn’t be a proper family trip without the cat or dog! But as stressful as air travel is right now, flying with your pet can be even more complicated  

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Traveling with a pet on an airplane can actually be dangerous, especially if you aren’t aware of the proper protocols. Educating yourself about potential risks now will help ensure you and your pet arrive safely at any destination. Here, using insight from two expert veterinarians, we cover everything from preparing your pet for the airport to where they should ride on the plane.

What kind of animal should not travel by air?

First things first: Let’s define in-cabin vs. cargo animal travel. Pets placed in airplane “cargo” are put in a climate-controlled, pressurized compartment below the aircraft cabin (kept separate from luggage, but in the same general area). Pets who travel in-cabin are boarding the plane with you as carry-on luggage, and must be kept in a carrier at your feet, placed beneath the seat in front of you.

Pets who should not travel in cargo include those who are sick, elderly, frail, anxious, or those who are a brachycephalic breed (smush face), according to Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM and Pumpkin Pet Insurance Veterinary Expert. Brachycephalic breeds (those with shortened snouts, like Pugs) are at a higher risk of death during travel because of respiratory compromise, and because flight travel can be extra stressful for older or frail pets, she recommends you get a vet’s clearance before booking them on any flights. 

Pets who should not travel in the cabin include those who are aggressive or have anxiety-related behavioral issues that you can’t manage with training or medication. 

“Always check with the airline before you book — some airlines have breed bans, others have bans when they won’t fly pets in cargo during parts of the year due to extreme temperatures,” Dr. Wooten advises. “Several airlines won’t fly Pitbulls. Some destinations do not allow the pet to fly in the cabin and pets must fly in cargo only. Some airlines have age restrictions, such as pets must be at least 10 weeks of age to fly in the US and 16 weeks to fly internationally.”

Should I sedate my pet before we get to the airport?

Before you decide this, talk to your veterinarian about your pet’s travel history. Dr. Genna Mize, DVM, Technical Services Veterinarian at Virbac, recommends you ask the following questions to determine whether your pet will benefit from meds: Does a car ride cause them to excessively pant, pace, or vocalize with anxiety? Are they prone to motion sickness? Or are they happy passengers, eager to see new places? 

“There are natural calming supplements available (such as Anxitane), or even collars for dogs (such as Zenidog) which can make a remarkable difference in some pets with or without adjunctive pharmaceutical intervention,” Mize says. “Ultimately, should you and your veterinarian decide medications will make your pet’s travel experience less stressful, you’ll want to do a trial run at home to ensure the medication dosing and selections are appropriate.” Every pet is different, so you may need to adjust your pet’s dosage or request a different medication if the one given to you doesn’t work well

To provide calming effects sans prescription meds, Dr. Wooten also recommends trying pet CBD oil, DAP (a pheromone spray that can be used on cats and dogs), or a thunder shirt (a kind of anxiety jacket that swaddles your pet). “If in doubt, at least get a prescription from your vet to bring with you in case you need it,” she notes. “I also recommend practicing with your pet on car rides in the crate before the day of travel so they can get used to the sensation. Sometimes anxiety is due to motion sickness — so ask your vet if that could be an issue with your pet, and for recommendations to prevent it.”

Dr. Mize notes that any medication tips are for pets traveling in the airplane’s cabin —  but for pets traveling in cargo, it is a bad idea to administer any drugs before travel, as this could inhibit their ability to regulate their body temperature and allow them to dangerously overheat.

Should I avoid feeding or watering my pet so they don’t have to go to the bathroom?

Unless your pet has a medical condition that requires them to eat regularly, refrain from feeding them for four to six hours before flying to cut down on the “need to go,” Dr. Wooten suggests. If your pet is flying in cargo, she has a tip: “freeze the water in their bowl before checking them in — that way the water is less likely to spill.” Pets can typically enter cargo with food and water dishes, though the policy differs depending on the airline.

Many airports now have in-terminal pet relief stations too, where your animal can go to the bathroom. “These are mostly useful for dogs, providing Astroturf (and even a faux fire hydrant decoration sometimes),” Dr. Mize says. “Generally speaking, most cats can travel significant lengths of time without the use of the restroom and should (and usually prefer to) remain in their carriers during travel.” Just remember: there are no relief stations for pets on board the actual aircraft.

“Some pets may benefit from skipping breakfast or having a decreased portion size immediately prior to travel,” adds Dr. Mize. “But never withhold water.” 

For a pet traveling in a carrier, can I put anything inside to make it more comfortable?

If your pet is traveling in cargo, you must first ensure that their carrier is approved by the airline. Before you fly, check your airline for specific crate requirements (there may be some differences in size, types, construction, and limitations).

If they are traveling in cargo, your pet’s carrier or crate should have a hard shell. (Soft carriers are not safe for cargo travel, as they can easily tip over or get damaged.) “Soft-sided carriers are best for [cabin travel] because they compress to fit under the seat, and the carrier must be stowed for landing, takeoff, and often during turbulence,” says Dr. Wooten. Size-wise, your pet should be able to comfortably stand up and turn around inside their carrier.

Everyone likes some semblance of home in an unfamiliar environment — so try to make your pet feel as comfy as possible inside their compartment. Dr. Mize notes that putting in a favorite toy, blanket, or even a garment from your home that smells like you can be comforting. “It can also help to cover the crate with a light sheet or blanket to prevent your cat from seeing things that might be scary,” Dr. Wooten adds. Cats are prone to hiding when frightened, so the darkness provided by a covering may make them feel more secure.

Both vets say that a natural calming pheromone product sprayed into the carrier can provide further relaxation for the animal. Try ThunderEase Pheromone Calming Spray for Dogs ($28.99 from Chewy) or Feliway Classic Calming Spray for Cats ($24.89 from Chewy). 

Should my pet travel in the plane’s cabin or as cargo?

Cargo is undeniably a more risky place for your animal to travel — although airline pet deaths are rare, they do happen — so if your pet is small, keeping them in the cabin is generally ideal. However, that may not always be an option. “With the exception of service animals, most airlines won’t allow pets over a certain weight limit, typically around 20 pounds [in the cabin], and they need to fit comfortably in their carrier underneath the seat [in front of you],” Dr. Mize warns. 

If your dog is larger and will have to be put in cargo, consider the weather when you’re flying. “Overheating is a serious safety concern — this can be exacerbated in a stressed pet!” Dr Mize says. “In warm weather, pets should not travel in the cargo area. Most airlines have restrictions on temperature ranges they will accept, but it’s always best to avoid travel in the warmer months if possible. If your pet has somewhere to be in questionable weather conditions and can’t ride in the cabin with you, it’s best to drive. There are even professional transit companies devoted to transporting pets by ground.”

If your pet does have to travel as cargo, don’t be afraid to speak up to the flight staff. “Ask for confirmation that your pet has been safely loaded into cargo, and make sure that they are proactive about monitoring the temperature and pressure in the cargo hold,” Dr. Wooten recommends.

Some airlines will actually allow big dogs in the cabin, but you have to purchase an additional seat for them (even though they must lay on the ground for the flight’s duration). Dr. Wooten notes that airlines do allow bigger dogs in the cabin, such as JSX, La Compagnie, WestJet, Elite Airways, Breeze Airways, Avianca, Eastern Air Lines, Boutique Air, and shared chartered flights.

In addition to weather and airline-specific restrictions, you’ll want to consider your dog’s disposition when contemplating air travel. “Many pets are better off relaxing at home with a reliable caretaker or traveling by car in a controlled environment,” Dr. Mize admits. “A persistent barking, hysterical dog can really put a damper on a flight.”

Should I travel with any papers for my pet?

Many airlines require your pet to have a health certificate from a veterinarian that is USDA certified for interstate and international travel, issued within a specified time frame before the flight date. This certificate must meet the requirements of your destination. According to Dr. Mize, this may also include proof of vaccination records — so make sure your pet is up to date on all wellness care before departure. “Many countries and rabies-free states, such as Hawaii, require specialized treatments and diagnostics within particular time frames prior to entry,” she adds. For international travel, she recommends the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website as a resource to help you determine specific destination requirements. 

International travel health certificates tend to be longer and more complicated, so do your research beforehand so your pet doesn’t get hung up in customs. “Your veterinary office is an excellent resource on exactly what you will need to travel,” Dr. Wooten adds.

Any other miscellaneous tips for animal airline travel? 

While preparing your own suitcase, don’t forget to pack for your furry companion as well. “They’re unlikely to do it on their own!” Dr. Mize jokes. “Pack their usual food, medications, clean-up supplies, leash, favorite toys, and other staples for the journey.”

Dr. Wooten also advises you to choose as direct a flight path as possible, because connecting flights add more worry to the process. “Heat stress is a concern for pets that are in crates on the tarmac,” she says. “In extreme heat conditions, fly at night or early in the morning.”

Finally, you might want to purchase pet insurance. “When pets get hurt or sick unexpectedly, including on trips and on vacation, pet insurance can reimburse owners for a portion of their eligible veterinary bills,” Dr. Wooten explains. “Having pet insurance can help give pet owners peace of mind that if ‘the awful’ happens, they don’t have to make pet health decisions solely based on money.” It can also ensure your veterinarian practices their best medicine on your animal without trying to fit their care within a small budget. 

Now you have all the tools you need to successfully air travel with your animal pal. Fly safe!

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