[Guide] How to Fly with Your Dog, Cat or Other Pets

flying with a dog a cat or a pet

Your pet is a large part of who you are.  So, in many ways, flying with a pet is no different than traveling with a member of your own family.

And when you do that, you want to make sure that everything that needs to be done has been done so you can look forward to a hassle free flight.

As a flight attendant, people often ask me how to travel on a plane with their dogs.

So today let’s see what you need to know to achieve this. I’ll tell you all the rules and tips you should know before flying with your dog in the cabin or the hold.

Before flying with your dog / cat / pet

Go to your airline’s website and look up their pet carrying policy

This is the first and simplest step in getting ready to fly with your pet.

Now, it’s important to understand that an airline’s first priority is the safety of all of its passengers, so these policies have been drafted with that in mind.

Yes, they’ll do everything they can to accommodate your needs, but their rules will be firm and they will have to be followed.

No exceptions.

TIP: your pet doesn’t get to fly for free so check out the cost of this while you’re looking up their carrying policies. It can go from $50 to $125 depending on the distance and the airline.

Here are the pet policies to the 4 major US Airlines:

For checked pet rates contact the airline.

What rules can I expect to find?

Bearing in mind that airlines will have their own individual policies, here are some of the things that you should be aware of.

Weight

There will be a weight restriction on your pet; find out what that is before you go any further.

When we get to the section about cage sizes, you will see that, basically, only small dogs, cats and the likes of rabbits and hamsters are allowed in-cabin.

Unfortunately, the larger members of our pet families must travel in the cargo hold.

checking pet weight at airport
Being checked!

Type of animal

When it comes to flying, not all animals are born equal or are equally welcome.

Your airline may refuse to transport pit bull terriers or bulldogs as cargo for example. And others won’t allow hamsters as in-cabin passengers (I can’t think why). Birds are normally always accepted but not all birds qualify as pets (some birds are regulated as poultry: doves, chickens, pigeons…)

Make sure that your airline is happy to fly the type of animal or breed of pet that you want to travel with.

Once your pet is in the cage, they must stay there

At the risk of stating the obvious, your pet will have to remain caged at all times. Both in the airport and on the plane.

As I said, passengers’ safety is the airlines paramount consideration and a terrified cat hurtling around inside their plane is not considered ideal.

crate under seat

Believe it or not, this has happened before and it caused a long delay.

Ripples, a tabby cat, was traveling with his owner Debbie Harris on Air Atlanta from Halifax to Toronto. When he escaped his carrier and ran through the aisles towards the cockpit, nobody could catch him and he hid under the pilot’s pedals in a small wiring compartment. Crazy!

Luckily, they were still on-ground waiting for takeoff, so passengers were asked to all leave the plane and they had to call maintenance to remove the panels and disassemble pieces to remove the cat.

Ms. Harris was crying and calling him but he wouldn’t come out.

After a few hours, she finally got him pulled out, but before boarding the passengers again all the crew and technicians had to do a strict security check to verify that there were no damages.

So this little incident is just another reason why a flight can get delayed. For more than 4 hours in this case!

I feel sorry for the cat because he was probably scared to death but imagine if this would have happened during the flight…

No responsible adult with your pet means no pet flight

Unaccompanied minors are generally not allowed to have pets under their charge. Which is a sensible and pretty straightforward rule.

There are other rules that can vary from airline to airline:

  • No puppies or kittens under 4 months old
  • No pets in an emergency
  • Oxygen is not available for pets
  • One pet per person
  • 2 to 6 pets maximum in a flight (depending on the airline it could be a maximum number of 2 pets per flight, so call in advance to make sure your pet is being accepted)

These rules are all designed for everyone’s comfort and safety, so it’s best not to try and find ways around them.

If all that seems a bit daunting, just print out a copy of the airline’s policies and you’ve got a checklist to keep with you as you are preparing for your flight.

Put it in the documents folder that we’re going to talk about now.

What documents will I need?

You wouldn’t dream of taking a flight without the correct personal documentation, and so it is with your pet.

I recommend making up a handy folder to keep the relevant documents in.

Nothing fancy or dramatic, just a one place stop for the forms and certificates that you’ll want to keep together for a peace of mind flight.

Two documents that you will need will most likely need are:

  1. International Health certificate from a vet to determine that your pet is healthy and free of any infectious disease
    International Health Certificat
  2. Proof of rabies vaccination 
    Rabies vaccination certificate

These are pretty standard, but you may need others, depending on the country you are flying to.

Just pop them into your pet’s travel folder and keep them handy.

Trust me, such a simple thing can prevent from you getting into a world of pain.

Preflight Tips

Okay, you know the airline’s rules and you understand their requirements, but before we talk about what sort of container or cage is best for your pet, let’s talk about their pre-flight needs.

It’s something that can easily be overlooked.

In the main, let’s talk about dogs.

Crate train your dog for travel

Do it gradually, it can take days.

But once your dog is comfortable with the crate it will help the dog feel safer and happier while traveling.

dog's crate at home
Crate training at home

Contact the airline as soon as possible to make reservations for your pet to fly

They are accepted on a first-come basis and the capacity is limited.

Allow extra check in time

To provide all the documents and pay at the counter if you didn’t yet.

checkin at the airport with dogs

Airports and pet friendly areas

There is a lovely and growing trend for airports to be more pet friendly.

This can mean having a pet relief area in the airport terminal itself, as at Denver International Airport, or having a fully fenced dog park like the one at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson

TIP: Visit the American Kennel Club website to find the 10 best airports with dog facilities in the US.

washington airport pet friendly restrooms
Washington Dulles Airport pet relief area
jfk airport pet friendly toilet
New York JFK airport pet relief area

Walkies

But if you don’t have access to facilities like these, try at least to give your dog a good walk before the flight.

The carpark is as good a place as any for a good stretch out.

As a dog owner, you’ll understand the excitement levels your companion can reach, so take a moment to think about that.

An energy burning play fight may be a good idea, but do it before a good walk, not after. You need your friend to calm down before the journey.

dog walking at the airport

Going through security

Never put your dog through the X-ray machine.

You can walk or carry your dog through the metal detector with you.

But you’ll have to put the pet carrier with the rest of your belongings through security screening.

If my pet is traveling in the cabin, is soft sided pet cage or a hard one better?

Use a soft cage, every time.

Remember those rules we spoke about earlier? Well, most airlines recommend that animals are placed in soft cages.

Some won’t accept any other kind.

This is because the cage needs to placed at your feet and under the seat in front of you. Soft cages are by far easier to do this.

This is only advised if your pet is traveling with you in the cabin, if not you’ll need a hard cage for flying cargo.

dog traveling in a soft bag
Dog travel soft bag

What size?

Airlines have their own set dimensions for pet cages. Here are two examples from two different carriers:

  • 17.5 inches long x 12 inches wide x 7.5 inches high (44 cm x 30 cm x 19 cm).
  • 24″ x 15. 5″ x 9.5″ (61 cm x 40 cm x 24 cm)

TIP: There may even be different cage size requirements on different model planes within the same company. As usual, the mantra is to check first.

During the flight

Don’t forget the emotional side of your pet’s travel

All pets, dogs, cats, rabbits, whatever type of family member they are, have become used to you and particularly to your scent.

In the plane they are going to be bombarded with unfamiliar smells and sounds and even vibrations.

So let’s not forget the emotional part of their journey.

Yes, you’ll be near them at all times, but if they can’t go with you in the cabin, try to give them the next best thing to being touched and comforted by you: put something familiar in their cage.

It can be an old jumper of yours, a piece of the rug that they sleep on, anything that is familiar and feels and smells of home.

dog in his crate

Don’t forget the boredom factor

Your pet is going to have to remain in their cage for the duration of the flight so boredom is going to be a factor.

Hamsters and rabbits and the like seem to be quite content to keep still and think hamster and rabbit thoughts, but cats and dogs can sometimes have a problem with a confined space and a lack of anything to see or do.

A ball that they enjoy playing with, a soft toy that they love chewing and mauling, these can be distractions that will keep your pet occupied for at least a part of the time.

Factor that into your flight preparation and you’ll be surprised what may occur to you as being something worthwhile to bring along. Even a favourite stick may do the trick.

TIP: In terms of preserving the sanity of your fellow passengers, a squeaky toy is probably not a good idea

To poop or not to poop

I know you can’t get your four legged loved friend to poop on command, but the need for them to do so before a flight shouldn’t be forgotten.

There are some things that you can try to induce them to empty their bowels – e.g. rubbing around their anus with baby wipes or something similar may help – but that seems a bit excessive.

It’s probably easier just to reduce their food intake before a flight. That also applies to cats and other animals. A little hunger may be preferable to the alternative.

And if there is an accident in the poop department?

Sorry, but there really isn’t a lot you can do about that.

Taking your dog or cat out of its cage for the purposes of cleaning simply won’t be allowed.

It’s just a matter of accepting that accidents happen and not all problems can be fixed on the spot.

What about wees?

Line the bottom of your soft cage with some sort of absorbent material so that if your pet wees, then you don’t have a leakage problem at your feet.

Plastic sheeting layered under a layer of some sort of toweling is a good idea.

If your dog has to fly cargo class

pet crate being scanned at airport

Not a pleasing thought, is it?

But generally, if your pet is over around 11 inches long and weighs over 15 pounds, then you’re looking at them having to travel in the cargo hold.

There really is no other choice.

But don’t despair,  all is not woe and separation anxiety. Firstly, pets aren’t just thrown into the hold on top of suitcases and other bits and pieces. They have their own area in the hold compartment separate from the luggage and they are loaded last and the first to come off the plane.

Here are some important and helpful steps you can take to minimize the stress on your pet when they have to fly this way:

Put an ID tag around your dog’s neck

Make sure your contact information is visible in case something happens and they need to contact you.

Fly direct

One of the most important things to do is to see if you can get a direct flight to your destination.

Changing planes is stressful enough for us humans, let alone for our poor animals.

You can reduce their worry and confusion by taking a flight with no transfer stops so that there is no changing from plane to plane and from cargo hold to cargo hold.

Pick your season

Airlines won’t transport pets when the temperature gets above 85 degrees outside ground-level air temperature.

This is for the safety of the animals. The danger isn’t during the flight itself, but during loading and storing, when the pet’s crate may have to sit outside for a long period of time.

So if it’s at all possible, try to travel during the fall or early winter.

TIP: avoid holidays and high traffic times

Choose your crate with thought

Make sure that you pick one with adequate ventilation, a waterproof bottom, and a spring locked door. If it has wheels, disable them. Handles are only permitted on small pet crates.

Your pet has to be able to stand up fully and to turn around in a complete circle.

Get them a crate where they can easily do this, as well as stretch out as far as they want.

Things are going to be bad enough without you around to offer them comfort, so get them the most spacious crate that you can.

Tip: Make sure the crater you are buying is IATA (International Air Transport Association) compliant and that it meets all the airline criteria. On some airlines pet carriers must have removable wheels for example.

I recommend these ones :

1) IATA approved SportPet travel dog crate 

2) IATA approved Petmate sky kennel 

Water and Food

Do not, under any circumstances, forget to provide your pet with adequate water. This includes cats.

The air in a plane is very dry (as I’m sure you’ve experienced it), so not having water available for your pet is far more than just an issue of discomfort.

It can be fatal.

Don’t rely on the ground crew to spot your oversight and fix it for you.

You will need to invest in a water bowl that can be attached to the crate in a way that means that it won’t spill.

Pet crate bowls cost very little and are the simplest solution for this.

You’ll also need to attach enough food to the crate.

At least for a 24 hour period, in case your pet is lost or taking longer than expected.

You can also put some extra dry food taped to the top of the carrier for the airline staff to provide food to your pet if needed. Make sure it can be accessed from the outside.

Tip: Try freezing some water and placing it a second bowl – drip free, licking moisture for your pet.

If traveling from the US, the Department of Agriculture you will be asked to sign a form at check-in that certifies your pet has been given food and water within 4 hours of check in.

You will also have to provide feeding and watering instructions for 24 hours.

water crate

Leave something to distract your friend during the flight

Your pet’s favorite toys or something he likes to play with, you may also want to put his usual bedding and chew to help him remain calm.

Tip: Make sure the toy is safe and it’s not a choking hazard.

toy in pet's crate

Should I tranquilize/sedate my pet?

My personal view on this is no. Definitely not.

Breathing problems are a common side effect of tranquilizers and in some cases can lead to death.

Many airlines refuse to take tranquilized animals.

But if you’ve got any concerns, check with your vet and they’ll be able to give you recommendations that will help.

A low dose sedative/relaxant might be of use.

Check, check, check

Find out from airlines agents at the gate if they can check to see if your pet has been safely boarded and stowed.

When you get on board the plane, ask one of the cabin crew if they wouldn’t mind (they won’t) informing the flight crew that there is a live animal in the hold.

You won’t be considered over protective or paranoid, but responsible and caring.

loading a crate in cargo
Watching “Rocky” being loaded into the cargo hold

International pet travel – A totally different ball game

Many airlines simply don’t allow in-cabin pets on their flights.

Before we look at that, it’s important to understand that international flights have to comply with the rules of their destination and transit countries.

Take a look at just some of the questions the New Zealand government asks before you can even begin the process of taking a dog into that country.

  • Has your dog resided in an approved country for at least 6 months immediately prior to export?
  • Is your dog a hybrid i.e. offspring of a dog crossed with another species e.g. Czechoslovakian wolfdog?
  • Has your dog ever been diagnosed with Brucella canis or Babesia gibsoni?

Wow.

If you are in a position where you have to take your dog overseas, the United States Department of Agriculture has a very good section on its website about the requirements of all countries. Good luck.

 

Can I relax now?

Yes. The secret is in being prepared.

And that’s easy when you follow the airline’ guidelines and you treat your pet as a member of your family. Which I’m sure you do.

Oh, one last tip: airline rules can change with very little notice, so all that checking on the website that you did in the beginning? Do it just one more time before your flight. Please.

Travel safe, both you and your animal family member.

pet after plane trip at airport

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