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Tips for Traveling With Pets by Air

For most, traveling by air with a pet is a daunting prospect, but sometimes it is unavoidable especially when owners relocate and need to take their furry or feathered friends along. But thousands of Americans also choose to vacation with their pets, most often with dogs. Typically this means travel by air or by car. Each mode of transport has its own challenges; here, we focus on air travel.

Seeing-eye dogs go where their owners go, whether by car, train, plane or even on a cruise ship. The broad issues associated with pet travel apply to these working dogs, but their unique circumstances are not highlighted in this report.

Planning an air trip

Before booking any air trip for you dog, cat or other pet, determine if it is up for air travel. This depends on the animal’s health and temperament. Consult your veterinarian before making this decision. If the answer is yes, you have some planning to do, a lot of it in concert with your airline. Determine the carrier’s pet-transport policies. For example, will the airline let you carry your pet in the cabin with you? The answer may be determined by the weight of your pet. If you have two small pets, you may still be able to carry both with you if they both fit inside a single carrying case.

How big can the in-cabin case be?

It will have to fit under the seat in front of you. Be aware that if you are taking a pet in the cabin, you will have to take the animal out of the case and walk or carry it through security while the pet’s carrying case goes through the X-ray device. If it is not possible to take your pet out of the case, your animal will undergo a secondary screening involving visual and physical inspection by security personnel. In either case, your pet will never go through the X-ray machine. Also, be aware that in-cabin travel is your only option for pug-nosed dogs such as Pekingese and chow chows or pug-nosed cats such as Persians because they have short nasal passages that make them vulnerable to oxygen deprivation and heat stroke.

If your pet or pets have to go into a hold below the passenger cabin, ask what restrictions apply. For example, the airline may not accept animals if the outdoor temperature is below or above a certain level, for the protection of the animals. Ask what specifications apply to the carrying cases that go below the cabin. You may have to buy a case that fits the bill and, as a matter of convenience, you may wind up buying it from the airline.

Regardless of where your pet or pets will ride, ask if the airline has pet health and immunization requirements. The airline will make you aware if the destination has especially strict and difficult health requirements; Great Britain and Hawaii are in that category.

Booking the trip

Reserve only direct flights if your pet or pets will be traveling below the cabin. You don’t want to take a chance on having a pet miss a connection. It is also easier for you if the flight is direct even if your pet is in the cabin with you. Choose flights at a time of day when the temperature is least likely to be extremely high or low. Again, this is most important if the animal will be sitting on the tarmac before loading into the cargo hold.

If you are booking a pet for the cargo hold, travel on the same flight. Ask if you can watch your pet being loaded and unloaded.

Try not to make this kind of trip during peak travel times, such as holidays or summer, which are more likely to produce stress for your pet or pets. In addition, winter weather can turn three-hour journeys into full-day or overnight traumas.

Trip preparation

Let your pet become familiar with the carrying case, the better to minimize stress for the animal. Start this process well in advance of travel. For ID as well as control purposes, your dog should wear a collar. Be sure the collar fits properly to ensure safety—not too loose or too tight. Attach a permanent ID to the collar with your name and contact details, and add a temporary ID with the details on how to find you or another contact person at your final destination. Attach ID tags so they cannot hook onto anything. At the same time, be sure there is nothing in the carrying case that could hook onto the collar. A harness may be used instead of a collar.

The above applies to cats, but not all cats are cooperative. If your feline won’t tolerate a collar, you can ask your veterinarian to insert a computer chip under the cat’s skin, providing all relevant contact information. The computer chip is not as handy as a collar, which provides instant information, but the chip is better than nothing. Carry a current photo of your cat or dog in the event the animal gets loose and must be found. Also, affix a label to the animal carrier with all the same contact information for you or an alternative contact person. It is a good idea to do this regardless of whether your pet travels with you or below the cabin. Also, don’t forget to travel with the documentation proving you have satisfied health and vaccination requirements.

Clip your pet’s nails to prevent them from becoming caught in the carrier’s door or in other holes or crevices. Don’t give your pet tranquilizers unless your veterinarian has prescribed them specifically for air travel.

The day of travel

Don’t feed your pet or pets for four to six hours before the flight. You can offer small amounts of water before the trip. If you have the option, place ice cubes in the water tray attached to the inside of the carrying case. That provides for some liquid without risk of an uncomfortable water spill.

For your dog or the very cooperative cat, carry a leash so you can walk your pet before check-in and as soon as practical after arrival. Carry the leash rather than placing it inside or outside the carrying case. When boarding your aircraft, advise the captain and at least one flight attendant that you have a pet or pets with you in the cabin or below the cabin. If you have a pet in the cargo hold, an attendant may also come to you with word that your animal was loaded as planned. It is reassuring.

At your destination, as soon as you can safely inspect your pet, do so to ensure it is OK. If anything seems amiss, see a veterinarian immediately. Get the results, with date and time, in writing. Then, fill out an incident report at http://files.hsus.org/web-files/PDF/PETS_complaint_form.pdf. Make five copies of the complaint including one for your files. Mail the original complaint form to the airline that you and your pet used, and mail the others to addresses provided on the form. TripsWithPets.com offers access to airline-by-airline pet policies at www.tripswithpets.com/petpolicies.asp. TripsWithPets.com also provides information on pet travel supplies and other pet travel resources. In addition, find information on traveling with pets by air at the Federal Aviation Administration’s website, www.faa.gov/passengers/fly_pets/cabin_pets/.

However, if you can avoid the challenges of pet travel by air, go by car and reference “Traveling with pets by car” also included in Best Trip Choices’ section on Trip Planning Information.