Things You Should Know When Flying With Pets

If you have ever flown with your pet in cargo hold, or are thinking about putting your pet in the belly of the plane, you probably experienced or are experiencing a high level of anxiety associated with this activity.  I have flown cross country with my dog in the cargo hold three times, and it was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done.  Not only was I concerned about the health and safety of my dog, but I also felt helpless because there was little I could do to control the process once I handed over my pet to the airline.

Those anxieties are well founded, even when taking all of the proper precautions.  Pets getting injured, lost, or killed during a journey have happened, and will likely occur in the future.  Some of these occurrences have made nationwide news.  You may remember that owners of several dogs returning from the Westminster Dog Show in New York said that Delta Airlines lost their dogs at JFK Airport.  The dogs eventually made it home, but not without a lot of confusion and work.  Owners who have been in this type of situation have expressed a common concern, which is lack of concern, and proper due diligence by the airline staff involved.  The owners of the Westminster dogs were lucky in that the dogs were eventually returned.  Unfortunately, not every owner is as lucky.

Between 2012-2013, 50 animal deaths, 48 injuries/pet-related incidents, and one lost pet occurred.  The Department of Transportation is considering a rule change that would give pet owners more detailed information about an airlines’ track record regarding pet-related incidents.  Luckily, a number of airlines are now offering GPS On-Demand service, which provides real-time tracking and monitoring for your pet for a fee.

If you can bring your pet in the cabin with you or do an old-fashioned road trip instead, that would be ideal.  If your pet is too big for carry-on baggage, meaning the kennel can’t fit under the seat directly in front of you, consider the following for pets in the cargo area to help ensure that you are prepared and that your pet will be as safe as possible:

Temperature.  Temperature is probably one of the most important areas; it controls which flights you can take, and what time of the year you can travel with your pet in cargo.  Not all planes have the proper pressurization requirements or climate control in the cargo to accommodate any pets.  Additionally, planes have a limit on how many animals they can carry.  That number is surprisingly low.  The number of pets in a cargo area allowed can be anywhere between 2-6 pets, with most airlines only allowing one pet per person.  Therefore, to reserve one of these open cargo spots, book your flights as early as possible.  Keep in mind that some airlines, like Delta Cargo, cannot book pets until 14 days prior to departure.

In cold weather, choose mid-day flights when temperatures are likely to be warmer.  When the weather is hot, choose early morning or late evening flights, which avoid the worst heat of the day.  Airline personnel will determine if temperatures are within acceptable limits at time of check-in.  If your animal cannot be accommodated due to temperature limitations, airline personnel should work with you to arrange alternate dates for your pet to travel.

Temperature is also key when it comes to the pet being transported within the airport (make sure the transportation vans are climate controlled) or held either at an airport kennel or on the tarmac.  Pets are the last to be boarded, so if it’s very hot or very cold, that could affect the health of your pet if left on the tarmac too long.  If you see this happening, tell the flight attendant or another airline employee that the pet needs to get out of the inclement weather.  Also, check the weather for your origin, connection, and destination cities via before departing for the airport.

Fit to fly.  If your pet is very young, very old, or not in good health, it's best to leave the pet at home.  Regarding medication, most airlines don’t allow sedatives or tranquilizers because of the drug's effects at high altitudes are unpredictable and may cause serious illness to the animal.  Contact your veterinarian for more information about what is needed in order for your pet to fly. 

Most airlines have a list of restricted breeds that they won’t allow.  It can either be due to the breed being prone to aggression (Chow Chows and Akitas are usually listed), or some breeds not traveling well in cargo, such as snub-nosed dogs like pugs, which are prone to breathing difficulties.  You will want to check the list of breeds the airlines allows prior to booking a flight.

Cost.  There are a number of different costs to consider since they add up quickly.  You will need a health certificate for your pet from your veterinarian which could cost around $100 (check with your veterinarian on how much their charge will be).  Note that the health certificate will need to be issued by your veterinarian within 10 days of departure.  You will also need a crate which typically costs between $75 - $250 based on the size.  Then, there is the fee for transporting your pet.  If you are traveling within the US, the price(s) for cargo can be between $200 - $750 per pet based on the size of the pet and the destination.

Shipments of pets must be picked-up within about four hours after arrival, or before closing time of the cargo facility (whichever comes first).  Animals not claimed within these time limits will be sent to a local veterinarian or kennel service provider for care.  The pet owner is responsible for all veterinary and kennel charges incurred.  Ask the airline if the kennel is temperature controlled and if your pet will be properly fed and exercised while there.

Destination.  Your destination will determine the regulatory procedures, cost, flight restrictions, etc.  If you are flying internationally, do as much research beforehand as possible.  Talk to your veterinarian and the airline for their input.  For instance, England requires the European version of the microchip.  England also requires a 6-month quarantine period once you land.  You can visit your pet during quarantine, but you can’t take ownership for 6 months.  You will also want to talk to your veterinarian to see if your dog requires any shots for the destination country.  This is because most countries require a 30-day waiting period after the needed shots are administered.

Whenever possible, book non-stop or direct flights to reduce the chances of something going wrong during plane changes.  If you can’t book a direct flight, arrange for your pet's flights to allow for plenty of extra time to change planes. 

Crate.  One of the most important steps you can take to ease the stress of travel for your pet is to make sure it becomes familiar with its kennel.  Put a familiar blanket or toy inside the crate with your pet (if the airline allows it) to help your pet feel more comfortable during the trip.  If your pet gets nervous when traveling, you can consider getting a Thundershirt.  These snug-fitting shirts target pressure points to reduce anxiety.  Verify that your pet can stand, sit erect, turn around, and lay inside the crate without touching the top of the crate.

Purchase an airline approved kennel as far in advance as possible to see if your dog is capable of escaping from the crate prior to your trip.  Get the sturdiest and newest crate you can get, because problems have happened in flight where a crate is damaged and the animal escapes.  The International Air Transport Association (IATA) offers online tips to select the right crate for your pet.  More airlines are requiring the use of steel nuts and bolts as opposed to plastic [crate] fasteners to help keep the kennel intact.  You could also consider supplementing the crate’s security by adding cable ties where appropriate.

Time it takes to check in.  Shipping a pet requires dropping it off at a cargo location at least three hours before departure time to allow sufficient time to complete all inspections and acceptance procedures.  In my opinion, give yourself at least 4 hours.  It took me 4 hours to check in my dog, and then check in myself.  The cargo area will usually be a location separate from passenger check-in.  Double check the drop off and pick up location and their hours of operation. 

Getting your dog on that plane.  Before leaving for the airport, ask the airline what their procedures are if the pet is lost or isn’t on the original flight.  Also, ask them if they offer any insurance or liability if something does go wrong.

When you board the plane (and before you take your seat), tell the flight attendant that you are traveling with your pet, and that you will need proof (or confirmation at the very least) that the dog is on the plane before you take your seat, and that you won’t take your seat until this occurs.  Since airlines are rated on their on-time departure, they will be a little more apt to do this since the plane can’t take off until you take your seat.  If possible, watch airport personnel place your pet on board by looking out a window.  Also, don’t assume that the captain is aware of a pet in cargo.  Instead, notify the captain that there is a live animal in the cargo hold and you want the oxygen levels and pressurization in the cargo hold monitored.  Watch your pet board — and de-plane!

Some things to do on the day of departure: 

  • Fill the crate dish with water and freeze it solid. Attach it to the crate before departing for the airport.
  • Bring original copies of required documents with you to present at check-in.
  • Check the weather and verify with the airline if the weather will be within acceptable ranges.
  • Offer your pet only a light meal and a little water within four hours of flight departure. Complete the live animal information label and attach it to the top of the kennel. 
  • Take a leash to exercise your pet before check-in.  Do not place the leash inside the kennel.  Check where the potty areas of the airport are located - lists pet relief areas for airports across the country.  Decide in advance what you will do with your luggage while taking your dog outside on grassy areas to potty.  Luckily, a security guard let me leave my luggage by the carousel, but it’s good to have a backup plan in mind.
  • Choke, anti-bark or radio-controlled collars and muzzles that hold the jaw tightly closed are prohibited on a plane.  Use nylon or leather collars instead.