Pet air transport is highly regulated, with policies and fees varying by airline and destination. Here are some important things you need to know about flying with your dog.
First, make sure your dog is suited to air travel. Don’t force the issue if your pup is elderly, ill, injured, aggressive, or overly anxious. Some airlines only accept well-trained, quiet pups. If your pet may get too stressed, leave your friend with a reliable caretaker. Otherwise, flying with your dog may be too hazardous.
In our country, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees air pet transport and all airlines are legally required to follow its stipulations. First, pets must be at least eight weeks old and weaned five days before flying. Airlines limit animal weight and size and charge for pet transport. Pet carriers must meet specifications.
Generally, if your pet is taller than 11 inches and over 15 pounds, they’re relegated to a cargo hold. If this applies to your dog, consider seasonal temps when booking. During warm weather, make the reservation for morning or evening. During cold months, book a midday trip.
If possible, book non-stop on a weekday, when airports are less hectic. Also, try to avoid holidays. Note that between May 15 and September 15, airlines no longer transport pets in cargo holds. High temperatures make pet travel during summer unsafe. Extreme heat puts animals at risk for dehydration, heatstroke, and impaired breathing. So if an airline doesn’t allow dogs in the cabin or your dog is too large, flying with your dog is out of the question.
If the temperature will be below 45°F when flying with your dog, ask the reservation agent if you need an acclimation certificate. This is a form you obtain from a vet, authorizing airline staff to keep your pet in a cargo hold at risky temperatures. It waives an Animal Welfare Act regulation, prohibiting exposure to temps below 45°F and above 85°F for four hours or more. During transfers between planes and terminals, animals cannot be subject to these temps for more than 45 minutes.
If a vet believes your dog can safely withstand temps below 45°F, they can issue an acclimation certificate. However, airlines do not accept these documents when temperatures exceed 85°F.
To book, call the airline directly, well in advance of your departure date. Most airlines allow just one or two dogs per flight, so booking early improves your chance of securing a pet reservation. Only buy your ticket after verifying there’s space for your dog. On the same ticket, reserve seats for both of you. Then, two days before flying, call the airline again to confirm both your reservations. Also, ask the reservation agent for the size and type of carrier they require.
Note that, even with reservations, an airline can refuse animal transport. Possible reasons are pet illness, hostile behavior, an improper pet carrier, and hazardous temperatures.
If you’re traveling outside the United States, contact the foreign consulate or embassy at your destination four weeks in advance. Ask if there are other health requirements your dog must meet. For example, Hawaii and certain countries mandate pet quarantine upon entering.
Get an Approved Pet Carrier
Attach an ID tag to the carrier, indicating pet name, your home address, and telephone number. Also, write down the address and phone number of another contact person at your destination. With cabin travel, your dog’s bag is considered carry-on luggage. Therefore, you can board with only one additional bag, stowed in an overhead compartment. If you want to keep some items handy, choose a dog carrier with extra side pockets.
Cargo Hold Preparation
The USDA requires a cargo crate to be hard-sided and well-ventilated. Soft-sided carriers are not permitted. Metal hardware is preferable over plastic, being more secure.
Pack two dishes for food and water. Inside a plastic sleeve, place your pet’s photo, feeding instructions, your name, and mobile number. Include a signed document, certifying that you fed and watered your pooch within four hours of flight departure. Also, write down your pet’s name, medical concerns, any temperament issues, and vet contact information.
On the top and sides of the bag, place stickers labeled “Live Animal,” and arrows showing upright positioning. Don’t muzzle or leash your pet or attach these accessories to the outside of the bag.
Before flying with your dog, help your pup get accustomed to the carrier by putting him inside it while running errands around town. When departure day arrives, your pup will be less stressed by being confined.
The USDA mandates that within 10 days of flying, a dog must be immunized for canine diseases, cleared by a vet, and given a health certificate. You’ll need to present this document at the airport ticket counter when checking in with your dog. The certificate is proof that all vaccinations are current and your pet is free of infectious disease. So bring your dog to a vet two weeks before your trip.
If you’re traveling internationally, ask your vet about the risk of disease or illness within other countries. As a preventive measure, have your dog vaccinated for them.
For international travel, you’ll need USDA endorsement of the health certificate. Agents of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service perform endorsements at local offices.
If your dog hasn’t been microchipped, this vet visit would be an ideal time. Should your pet become lost, a microchip improves the chance of being reunited. The chip contains contact information and an identification number. If your dog is found and brought to a shelter or vet, the facility can scan the microchip for the ID and notify you.
At the time of microchipping, you’ll also receive a tag displaying the ID and your phone number. If your personal information changes or you lose the tag, contact the microchip company. Implanting a microchip is a simple, one-time procedure. The chip is a glass cylinder, the size of a rice grain, containing a radio transmitter and ID on an electronic device. A vet injects the chip subcutaneously, usually between the shoulder blades. During the injection, your dog will feel a slight pinch. The current cost averages $50, and the device will last your dog’s lifetime, technically over 25 years.
In most cases, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) advises against sedating pets for flights. Doing so poses the risk of dangerous side effects caused by high altitudes. Among them are breathing difficulty, cardiovascular abnormalities, and impaired balance. The decision to give a tranquilizer should be made by your vet. If the doctor prescribes one as medically necessary, write the name of the drug and dosage on your dog’s carrier.
If your vet believes sedating is unnecessary, request a letter stating this. Some airlines require a document signed by a vet, verifying that a pet has not been sedated before flying.
The AVMA recommends packing copies of your dog’s medical records and medications, especially if you’re relocating or traveling outside the US. For domestic travel, a summary of your dog’s medical conditions is adequate.
Also, remember to bring the health and acclimation certificates and any medications prescribed for your pet. Store your vet’s contact information on your cell phone. Print and pack a copy of your airline’s pet policy to avoid difficulties at the check-in desk or cargo area.
Pack a few days’ worth of water, food, treats, and toys. Necessities are a leash, spare collar and ID tag, and poop bags. Optional are a grooming brush, harness, and flea control products. A bone can keep your pooch occupied.
Place food and water bowls in the side pockets of your pet carrier, along with a few Chux pads. Store extras in your suitcase. Does your dog have a favorite blanket? If so, line the carrier with it. Otherwise, one of your worn T-shirts will comfort your dog with your scent. Also, pack a blanket in your carry-on bag, in case the airplane cabin is chilly.
Flying with Your Dog – Flight Day
The USDA stipulates that your pet must be fed and watered within four hours of checking in at the departure desk. Since a full tummy can get upset while flying, feed your dog four hours before leaving home. Offer the last drink of water two hours prior to departure.
Also, before leaving for the airport, walk your pooch and play together. Exercise will help diffuse travel stress and facilitate sleep. Always carry a leash. This way, you can walk your dog before checking in and upon arrival at your destination.
Arrive at the airport two hours before scheduled flight departure. You’ll need adequate time to check in at the ticket counter. When checking in, have your health and acclimation certificates handy. If your dog is traveling in the cargo hold, ask the ticket agent for confirmation that your dog is secure on board.
If your pup will be in the cabin, the empty carrier will go on the conveyor belt at the Security Checkpoint. You and your dog will walk through the scanning door together.
Once on board, tell the flight attendant that your dog is traveling with you, either in the cabin or cargo hold. Ask that this information is given to the captain, so temperature and air pressure will be properly maintained.
To keep your dog hydrated without the frantic need to urinate, give your pup a few ice cubes to lick in-flight. A flight attendant can provide these. If your dog whines, this could signal a need to relieve itself. In that case, take out a Chux pad and carry your pup to the restroom. Place your pet on the Chux, and hopefully, they’ll get the idea.
Are you scheduled for a layover? If so, and your dog has been in a cargo hold, you’ll have to pick up and re-check your pet. If you’re on an international flight and changing airlines, you’ll also need to clear Customs.
Inside the terminal, ask for directions to the pet relief station. Airports are required to provide one. Typically, it’s a small area with artificial turf and a fire hydrant. Before re-boarding, bring your dog to the station. Then, upon landing at your destination, pick up your pet from the cargo hold ASAP.
Now you’re fully informed on making reservations, choosing an approved carrier, health and acclimation certificates, packing, and what to do on flight day.
Upon your return home, consider a vet check-up for possible diseases or parasites your pup may have picked up while away. Then, reward your pooch for having survived flying!