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Flying with Your Pet: Is It Ever a Good Idea?

flight guideline for petsAccording to The Seattle Times:

In recent years, transporting pets on commercial flights has grown more complicated — and more expensive. All major carriers have significantly raised the fees they charge for bringing pets onboard, matching, or in some cases surpassing, the $100 surcharge each way they typically charge for children flying alone.

Airfares vary widely depending on how your pet travels – in a carrier under your seat, as checked baggage or as cargo – from around $100 one way to $250.

The safety of pet air travel has become a significant issue in recent years. As the number of traveling companion animals has increased, so have incidents of pets being hurt, lost, or dying en route.

According to the Department of Transportation, in 2010, 39 animals died aboard U.S. flights; 13 pets were injured and 5 were lost.

Air carriers impose limits on pet travel, including maximum and minimum temperatures at which animals can be flown, as well as restrictions on certain breeds like flat-faced pets prone to breathing difficulties. For example, Delta no longer flies Bulldogs after several fatalities occurred during travel last year.

Believe it or not, there's an airline exclusively for companion animal travel called Pet Airways. This carrier offers pet-only flights to around a dozen major U.S. cities. Pets fly in the cabin in individual crates, and a flight attendant checks on them frequently. Fares range from $99 to $249 one way.
Dr. Becker's Comments:

As vacation season approaches, many of you may be making plans to take your four-legged family members along on plane trips.

It's important to remember that unless your dog or cat is a seasoned traveler, a trip by plane will be a very stressful event. This is especially true if your pet will be held in the baggage or cargo compartment of the aircraft.

Air Travel is Very Stressful for Pets

As bonded as you are to your furry companion, and vice versa, most humans are much better able to handle disruptions in routine than pets are.

Your dog or kitty thrives in a familiar setting with a structured daily routine. Cats, in particular, do not like changes in their environment. Taking your pet away from home and his daily schedule for several days or weeks generates a level of anxiety even your constant presence can't overcome.

The nature of air travel is stressful for most humans, so it's easy to imagine how much more taxing it can be for a dog or kitty with no choice in the matter. Humans can anticipate the pressure changes and the feeling of not having their feet planted firmly on the ground. Pets can't, and this is emotionally and physiologically stressful for them.

Since flying with a pet carries inherent risks and stressors, my recommendation is to leave your precious companion safely at home with a trusted caretaker if possible.

If You Must Travel by Air with a Pet …

If you're determined to bring your pet on a flight or you have no other option, here are some tips you should find helpful.

  • Make sure your pet is fit to fly. Very young animals, elderly pets, ill pets, pets with a chronic health condition, pregnant animals, and Brachycephalic (flat faced) breeds are among the types of pets for whom air travel is in my opinion an unacceptable risk. 

    Talk with your holistic vet about whether your dog or cat is a good candidate for air travel. You'll also want to get any required health certifications, for example, pets traveling to a different state by air must have a current rabies vaccination and a certification of veterinary inspection within 10 days prior to travel.

    I'm not a fan of sedating pets for travel except in the most extreme circumstances, and only in consultation with a holistic vet. If your dog or cat is so anxious she needs to be tranquilized to fly, she really shouldn't be put through the experience if it can be avoided. If your pet must be sedated for travel (usually due to hyperactivity) she must be in the cabin with you so you can monitor her throughout the flight. Never, under any circumstances, should you sedate a pet that cannot be supervised.

    To help reduce your pet's anxiety during a trip, consider giving Flower Essences orally before, during and after travel, and mist the air around your pet's carrier with specially blended pet-friendly essential oils. I also recommend homeopathic Aconitum for extreme fear, if warranted.

    If your pet has never flown before, you can gauge her potential response to air travel by how well she travels by other means. If she relaxes comfortably in her crate during car rides, chances are she'll handle air travel reasonably well.
  • Bring your pet in the main passenger cabin with you if possible. Whether or not your pet can fly in the passenger cabin will depend on his size and the airline you use. Most if not all airlines only allow pets in passenger cabins that can fit in a carrier small enough to slide under the seat. This is the only way cats should travel.

    Having your dog or cat right there with you, in a climate-controlled cabin, has obvious benefits and is by far the best way to travel by plane with a pet. Book your flights as early as possible since airlines only allow a certain number of pets to travel in the passenger cabin.

    You won't be able to remove your dog or cat from the carrier during the flight, so make sure he isn't traveling on a full stomach and has an opportunity to relieve himself shortly before you board the aircraft.
  • Avoid flying in very hot or cold weather and book non-stop flights whenever possible. In warmer months, book morning or evening flights so you're traveling during the coolest part of the day. In cold weather, try to fly during the warmest part of the day.

    Non-stop flights are highly preferable to connections, especially if your pet is flying in the baggage compartment or cargo hold. Just as luggage has more opportunity to be lost on connecting flights, so does your pet. In addition, you don't want your dog or cat exposed to temperature extremes while sitting on the tarmac or being transferred from one plane to another.

    Keep in mind 'direct' flights are neither non-stop nor connecting. On a direct flight you, your luggage and your pet remain onboard when the plane lands at one or more airports en route to your final destination. A direct flight is not as good as a non-stop flight, but preferable to a connecting flight.

    Confirm your flight 24 hours before departure to insure there hasn't been a time change or some other alteration to the itinerary. Get to the airport early on flight day so you'll have plenty of time to exercise your pet if necessary before boarding.

    If your pet will be traveling in the baggage or cargo area, retrieve her as quickly as possible when you land at your destination.
  • Make sure your pet is wearing a secure collar and a current ID tag. Also keep a photo of your pet on your person to help with identification in case he is lost.
  • Make sure your pet is very comfortable in her carrier before heading to the airport. Long before your scheduled flight, your pet should view her carrier as a safe place. Purchase it well ahead of time and get her used to hanging out in it at home. If your dog or kitty isn't already crate trained you can apply the same principles to carrier training.

    The more comfy your pet is in her travel crate at home, the safer and more secure she'll feel in it at the airport and aboard the plane. On travel day, place an article of clothing you've recently worn in the crate to help calm your pup or kitty en route.
  • If your pet will be traveling in the baggage compartment or cargo hold, invest in a good quality carrier. Defective or inappropriate carriers are behind most of the problems with escaped or injured pets during air travel. USDA-APHIS (Animal and Plant Inspection Service) tips on what to look for in a transport container include:

    • Secure construction, e.g. locking bolts
    • Metal doors, not plastic
    • Metal rods that fasten the door to the container
    • Strong and effective lock mechanism
    • No wheels (most airlines will not accept a pet carrier on wheels)

According to APHIS, there are no pet carriers that are pre-approved by any airline, the USDA, the IATA (International Air Transport Association) or the IPATA (Independent Pet and Animal Transportation Association International). Any marketing material claiming a particular kennel is approved by one or more of these agencies is misleading and you should ignore it.

Other features that make for a solid, secure transport crate include:

  • A kennel big enough to allow your pet to stand, sit erect, turn around and lie down comfortably.
  • Sturdy, with handle or grips, and without any interior protrusions that could nick or poke your pet.
  • Adequately ventilated for good airflow.
  • Solid, leak-proof floor.
  • Clear labeling to include your name, phone number, destination contact phone number, and the words 'Live Animals' with arrows indicating the crate's upright position.

Additional Information

Most if not all the major carriers have information about traveling with pets on their websites.

If you're thinking about flying with your pet, I recommend you contact the individual carrier as a first step. Find out what pet restrictions apply, approved carrier/kennel dimensions, and other critical information you'll need for planning purposes.

The following are links to pet travel pages for five major U.S. carriers:

+ Sources and References