For many animal lovers, it’s hard to imagine a family vacation without your four-legged friend. Preparation is extremely important — and is usually overlooked, says Jaclyn Rosenberg, marketing communications coordinator for the companion animals department at The Humane Society of the United States.
To help avoid this mistake, consider these eight tips to help ensure your air travel goes smoothly for both you and your dog or cat:
1. Choose Cabin or Cargo
When traveling on a commercial airline, pets can fly three ways: in the cabin, as checked baggage or as manifest (air) cargo, says Susan Smith, president of online resource PetTravel.com. In order to travel in the cabin, your pet must be able to stand up and turn around in the carrier, and the carrier will need to fit under the seat, she says. Policies vary, so check with the airline prior to booking a flight. If your pet is a service or comfort animal, different requirements apply.
If you’re traveling with a cat, the cabin is usually the best choice, USA Today says, as cats are fairly small and may get nervous during the flight.
For dogs weighing more than 11 to 13 pounds (including their carrier), flying as checked baggage or air cargo might be the only options, Smith says. The main difference between checked baggage and air cargo is how your pet is processed by the airlines. In air cargo, you must check in and pick up your pet at the cargo facility of your airline. On the other hand, if your pet is traveling as checked baggage, check-in is at the ticket counter and pick-up is at the baggage claim, according to PetTravel.com. If your pet is too large to travel to fly in the cabin, it will likely travel as checked baggage. If your pet is something other than a cat or dog, or is very large, it will typically travel as air cargo, says PetTravel.com.
In both air cargo and checked baggage, your pet will travel in the cargo hold of the plane, which is pressure controlled, says PetTravel.com. However, it is important to talk to your veterinarian before flying your pet in the cargo hold, as some pets may face health concerns. For example, short-nosed dogs like bulldogs and Boston terriers can be more sensitive to changes in air pressure and temperature and are prone to serious respiratory problems, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association(AVMA).
2. Carefully Plan Your Flights
When traveling with your pet, “safety and comfort come first; convenience is second,” Smith says. Book your flight early and try to find a direct flight or flight plans that minimize layovers.
You should also consider the time of year you travel with your pet. In extreme heat or cold (typically above 84 degrees Fahrenheit or below 45 degrees), many airlines will not transport pets as checked baggage or cargo due to animal welfare concerns, according to PetTravel.com. Some airlines have developed temperature restrictions to help ensure animals are not exposed to extreme heat or cold in the animal holding areas, in transit between terminal and aircraft, or on an aircraft awaiting departure. Check with your airline for its particular restrictions.
3. Invest in a Proper Carrier
“A crate is your pet’s safe place during travel, so you want to spend the month before travel crate-training your pet, getting them used to being inside the crate and letting them know that it is a safe, comfortable place,” Rosenberg recommends.
If you are unsure about the right crate for your situation, Smith offers these guidelines so both the airline and your pet may approve. Make sure it’s:
- Large enough for your pet to stand up and turn around comfortably.
- Sturdy and free of obstructions or features that could harm your pet.
- Ventilated on three or four sides with little restrictions to airflow.
- Clearly labeled with your name, cell phone number, address and feeding and hydration instructions for your pet.
- Marked with a sign that reads, “Live Animal,” with arrows showing which way is upright.
- Lined with pet pads or shredded newspaper in case your pet goes to the bathroom in the crate.
If your pet is traveling with you in the cabin, soft-sided carriers are a better option than hard-sided carriers, Smith advises.
“When the plane is taking off, you must put your pet under the seat in front of you. Soft-sided carriers will compress so that you can more easily fit the carrier under the seat. Additionally, most of them have enough support where they don’t collapse on your pet,” she explains. Also, you may want to check with the airline for any crate or carrier restrictions.
4. Visit Your Veterinarian
You may need to get a certificate of veterinary inspection issued by an accredited veterinarian before you travel, according to the AVMA. This document may be required by the destination state/country and helps protect the destination location from the introduction of new illnesses or parasites from traveling pets by certifying that the animal satisfies the relevant health regulations.
5. Think Twice Before Medicating
Never give a sedative to your pet unless directed by your veterinarian, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns. Pet tranquilizers can increase the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular problems when your pet is exposed to high altitudes, the AVMA advises. Instead, give your pet a favorite toy, blanket or treat to calm it down, Rosenberg recommends.
6. Don’t Forget About Hydration
Although you should avoid feeding your pet four to six hours before travel, hydration is key, Rosenberg says. If your pet is traveling in the cargo hold, she recommends freezing water in the bowl to reduce spillage or buying an attachable water bottle for the crate. For cabin travel, pack water bowls in your travel bag and offer your pet water before and after the flight and during layovers, she adds.
If you are worried about your pet’s nutrition on long flights, discuss potential feeding schedules with your veterinarian, the AVMA advises.
7. International Travel and Microchips
You may want to consider microchipping your pet before your trip. For some countries, including those in the European Union, pets must be microchipped if visiting from an international country like the U.S., according to PetTravel.com.
Speaking of international travel, take time to familiarize yourself with your destination country’s policies on the foreign importation of pets, according to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division of the USDA. If requirements are not met, you and your pet may face difficulties upon arrival, APHIS notes.
8. Make a Packing List
Packing for both yourself and your furry companion might seem complicated. To avoid forgetting any important documents or items, make a packing list. Below are some of the must-have items Rosenberg recommends for pet travel:
- Your pet’s certificate of veterinary inspection and medical records.
- ID tags on your pet’s crate and collar with both your permanent address and vacation address(es).
- Contact information of your regular veterinarian and an emergency contact at your destination.
- Everyday essentials like food and treats, food and water bowls, collar, leash and harness, and a favorite toy or blanket. If you’re flying with a cat, you also may want to bring along litter and a portable litter tray, PetTravel.com says.
Following these eight tips can help you prepare for a smooth and hopefully stress-free trip with your cat or dog.