Dogs who fly in the cabin of a plane are required to be in a carrier that fits under the seat in front of their owner.
If you’re thinking about flying with your dog or cat — whether he will be in the cabin or the plane’s cargo hold — the decision requires a lot of consideration and planning ahead. 

Vetstreet talked with Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a veterinary behaviorist at Texas A&M University and executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, about what you should know before you go.

Do Your Research

“The most important thing is the owner needs to check ahead with the airlines as to their specific requirements, because each one may be different,” Dr. Beaver says. 

If you are planning to fly with your small dog or cat in the cabin, the carrier they’re in will likely need to fit under the seat in front of you. You’ll need to get the exact dimensions from the airline you are flying, and you’ll also need to work with them so you know what paperwork you might need for travel, such as proof of vaccinations or a health certificate for travel (which must be signed by a veterinarian within 10 days of travel). International travel often requires even more preparation, so talk to your veterinarian at least six months in advance of your trip, if possible. Whether you’re traveling internationally or staying in the United States, it’s important to talk with your veterinarian about your plans — especially if your pet has any health issues whatsoever.

Most airlines will only allow a limited number of animals on board any one flight, so you need to make advance arrangements to get your pet on your flight. You should also expect to pay an additional fee for your pet.

When booking your flight, try to fly nonstop if possible to make the day less stressful for you and your pet. 

Keep in mind that air travel can be dangerous for brachycephalic animals, which are those with “pushed in” faces, such as Bulldogs, Pugs and Persian cats. Some airlines don’t allow them to fly.

Get Your Pet Ready

Your dog is likely not quite as ready to jet off to a new destination as you might be. You need to plan in advance if you want your pet to fly with you.   

Dr. Beaver recommends starting early and slowly getting your dog or cat comfortable with the carrier you’ll be using. “This is a gradual lesson; you cannot do it one week before you fly,” she explains. 

Owners should “very gradually teach the dog that the kennel, the carrier, is not a bad place,” she says. She recommends starting by feeding your dog or cat in the carrier without zipping it or shutting the door. “Just putting in treats, leaving the opening open and then gradually, after a few weeks of doing that, you may shut the entrance for a couple of seconds, then a little bit longer, a little bit longer,” and so on, she says. 

Once your cat or dog is comfortable being shut in the carrier, you can start getting him used to the movement of the carrier being picked up and put down, then moving on to walking a few steps with them in the carrier, Dr. Beaver says.

“There’s a lot of motion that goes with that and the animal should be comfortable with that motion,” she says. 

It’s important to make certain your pet — dog or cat — is comfortable in the car since that will mark the beginning of the trip and the motion can feel similar to what they’ll experience on the plane. Many dogs are already used to riding in the car, but for cats, who have a reputation of being less likely to enjoy a travel adventure, getting them comfortable in the car might require a bit more training ahead of time. “You can even have someone else drop in an occasional treat while they’re riding in the car so they get used to all the motion,” Dr. Beaver says. This will help your pet associate that motion with something positive.

Acclimating your cat to the carrier can have added benefits, too. 

“For cats it’s a very good idea [to get them used to the carrier] not just for flying — it also makes them more comfortable when you need to go to the veterinarian or you need to take a vacation where you’re driving — it’s a whole lot better,” Dr. Beaver says. That way, when you take out the carrier, your cat doesn’t assume you’re going somewhere unpleasant.

This training and advanced planning can help you avoid sedating your pet, Dr. Beaver says. “People want instant success and in reality, from the animal’s perspective, they are a whole lot better off if they don’t need any kind of sedation.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association also recommends not giving pets sedatives or tranquilizers before a flight due to heart or respiratory problems that could be caused by altitude pressures. Some airlines may require a signed statement that your pet has not been tranquilized prior to flying.

Do’s and Don’ts at the Airport

On the day of your flight, you should not feed your pet for several hours before the trip, in part because they can experience motion sickness on a plane because they can’t see much of what’s happening around them, Dr. Beaver says. You can give him very small treats along the way as rewards for good behavior

For very small dogs or those with diabetes or other health conditions, however, consult your veterinarian for specific feeding instructions. You should also talk with your vet about how to handle your pet’s water needs during the flight, as every pet is unique and some might require small amounts of water throughout the trip while others could be fine for the full duration.

Allow yourself enough time to get your dog to go potty before going through security, or, if your airport offers a comfort station where your dog can do his business before the flight, leave time to make a stop there before you board the plane. For both cats and dogs, Dr. Beaver recommends lining the carrier with an absorbent pad and bringing extras just in case. 

You might have to remove your pet from his carrier so the carrier can go through the X-ray machine. Be sure you have him securely on a harness to do this. In its list of tips, the Humane Society says you can also request a secondary screening that won’t require removing the pet from his carrier. 

Other than at security (if required), don’t take your cat out of her carrier at the airport because you’re taking a risk that your kitty will escape and get lost, says Dr. Beaver. She also recommends avoiding taking your dog out of his carrier, to the extent that it’s possible, because other travelers often can’t resist the urge to pet a dog and being surrounded by strangers can make a dog very anxious

“Most of them — if they’re used to being in these carriers — they often will sleep most of the time,” says Dr. Beaver.

Flying in the Cargo Hold

Larger dogs who are not service animals don’t have the option of flying in the cabin with you, so the only option when it comes to air travel is the cargo hold. 

Dr. Beaver strongly advises against flying your dog in the cargo hold, and the Humane Society also warns dog owners about the dangers of them being injured, lost or even killed in this situation. There are potential problems with the temperature in the cargo hold, especially it’s hot or cold outside or if the flight is delayed.

Still, the Humane Society says the majority of animals do arrive at their destination safely. And sometimes you truly don’t have any other choice. 

If your only option is to fly your pet in the cargo hold, here are a few things you can do to prepare and protect him, according to the Humane Society:

  • Be sure you have a secure crate.
  • Travel on the same flight as your pet — preferably nonstop. When you board, notify the captain and a flight attendant that your pet is on board.
  • In the summer, choose early morning or evening flights. In the winter, choose afternoon flights. Some airlines only allow pets in the cargo hold during certain months of the year.
  • Be sure both your pet and his carrier have the proper identification and your contact information. Carry a current photo of him with you.
  • Check to be sure he’s OK as soon as you are reunited with him after the flight.
It’s also a good idea to talk to the airline about when their staff will have access to your pet and what food and water instructions you can provide for those times.

Like pets who are traveling in the cabin, he should be comfortable with his carrier and shouldn’t eat 4 to 6 hours before the flight. Again, consult your veterinarian to be sure this is best for your pet. You’ll also have to find out from the airline where to drop off and pick up your pet. 

If you plan ahead and prepare your pet, you should be able to avoid any issues in your travel together.

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