How Can We Make Flying With Our Dog Easier?


Q. We're flying to a family reunion, and we'll be gone for almost two weeks. We'd like to take our dog with us. Do you have suggestions about flying? I know we'll need to get tranquilizers for her, but what else?

A. No, you likely won't need tranquilizers, at least not for your dog. Contrary to popular belief, an untranquilized pet is usually safer, since tranquilizers compromise a pet's ability to adapt to a changing environment. Talk to your veterinarian, though, because every pet is an individual.

You'll need to see your veterinarian preflight anyway, because all pets traveling by air need a health certificate. (Don't leave this until the last day: Call and make an appointment for a couple days before your flight.)

Speaking of the health certificate, let's determine if your pet should be flying at all. Air travel is not recommended for elderly or sick animals, and is also not considered safe for short-nosed breeds of dogs and cats. The latter group — known as brachycephalic animals — find both breathing and keeping from overheating difficult under the best of circumstances, and the stress of airline travel may be more than they can handle. Recent studies have shown that these pets are at dramatically higher risk of dying in transit, and some airlines will no longer accept them onboard.

If your pet is healthy, has the ability to breathe normally and is small enough to fit under the airline seat in the passenger compartment, the trip will be much easier. Not too long ago, my daughter, Vetstreet dog-training expert Mikkel Becker, flew with one of her dogs in the passenger compartment, and because her pets are well-trained and socialized, the trip was a breeze. You'll still need a health certificate from your veterinarian if you're planning to carry your pet on the plane, plus a soft-sided carrier and some extra money to cover the fees; even as carry-ons, pets don't fly free. You'll also need a little extra time at the airport before you board, so plan accordingly. Once you get off the plane at your destination, the gate attendants can usually tell you where the nearest "potty stop" is for your pet. Clean up after!

While some lucky pets get to fly in the cabin with their owners, most animals move through the airline system as unaccompanied cargo or excess baggage — and that means flying in the pressurized cargo holds below. For these pets the risks are greater, and the trip is much more nerve-racking for you. These simple tips will help ensure that you and your pet arrive safely at your destination:

Talk to your veterinarian. Because yes, you'll need that health certificate. But your veterinarian can also advise if maybe your pet is better off on the ground, even if he isn't in the "do not fly" categories.

Talk to the airline. The airlines that take pets — not all do — have limits on the number of animals on a flight, even in cargo, so you'll need to secure a spot.  You'll also need to know what weather-related restrictions apply — some airlines will not ship animals at all during the warmer months, and for others, federal regulations prevent flying with animals on board when the ground temperature is too high or too low. Don't forget to ask about costs, which can be quite a shock in the case of larger dogs — and don't be surprised if your pet's trip in cargo costs more than your seat in the cabin.

Get your dog's crate travel-ready. For travel below, your pet will use a hard-sided carrier approved for air travel, and you'll need to make sure it's in good condition (no cracks in the plastic, no rust on the grating). The crate should be just big enough for your pet to stand up and turn around in. Check and double-check that all the bolts securing the halves of the carrier are in place and tightened. Put an ID tag on a piece of elastic around the pet's neck (so it won't get hung up — just make sure it isn't too tight), and make sure contact information is written large and indelibly on the outside of the crate. Food and water dishes should be attached to the inside of the door grate, and a supply of kibble should be duct-taped to the top of the carrier so airline personnel can offer it without opening the door. Put shredded newsprint inside as bedding.

Consider flights carefully. Don't ship your pet when air traffic is heaviest; avoid peak travel days and times. Red-eye flights are often a good choice if you are traveling with a pet. Choose a direct flight, and if that's not possible, choose a route with a single connection and a short layover. Most animal fatalities occur on the ground, when pets are left in their crates on the hot tarmac or in stifling cargo holds. Better yet: Choose a direct flight with an airline that has special handling available for pets, keeping them off the tarmac until just before flight time, and transporting them to and from the plane in a climate-controlled van.

Ask about your pet en route, persistently but politely. Make your presence known! Get the direct line to cargo operations at all connecting airports and confirm that your pet has been loaded and has made any connections. Ask for visual confirmation from an airline staffer that your pet is OK. If you ask nicely, most airline staff will be happy to help you.

The Air Transport Association, the trade group for the nation's airlines, offers information on its "Air Travel for Your Pet" section. The ATA details how to prepare your pet for air travel, how to set up the carrier and how to check on your pet en route. Your airline will also have its own information and policies on its website, so check for them as well.


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