If you’re a pet owner who travels a lot, you know how difficult it can be to leave your four-legged family member behind—both emotionally and logistically. Whatever your reason for wanting to fly with your pet (you’re going on vacation, moving or showing your pet in a national dog show) it’s generally easier to fly with pets today than it was a decade ago. Here’s an overview of what to know about flying with Fido—or Morris.
Small dogs in the cabin
Most commercial airlines offer only two options for pets: cabin or cargo. Usually only small dogs that will fit in a crate or carrier can ride in the cabin with the owner. (We’ll explain the exceptions in a moment.)
Most airlines charge around $100.00 per pet, per carrier, and limit the number of dogs per flight to around five. Dog weight and carrier measurement requirements vary by airline, but small dogs usually need to fit comfortably in a carrier that is approximately 8-9 inches high, 12-13 inches wide and 15-23 inches long. The dog must also be able to stand and easily turn around in the carrier.
Medium to large in the cargo
With some exceptions, medium- to large-size dogs have to ride in the cargo hold area of a commercial airliner. This section of the plane, located below the cabin, usually has the proper ventilation, air pressure, and heating or cooling required for a safe animal flight, but it is beneath the passenger section and nobody will be able to check on your pet.
On newer jets, a separate area is walled off specifically for pets. While this area is usually safe for pets, there have been cases of pets getting loose, or overheating or freezing during flight, so be sure to check the airline’s pet cargo policy and ask the airline specific questions about your pet’s safety before committing to the flight. You can also check the Department of Transportation (DOT) for monthly airline incident reports involving pets. While there is some risk, thousands of pets safely fly every year and get to their destination in need of a good stretch, but otherwise just fine.
Emotional support dogs
Some commercial airlines will make an exception and allow large dogs to fly in the cabin, if they are an “emotional support animal.” The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 broadened the American Disabilities Act, which recognized service animals in public places.
The Air Carrier Access Act allows for mentally or emotionally impaired persons to be accompanied on flights by an emotional support animal on the condition that the correct documentation, including a letter from a licensed physician or mental health professional verifying that the emotional support animal would provide some degree of comfort, is provided.
If a pet is determined to be an emotional support animal, they are not restricted to a crate/carrier and are even allowed to sit on their guardian’s lap, unlike other animals who must fit under the seat in a carrier. Additionally, airlines are not allowed to charge additional fees when your support animal accompanies you.
Ready to fly? Here’s what to know and do.
Is Fido fit to fly?
Before moving forward with travel plans, determine honestly if your pet is a good candidate for air travel. If your pet is very young, very old or not in good health, it’s best to leave them at home. Also, some breeds don’t travel well in cargo, such as snub-nosed dogs like pugs, which are prone to breathing difficulties. Many major airlines no longer allow such breeds to fly in the cargo hold.
Visit the vet
If you’re moving ahead with plans, make an appointment with your pet’s veterinarian for a check-up and make sure all vaccinations are up to date. Obtain a health certificate from your veterinarian dated within 10 days of departure. For travel outside the United States, additional planning and health care requirements may be necessary.
Buy and test a carrier
Be sure to buy a carrier that best suits your pet and the airline’s requirements. Carriers are available in both hard-sided and soft-sided. Soft-sided carriers are more suitable for carry-on and tend to fit better under the seat, but they’re only permitted in the cabin only. If your dog will be traveling in the cargo hold, purchase a hard plastic carrier with holes for ventilation instead.
Carriers must be big enough for your dog to stand, turn around, and lie down comfortably. If the carrier does not permit him to do this, the airline will refuse transport.
To make sure the carrier will fit under the seat on your flight, check the size restrictions of the airline. After you’ve purchased an appropriate carrier, write your dog’s name on it and include identification tags with your home address and phone number, and the best number to reach you while traveling.
Pet photo and ID
Just in case, snap a photo of your pet with your phone and print a few copies in case he gets lost during the trip—it will make it easier for airline employees and local authorities to search more efficiently. You might also consider a permanent form of ID, such as a microchip or tattoo that will help track down your pet if lost.
Call and book early
Airlines require advance notice of traveling animals, and the number allowed in cabins varies by carrier, so book your pet’s ticket as soon as possible. It’s best to call the airline and make sure there is a “seat” available for your pet on the flight. Once the agent has confirmed availability, reserve both your seats on the same ticket while you’re still on the phone with the agent. Some airlines are more pet-friendly than others. JetBlue has a four-legged loyalty program, JetPaws.
Fly direct, if possible
If possible, book a non-stop, direct flight and try to fly on a weekday when airports are typically less hectic. If your pet will be traveling in the cargo hold, it’s best to fly in the morning or evening during the summer, and midday during the winter to avoid extremely hot or cold temperatures.
Get to the airport early
On the day of the flight, get to the airport at least two hours before departure, but no more than four. Go straight to the airline’s check-in counter—curbside and self-service check-in are not allowed. Have your dog’s health certificate handy. You will not be allowed to check your pet in more than four hours before the flight.
Food, water, exercise
Feed your pet about four hours before the flight so they have a chance to digest before boarding. Then continue to give the pet water right up to the time of travel. Empty the dish before checking in so it doesn’t spill during the flight. If you’re checking the dog, leave the dishes in the carrier so an airline employee can provide your pet with food and water in the event of an extended delay before or after your flight. Before leaving for the airport, take your pet for a walk to get some exercise and empty his bladder to make the flight more comfortable.
Relax, don’t sedate
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, in most cases, dogs should not be given sedatives or tranquilizers prior to flying because they can create respiratory and cardiovascular problems as the dog is exposed to increased altitude pressures.
They can also alter the animal’s natural ability to balance and maintain equilibrium, which can cause them to be off balance and get hurt. Popular television dog trainer, Cesar Millan, recommends using lavender oil as an “association scent” to help your pet relax while flying. In the weeks before the flight, he suggests putting a drop of oil on your hands at feeding times or before walks. Once onboard, “the positive association will allow him to calm down and remain relaxed.”
Once you’ve arrived
When your flight arrives at your destination airport, if your pet was in the cargo area, it will be delivered to baggage claim. At most domestic airports, with the exception of certified service animals, pets in the airport terminals are not allowed outside their carrier crates, and violations may be subject to a fine.
Service animals are permitted on airport trans and leashed animals are permitted in pet-friendly areas of the airport, such as Animal Relief Areas. Animal Relief Areas provide drinking areas with bowls and garbage areas with mutt mitt dispensers.
Some airports have built pet-friendly “resort” areas. Denver International Airport offers “Paradise 4 Paws,” featuring private suites, flat screen TVs, massage therapy, on-site medical experts, and obedience training.
When you’re ready to leave the airport, take your dog for a long walk before you check-in at the hotel to let your pet stretch, relieve itself and acclimate. Also expect them to sniff out the area and hotel room before settling down. Stay calm and relaxed, and your pet should calm down within a few hours ready to enjoy your joint vacation.
Contact the airports you will be traveling through for details about their specific pet policies.
Packing list checklist
Don’t forget these items when packing your dog’s suitcase:
- Health certificate and medical records
- Contact information for your regular veterinarian and an emergency contact at your destination
- Comb, brush, and flea control products
- Any special medication your dog might need
- Spare collar with id tag
- Pet wipes or grooming products
- Paper towels and stain remover
- Enough dog food and treats for the entire trip
- Plenty of bottled water (a sudden change can upset your dog’s stomach)
- Food and water dishes
- Leash and poop bags
- Your dog’s favorite toy and blanket
- A list of dog friendly restaurants and attractions at your destination