Traveling with animals can be tricky and stressful, especially if they are like every pet I have ever owned and have a naturally skittish temperament. But there are some steps you can take to make air travel less stressful for them—and you.
Check your airline’s policies
Every airline’s pet policy is different, so before you start booking tickets, make sure the airline you choose can accommodate your pet. Some airlines allow only dogs and cats small enough to fit into a carrier you stow under your seat. Others allow a wider variety of animals, such as household birds and rabbits, and some will transport animals in the plane’s cargo hold, depending on capacity and weather restrictions.
This pet travel policy comparison by People will get you started, but always check with your individual airline for complete details and clarifications. The last thing you want is to show up to the airport with luggage and dog in tow, only to find out that Bailey is three pounds over the airline’s weight limit.
Oh, and while you’re booking, go for a direct flight if at all possible. If your pet will be in the cargo hold, try to also time your flight for their comfort—in the morning or evening hours during the summer and midday during the winter to avoid extreme temperatures.
Go to the vet
Make an appointment with your pet’s veterinarian shortly before your flight to make sure the animal is in good health and all vaccinations are up to date. You may need a health certificate dated within 10 days of your departure for travel within the continental United States, and foreign travel may come with additional requirements; be sure to research requirements specific to other countries ahead of time.
Choose the right carrier
In all cases, your pet’s carrier should be as compact as possible while also being roomy enough for the animal to stand, turn around and lie down comfortably. Soft-sided carriers are great for stowing under your seat in the cabin; hard-sided carriers with holes for ventilation are better for animals traveling in the cargo hold. Each airline’s pet policy should have detailed carrier-size requirements; measure it ahead of time to be sure it fits within their guidelines.
The American Veterinarian Medical Association also suggests that travel crates:
- Be strong and free of interior protrusions, with handles or grips.
- Have a leak-proof bottom with plenty of absorbent material.
- Be ventilated on opposite sides, with exterior knobs and rims that will not block airflow.
You’ll also want to make sure the animal is familiar with and comfortable in the carrier before you take flight. Let them test it out on trips around town for a few weeks before your scheduled trip if they’re not already used to resting in it.
Make sure they can be identified
Your pet should be wearing identification tags and you should label the carrier with their name, your contact information and the information of someone who could be contacted in your destination city. A permanent identification method, such as a microchip, is also a good idea. And carry a photo of your pet with you on the flight in case they become lost and an employee needs to go searching for them.
Should you sedate?
The AMVA says you should not tranquilize your pet for air travel because it may increase the risk of heart and respiratory problems. Short-nosed dogs and cats, in particular, can have more difficulty with travel, the AVMA says. Plus, a sedated animal may not be able to brace itself to prevent injury.
Preparing them to board
You don’t want to starve or dehydrate your pet before a flight, but you also don’t want them to be stressed out and holding it for hours on end. Talk to your veterinarian about the best feeding schedule, depending on your pet’s size and dietary needs, for your travel days.
If it at all possible, it’s usually best for an animal to fly on a fairly empty stomach, hydrated (but not overly so) and after having enough exercise prior to the flight to make it easier for them to remain in the crate for the duration.
Research ahead of time whether your airport has a grassy patch or “dog-relief area” so you can take them out for one last pit stop before the main event.