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Top 10 Pet Air Travel Tips

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Pomeranian dog sitting in a carrier tote on a plane

Flying with your pet can be stressful for both of you. But pet-friendly air travel is possible with some careful preparation.

How To Travel With Pets by Air

Suppose you need to fly your pet somewhere. In that case, our strategic partner The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®) strongly suggests you think carefully about this decision and asks that you please avoid flying your pet in cargo if at all possible.

The ASPCA recommends only flying with your pet if you can bring them into the cabin with you. This means they’ll need to be small enough to fit under the seat or on your lap in a carrier.

If you decide to make the trip on the road or via rail instead, these travel trips can help.

Problems With Pets Flying Cargo

Would you want to spend a long period of time in the belly of a plane? Probably not, and neither would our pets. You can do your best to make sure your pet is safe and cozy in their crate, but it can still be an uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking experience for them.

Pets aren’t used to flying through the air, and just the regular sounds, smells, and movements of the plane can be distressing, particularly when you’re not there to comfort them. If the plane hits rough turbulence, it can be especially upsetting and potentially harmful to your pet.

Even if the airline has the best of intentions regarding the care of pets in cargo, things can go wrong. There are stories of pets being left on the hot tarmac while the plane is being unloaded or sent to the wrong destination at a connection point. Delays can also mean that your pet is in flight for longer than you had planned.

Pet insurance can help you cover the costs of veterinary care if your pet gets injured on a flight. Learn more about what’s covered.

Tips for Pet Air Travel in Cargo

If you have no other choice but to transport your pet on a commercial airline in the cargo hold, these tips can help ensure a smooth journey.

  1. Make an appointment with your pet's veterinarian for a check-up. You’ll want to be sure your pet is healthy before you go. You’ll also want to make sure vaccinations are up-to-date. You may need to carry a health certificate with vaccination information from your veterinarian on the trip.
  2. Make sure your pet is wearing a collar and an identification tag that includes destination information. Breakaway collars are best for cats. In addition, your pet should have a microchip.
  3. Book a direct flight whenever possible. This can lessen the chances that your pet is left on the tarmac between connecting flights or mishandled by baggage personnel.
  4. Purchase a USDA-approved shipping crate. It should be large enough for your pet to stand, sit, and turn around in comfortably. You can find these shipping crates for sale at many pet stores or through the airline.
  5. Write the words "Live Animal" in letters at least 1-inch tall on the top and one or more sides of the crate. Use arrows to indicate the upright position of the crate prominently. On the top of the crate, write the name, address, and telephone number of your pet's destination point and whether you will be accompanying them or if someone else is picking them up.
  6. Make sure the carrier door is securely closed but not locked so that airline personnel can open it in case of an emergency. Line the crate bottom with some type of soft bedding—shredded paper or towels—to absorb potty accidents.
  7. Affix a current photo of your pet to the top of the crate for identification purposes. Should your pet get out of the carrier, this could be a lifesaver. You should also have a picture of your pet on your phone or in your wallet.
  8. The night before you leave, freeze a small dish or tray of water for your pet. This way, it can't spill during loading, and it will melt by the time they’re thirsty. Tape a small pouch, preferably cloth, of dried food outside the crate. Airline personnel will be able to feed your pet in case they get hungry on long-distance flights or a layover.
  9. Tell every airline employee you encounter on your journey that you’re traveling with a pet in the cargo hold. This way, they'll be ready if any additional considerations or attention is needed.
  10. If the plane is delayed, or if you have any concerns about the welfare of your pet, ask that airline personnel check on your pet whenever feasible. You may need to have your pet brought out of the cargo hold in certain situations.

Tranquilizing your pet is generally not recommended since it could hamper their breathing. You can ask your veterinarian about whether or not tranquilizers would be advisable for your pet. Alternate, safer options to consider are an anxiety vest or supplements. Anxiety vests create the same soothing effect that babies get from being swaddled or adults feel when using a weighted blanket. The constant pressure of an anxiety vest can help alleviate stress and anxiety for many dogs, but be sure to test this method out before your actual flight.

There are also many types of dog-friendly supplements that have been shown to help reduce anxiety. Oftentimes found in the form of a treat, these supplements can contain chamomile, melatonin, and thiamin, all of which have soothing qualities that can help animals relax and sleep. Another common supplement for dogs is ginger, which can help alleviate motion sickness or an unsettled stomach. Before purchasing any type of supplement, be sure to double-check with your veterinarian that the product is pet-friendly.

How To Travel With Pets in the Cabin

Prior to booking any flight, be sure to read up on the airline’s rules and regulations for which you plan on flying. Each airline has particular guidelines for the breed and size of dogs they allow in the cabin and the size of your pet’s carrier. Once your flight is booked, it may be additionally helpful to contact the airline ahead of time just to give them a heads-up that you will be bringing along your four-legged friend.

Some of the same tips for flying a pet in cargo apply to traveling with them in the cabin. For instance, visit your veterinarian first and ask them for a health certificate. You’ll also need a comfortable carrier for them. Soft-sided carriers are typically preferred over hard-shelled carriers, as they are more forgiving to fit under an airplane seat. Bring along plenty of water, food, treats, and a favorite toy or blankie, especially if it’s something that soothes your pet.

It will be essential that you purchase your pet’s traveling carrier well in advance and begin getting them acclimated to this new item—practice getting them in and out of the carrier. Be sure to make this training a positive experience and reward your pal with treats and praise.

On the day of your flight, it can sometimes be beneficial to not feed your pet breakfast. With an empty stomach, your dog or cat will be less likely to develop nausea. However, it is important first to discuss this plan with your veterinarian. Depending upon the length of your trip and the age of your pet, skipping a meal may not be advised in all traveling situations.

Upon reaching the airport security and screening checkpoint, your pet’s carrier will need to go through the X-ray machine without your pet inside. It is important that you place your personal items, such as electronics, bags, shoes, belts, etc., in the bins first. Next, you can remove your pet (who should be on a leash and well-fitted harness) from their travel carrier and place the carrier next to your items so it can be X-rayed.

You will then carry your pet in your arms through the human screening device. On the other side, you will first want to retrieve your carrier and put your pet securely back inside, then gather the bin with your personal items. Once you are on the airplane, your pet will need to remain in their carrier for the entirety of the flight. Don’t forget to bring along a few cleaning supply items, just in case there’s an accident in the carrier.

boston terrier dog resting on a blue sofa

Flying With Short-Nosed Pets

As any parent of a short-nosed pet is probably already aware, short-nosed pets are more prone to breathing difficulties or general issues with their respiratory system. Dogs such as Pugs, Boston Terriers, Bull Dogs, Shih Tzus, and Mastiffs, to name a few, are considered short-nosed. Common short-nosed cats include Exotic Shorthairs, British Shorthairs, and Persians.

Due to their unique facial and nasal structures, these types of pets can be more sensitive to changes in temperature and altitude on an airplane, especially in cargo. Not to mention, even though the cargo area of an airplane is receiving the same quality of air as the cabin, the air circulation in cargo is typically not as efficient and may not be ideal for your pet.

There are a few precautionary steps you can take to help reduce the risk of taking your short-nosed dog or cat on a plane.

  • Keep your pet at a healthy weight. Overweight animals are automatically at a higher risk of developing an issue while flying.
  • Visit your veterinarian before flying. During your visit, your veterinarian can examine your pet to make sure that they are healthy enough to fly and that there are no underlying issues. Plus, your veterinarian may be able to recommend useful tips and products for flying with a dog or cat.
  • Be proactive about reducing stress. When a short-nosed animal becomes stressed, their breathing typically increases, and they could experience an issue. To counteract this problem, try to be one step ahead with preparing your pet for a flight. Ensure they are comfortable in their crate and provide them with only a thin blanket since a thick blanket could cause breathing issues if they bury their nose.
  • Be mindful when you schedule your flight. In order to help keep conditions as regular as possible for your scrunchy-faced friend, try to schedule summer flights during the coolest part of the day (i.e., morning, evening, or night), and if you are flying in the middle of winter, then try to schedule your flight for the warmest part of the day (i.e., mid-afternoon).

Thankfully, a majority of short-nosed dogs and all short-nosed cats are small enough that most airlines will allow them to ride in the cabin. As the parent of a short-nosed pet, it is crucial to recognize the various risks that come when flying with your best bud. There is always the possibility that all will go well and not a single issue will occur, but there is no guarantee.

Before booking a flight for you and your short-nosed companion, be sure to weigh all of your different traveling options.

Air Travel With Service Animals

Service animals, which are dogs specifically trained to help a person with disabilities, are allowed on planes under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). If you plan to bring a service animal on your flight, contact the airline before you book your ticket to make sure you understand their policies.

In general, service animals must be able to sit on your lap or under the seat in front of you. They should not block access to areas such as the aisle or an emergency exit. They also need to be well-behaved and not engage in disruptive behaviors, such as barking or jumping up on other passengers.

Emotional Support Animals and Planes

Emotional support animals (ESA) are pets that offer comfort and stress relief to their pet parents. They are not the same as service animals, and they don’t require any special training. In the past, airlines had very broad criteria for what was considered an ESA, which brought about some skepticism. This is related to the fact that some people have brought exotic animals, like rabbits, pigs, and even snakes, with them on flights. There have also been countless incidences of people bringing untrained dogs onto planes while claiming that they are ESA. These untrained pets have had accidents on planes, barked constantly, and even bitten people.

A new federal rule now defines strict guidelines as to what classifies as an ESA for flying purposes. This new rule states that an ESA is narrowly defined as a dog that has training and works to benefit the individual with a disability.

ESA are allowed on planes through the ACAA, but you should check with the airline, ideally before purchasing your ticket, to find out their specific rules around bringing an ESA aboard. For instance, you may need to provide an ESA letter from a doctor or mental health professional. This letter should confirm that your pet is an ESA and why you need them. You may also need to show proof that your pet is healthy and fully vaccinated.

tabby cat napping inside a hard-shelled travel crate

Cat Air Travel Tips

When you think of people flying with their pets, you may imagine just dogs, but cats are brought on flights as well. Traveling with our homebody cats can be more difficult since they’re not as familiar with outdoor adventures as some dogs. Cats may also be more likely to get anxious outside the comforts of their home, especially in noisy airports or on crowded planes.

Before your trip, or even before booking your flight, you can also ask your veterinarian about using a pheromone spray, which can help soothe a stressed-out cat. It’s also essential to make sure your cat is comfortable in their carrier. At your home, or in a relaxed environment, practice having your cat sit in and be carried in their carrier. It will also be helpful to practice taking them in and out of the carrier to simulate what it will be like when you go through airport screening.

After considering these reasons, you may decide it’s probably best not to travel by plane with your cat. You may find that your cat will do much better if you choose to travel by car.

It can seem daunting to travel with your pet on a plane, and it should be avoided when possible. But you can make it easier with careful preparation.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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